The Degradation of the Black Pearl: Reflections of African American Women in Media

Sunday, 02 May 2010 11:52 Written by  Cicely V. Teal

African American women have been dehumanized for centuries. It is impossible to analyze the way the media presently shape the image of the African American woman without dissecting the history of their societal role.


During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, black women were separated from their families and sold. They were subjugated and forced to endure the greatest level of indignity by being raped by the slave masters. As the country moved from slavery into segregation, African American women had to bare the unfortunate consequences of being both black and female. To combat feelings of low self-worth, African American women began to assimilate in terms of their appearance in order to be accepted by their esteemed counterparts—white women.

The physical attributes of African American women have never met the standards of a Westernized culture which has become universal, so from the era of slavery and segregation, we move into American pop culture.

Confidence, self-worth and self-esteem vary by individual, but it should not be unfathomable to think that the media portrayal of African American is not subconsciously creating ideologies about black women. In examining pop culture, the characteristics and traits of African American women that are not deemed marketable by those who control media content are very much marketable when women of other cultures embody them. For example, African American women are historically known for plump lips and round derrieres. It wasn’t until the media embraced white actresses like Angelina Jolie for her lips and Jennifer Lopez for her rump that those features became acceptable.
This reinforces the idea that the natural features of black women are not even good enough for black women themselves. Black women are constantly inundated with images that are not reflective and since the media act as a window into different worlds; this shapes the world’s views about who black women are as a whole. The images of black women are spoon fed into the American Diaspora through promiscuity, salaciousness and sexuality. The viewing public fashions their beliefs on what they see all while longing for more.

This longing is inadvertently mistaken for acceptance, so it reinforces sexualized behavior which is what is presented in music videos. This gives society a linear one-dimensional perspective. Images of black women are radically extreme in the media. Often in music videos, the women are fair skinned with long hair, real or fake, and very voluptuous. Dark skinned women with natural or kinky hair are rarely the focus. Thereby, black women are witnessing what it is men like. This, too, causes low self-worth and brings about thoughts of who in society likes me for me.

We have not yet left the realm of the slave mentality. The broken bones of the past are not healed. During slavery, the lighter skinned slave was allowed to be in the slave master’s house while the darker skinned slave had to work in the field. The perceptions we have of African American women have caused the destruction of the black community. The media will have the general population believe that the average size for a female is a two. In the United States, size 14 is the average size. This ideal is most damaging to the African American woman where we can’t decipher overweight from ‘thick’ or shapely.

Celebrity makeup artist Denise Tunnell believes the role of the entertainment industry is pertinent in shaping the image of African American women.

“We see other women in admiration, and we want to shape our image after them,” Tunnell said. If there is already a void in self-worth based on physicalities and materialism, then it is innate to figure out how to fill that void. Since the media use imagery to gage materialism, the images of African American women are used to perpetuate self-hate, which thereby creates stereotypes. Black is beautiful, and there should be no penalty for it. However, in order for the media to adjust the way images of African American women are projected into society, the black community must be willing to fix the internal structure of our community.

-Photography by GMO Photo Editor Billy Montgomery

Cicely V. Teal

Cicely V. Teal

Cicely V. Teal graduated from Northeastern Illinois University with a B.A. in Communication and Depaul Univeristy with a M.A in Journalism. She contributed to and maintained a column at N’Digo Magapaper, and wrote for Urban Influence Magazine, Breaking Tweets, The DePaulia and The Independent. She also worked on documentary projects at WTTW channel 11, children’s television programming at WCIU-TV and African American programming at Central City Productions.

She is a blogger and studies web analytics, social networking strategies and integrated marketing at the University of Chicago.

She can be contacted at

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