Taking time to smell the peonies
Q&A with Cheryl Thompson
“The most neglected person in America is the black woman,” said human rights activist Malcolm X in 1962. The same still holds true today in Canada’s beauty culture, according to a book published last April by Toronto-based author and academic Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University. Her book, Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture, points to a lack of representation in Canadian history and gaps in information on consumer behaviours of black women.
What is the message you want your book to send?
Women are not all the same. Black women have a very unique narrative and a unique experience. There needs to be awareness that black women don’t experience the same things other women do, and it’s also based on the unique history that we have living in the Western world. Across the traditional workplace, there are unspoken rules about what’s professional and what’s unprofessional, and all too often, people consider it unprofessional for a black woman to wear her hair naturally. My whole intention with this book was to get people to talk to someone first, to connect, to listen to them and see where they’re coming from before making assumptions about them.
Your book is based on your doctoral dissertation. What was your thesis?
In essence, the book is making the assertion that beauty culture doesn’t exist on its own. It really needs the media; the media is the driving force of beauty culture. What I found is that there seems to be so little information about Canada’s black beauty culture. I noticed how black women are symbolically annihilated from a lot of beauty culture advertising. I reviewed archives in Canada and the U.S. to locate what I would call the material culture of beauty: ads with images and text. I found some going back to the 1920s right here in Canada that were promoting mail-order hair or skin products for black women. Many black women bought their beauty products through mail order; they simply weren’t sold in stores.
What did you discover about Canada’s black beauty culture?
One of the realities in Canada is that a lot of black history has just not been given much attention. Black Canadian newspapers go back to the 19th century; there’s a whole history of advertisements in these papers promoting the sole black woman entrepreneur typically selling products out of her home. Most people don’t know that Canadian civil rights activist Viola Desmond, who’s now on the $10 bill, was one of those entrepreneurs. The media ignored that fact. She gained notoriety for challenging racial segregation in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, when she was not allowed to watch a movie in a theatre because she was sitting in the whites-only section. At the time, she was driving around the province selling her homemade beauty products; she was what we would call a “beauty culturalist.” She not only ran and operated a beauty salon, she also started the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, where she was training other black women on the techniques of haircare, and also made and sold her own products.
Are you seeing improvements in how black women are portrayed?
On the one hand, we’re not dealing with an extremely racist culture circulating pervasively, and if we do see those things, we now have agencies that handle them. The only real move I’ve seen is in gender parity. But when you look down deep at the question of race and gender, you tell me where the black women are, even though we’re getting degrees, we’re going to university getting trained, and yet you look at who is making decisions, who are getting executive director positions, who are presidents of companies? I see a lot of white women doing those things; I don’t see a lot of black women.
How is beauty defined?
I really think beauty is about loving the package that you’re in and making the best of it. As a culture we still don’t appreciate a real diversity in our concept of beauty, because we still attach limited attributes, like the size of your nose or how far apart your eyes sit. Just like there’s a range of flowers, I think there’s a range of beauty, and it includes self-love and kindness.
Are self-care and spa treatments important to you?
It doesn’t matter what your income, I believe every woman should experience spa treatments for themselves at least once in their lifetime. It’s almost like meditating. You meditate to disassociate with your body. In the same way, when you go to a spa, you are disassociating from your life. You release the toxins in your skin, but also release the things that you’re holding onto emotionally. I also believe that there’s a therapeutic aspect to someone else touching you. Moments of self-care are so important to our overall well-being.