New research from Leeds Beckett University has found that Black women are rarely featured in mainstream women’s magazines and, when they are represented, they are young and slim, with straight hair and light skin tones.
The study, led by Dr Glen Jankowski, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at Leeds Beckett, and published in the latest edition of Psychology of Women Section Review, analysed the representation of Black women in magazines with the aim of challenging the view that body dissatisfaction is not linked to images portrayed by the media or that Black women do not experience body dissatisfaction.
The researchers examined the representation of Black women and the number of appearance adverts and articles across eight issues of mainstream women’s magazines available in Britain (Elle and Vogue) and Black women’s magazines (Essence and Ebony) from 2015 to 2016.
They found that, of the 539 images of Black women in the magazines examined, 83% were young, 62% were slim, 66% had light skin, and 60% had straight hair. Only 11% (64) of the Black women represented featured in the mainstream magazines and, when they were represented, they generally had straighter hair, narrow noses and lighter skin tones.
The researchers also found that there were more appearance-related adverts (87%) and more appearance-related articles (65%) in the mainstream women’s magazines than in the Black women’s magazines.
Dr Jankowski said: “Body dissatisfaction, any shame or dislike of their appearance an individual has, is gendered in that women experience this more often and more deeply than men. Traditionally, body dissatisfaction researchers have noted that appearance ideal images (i.e., young, thin and athletic) represent an unrealistic standard for the majority of women. However, because psychology is dominated by White Westerners, there is little existing research that shows these standards are even more unrealistic for Black women.
“Specifically, images of Black women are not only likely to conform to the appearance ideal but they are also more likely to be featured with lighter skin, straighter hair and narrower noses than darker skin, natural or curly hair and wider noses. Black women then do not only face appearance pressures to be slim and youthful but also to lighten their skin, to narrow their noses and to relax their hair.
“Previous research has suggested that media effects are generally minimal and that individuals are responsible for their own body dissatisfaction; however we believe that this idea needs challenging and analysing media content is one way of doing this. Content analyses are an important way in accounting for women’s body dissatisfaction that does not blame individual women for this but rather begins to locate the problem as culturally driven, for example through media images.”
The researchers coded images of Black women, adverts and articles featured in popular Black women’s and mainstream women’s magazines in order to begin to quantify the appearance pressures Black women face and therefore better understand their body dissatisfaction. Every image larger than 4.25cm2 of an adult Black woman (whose visible ethnicity was not White or Asian) was coded according to age, body type, skin type, nose size and hair type and then further coded for degree of nudity, visibility of the woman’s face and disability.
The Black women’s magazines featured more images that were diverse in appearance compared to the mainstream women’s magazines: for example, more images of Black women with heavier body shapes and with darker skin were featured.
Dr Jankowski added: “An unexpected finding of the research was that 25% of the images of Black women in the mainstream women’s magazines were of one, single, darker skinned, afro haired Black woman – the US-based actress Lupita Nyong’o. This speaks to how few images of Black women there were in general across the mainstream women’s magazines where that a single Black woman would skew the analysis. This is probably related to the announcement of Lupita as the face of Lancôme, a French subsidiary of cosmetic giant L’Oreal, after her 2013 Oscar win. Both companies are prominent advertisers in Elle and Vogue.”
By analysing race in their body dissatisfaction study, the researchers have identified ways in which racism and appearance pressures intersect: including through colourism, afro hair devaluation, and the promotion of only those Black models who have Western features: narrow noses and lips and thinner, leaner body types.
Dr Jankowski said: “A media that is biased towards White people does not protect Black women from body dissatisfaction, as some researcher claims, but instead worsens it by reproducing racism by virtue of bodily exclusion. Our research has shown that unrealistic appearance standards of Black women are still prevalent and that even the more progressive publications like Essence and Ebony struggle to resist.”
Dr Jankowski led the study with data collection help from Leeds Beckett BSc (Hons) Psychology graduates, Sibongile Tshuma and Sithabile Tshuma, and A-level student, Milli Hylton.