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Do you spend £1.5k a month on your appearance, or are you a ‘tramp’?

Writer Halima Jibril unpacks why the price of beauty is so much higher for Black women

Do you spend £1.5k on your appearance monthly, or are you a tramp? 

As absurd as this question may seem, it has dominated online discourse this month – and of course, it all began on TikTok. In a now-deleted video, social media personality Marissa Banks went on a rant about beauty maintenance and controversially remarked, “females will not want to be seen if their nails, lashes and hair are not done.” She continued: “Why would you put yourself in a predicament to be seen as a tramp, an ogre, basically a pest to society?”

Banks then went on to break down beauty maintenance costs (many of which seemed specific to Black women such as herself) and estimated that women spend 1.5k on beauty upkeep monthly. 

Many online were appalled by Banks’ comments. Some Twitter users remarked that if you’re willing to spend that much money to make yourself look “presentable”, you must really hate yourself. Others commented that only “ugly” people would spend that much money on something as frivolous as beauty. They blamed Banks and others who agreed with her for their own insecurities, saying their issues with their appearance and the money they are willing to spend on it is their personal problem. But is it?

Pro-skin/anti-product beauty reporter Jessica DeFino would say no, it isn’t. Banks’ comments were offensive and out of touch for many reasons, but she is just the symptom of a capitalist beauty culture that works against us all. Beauty culture, DeFino explains in her ‘Beauty Culture Is A Public Health Issue’ essay, is built on “systematically breaking down your self-esteem and installing shame so that it can then sell “confidence” back to you in the form of products, procedures and practices.”

It’s this mindset of shame that leads people like Banks to compare those who do not invest in beauty to ‘tramps’, ‘ogres’ and ‘pests to society.’ It creates an environment where people would rather go into debt than stop their beauty maintenance treatments. It is what holds up a system that offers tangible rewards to those who adhere to the current beauty ideal and oppresses those who do not. It has been scientifically confirmed, for example, that there is an income gap between “attractive” and “unattractive” people. 

For Black women, the pressure is even more intense since they are working against centuries of prejudice towards their bodies and appearance. In her seminal book, Fearing The Black Body, Sabrina Strings maps out how Western aesthetic ideals developed in the sixteenth century and how white artists and philosophers promoted racial discourse to create social and moral differences between white and Black people. Albrecht Dürer, the German painter, printmaker and theorist of the German Renaissance, was one of the key architects of the aesthetic system of the High Renaissance, which still influences beauty culture today.

Dürer wrote about his contempt for African features in his third book Four Books on Human Proportion, in 1528. In one of his sketches, known as the Berlin Study Sheet, Dürer formulated an image of society and placed his interpretation of the perfect European face at the forefront of humanity. Black people were drawn with exaggerated animalistic features, gazing longingly at the rest of (white) society. Within the aesthetic system of the High Renaissance, pointed noses and thin lips were the height of beauty. This (and more) resulted in the condemnation of the African face.

500 years later and these European ideals are still informing societal beauty standards today. “Typically there are requests from African-American women for thinner noses, more often than other procedures,” Selika Borst, an RN and assistant director of clinical research for a plastic surgery research firm in Chicago, told Essence about plastic surgery trends for Black women. “A few want breast lifts or reductions, as we ethnically have more ample busts and want them to be tauter.”

It’s not just cosmetic surgery. Since the early 20th century, Black women have been bleaching their skin to attain some of the privileges associated with whiteness, and relaxing their hair to ensure they can secure jobs and attend better schools – never mind that bleaching and chemical relaxers can burn your skin, cause permanent damage to the scalp and lead to hair loss. Last year when Tessica Brown used Gorilla Glue to slick her hair and edges back after running out of her hair gel, it was a painful reminder of the lengths Black women will go in pursuing beauty in an anti-Black world. 

“There’s a pressure always to be ‘on’ and ‘polished’ as a Black girl,” says Kailah Figueroa, editor-in-chief of Mid-Heaven Magazine. “I remember sitting down for hours as a child to get my hair done on a Saturday morning. Though I hated sitting in the chair and would get sleepy and annoyed at the constant touching of my scalp, I knew on Monday morning, the compliments I’d receive would be worth all the pain.” Figueroa estimates that the beauty products in her routine cost two-thirds of her paycheck.

In February of this year, The Black Pound Report found that consumers from multi-ethnic backgrounds spend 25 per cent more on health and beauty products than any other consumer. In 2017, a Nielsen report in the US found that Black women spend almost nine times more than white women on hair and beauty. A lot of this increased expenditure on beauty comes not only because Black women are pushed out of beauty culture, but womanhood as well.

“Though I hated sitting in the chair... I knew on Monday morning, the compliments I’d receive would be worth all the pain” – Kailah Figueroa

The belief that black women are unfeminine has been firmly embedded throughout history and has continued into the modern day. In 2019, retired tennis superstar Serena Williams was compared to a monkey by Romanian TV show host, Radu Banciu. Additionally, in her autobiography Becoming, former First Lady Michelle Obama wrote about how the press and alt-right would masculinize her and speculate that she was in fact a man during her time in the White House. These are the reasons Black women feel pressured to present in ways where their womanhood can not be denied; why nails and hair feel so vital.

“For Black people, your hair is your crown and your beauty,” says multi-disciplinary artist Dee Jakande. A few months ago, Jakande made the decision to cut their hair, for reasons including the financial cost of buying products. “The pressure was too much for me,” they say. “I don’t want to think about the way I look anymore.” Since the cut, they have had to come to terms with all the meaning that had been wrapped up in their long hair and sometimes they regret the decision. 

“I feel less pretty with short hair, but it’s forced me to investigate why that is. Long hair makes me feel feminine and affirms my gender but short hair does not. I try not to get bogged down by that thought too much because I give my hair more power than it deserves.”