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12068 - On Copycats and Dreadful Locks: 'Africanizing' Beauty in Urban Ghana

This paper explores the proliferation of mass-mediated beauty ideals designated as 'African'. In the United States, the upsurge entails public debates on the characteristics of black beauty, as well as various African American celebrities persuading women to “look more African” and stop using chemicals that straighten their hair or lighten their skin. This turn has been popularly framed as the beginning of a more democratic era in the history of human beauty, which will celebrate “natural” traits of the black body after centuries of subjugation under “white” aesthetic norms.

Despite the analytical temptation to approach beauty as a field for experimenting with uprooted, “cosmopolitan” identities, I propose to treat 'africanisation' of beauty as an influential site for cultural authentication that transcends borders. Basing on a comparative analysis of the discourses of African beauty in the African American and Ghanaian popular culture, beauty attests as a particularly intricate means to negotiate the qualities and conditions of “being African” in the era that Comaroff & Comaroff (2009) have termed “identity economy.” This economy entails “marketing” belonging and “branding” its traits in public arenas where commercial, political and cultural concerns converge. While pan-African nationalism calls for citizens who showcase belonging to the motherland, the multiple stakeholders of these new markets of belonging frame 'Africanness' as a desirable consumer “choice.” If Africanness can indeed be taken as a “choice” of lifestyle, what types of subjectivities will emerge as a result? This paper will position africanisation of beauty as an inherently ambiguous endeavour, most notably in its insistence on producing “authentic” subjects who are “proudly Africans, not copycats.” In conclusion, I will raise questions on the everyday vulnerabilities that may arouse as a result of this seemingly benevolent enterprise.

References:

Comaroff J. & Comaroff J 2009. Ethnicity Inc. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Keywords: beauty, postcolonial ¿Africanness¿, cultural authentication

Author: Kauppinen, Anna-Riikka (London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), United Kingdom/Ver Königr)

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