The campaign to assault the self-esteem of Black/African women and girls has been a long sought one. Fought on the terrain of the shapes and size of their bodies, the texture of their hair, the Aquiline quality of their noses and the shade of their skin, Black/African women and girls have struggled to carve out a healthy psychological concept of themselves and their physicality in a society determined to use it as the mark of the “un-beauty”.
The May 15, 2011 publication of, “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive than Other Women?”, by Satoshi Kanazawa on Psychology Today’s blog, The Scientific Fundamentalist, is the latest iteration of this campaign. Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, reports that based on his findings, irrespective of intelligence and body mass index (BMI) measurements, Black women are less attractive than their White, Asian and Native American counterparts and that comparable findings are not evidenced among Black men. His concluding thoughts suggest that Black women’s lack of beauty may be due to their higher than average testosterone levels, though he did not measure or report hormone levels of the study participants.
Assuming Kanazawa’s research on the Psychology Today blog may have been abbreviated for space and content considerations, as a psychologist researching and working with Black/African girls and women, I have methodological and ethical concerns about this work. Several methodological omissions make it difficult to contextualize the findings. For example, Kanazawa does not describe his sample. We do not know the age or race or the number of “Add Health” respondents. Further, “Add Health”, which appears to be a measure of objective and subjective physical attractiveness, is not adequately defined. The strength and validity of the measure are questionable as, physical attractiveness, a subjective construct, is not operationalized. Kanazawa may have considered examining the content, construct and criterion validity with regard to the physical attractiveness variable to legitimize his findings.
The study design is also problematic. Apparently the physical attractiveness of the respondents is measured “objectively” on a five-point scale by an interviewer over “seven years”. Again, Kanazawa does not describe the interviewer, and this becomes important as one’s racial identity, level of internalized racial oppression, multicultural competence and self-esteem, may likely influence the aesthetic to which they attribute beauty. Within a Western context, the concept of beauty varies tremendously from an African aesthetic (Welsh-Asante, 1993). Consequently, for this work to be considered valid these factors should have been considered.
Perhaps, what may be most troubling of Kanazawa’s work, and until recently (the blog has since been removed from the Psychology Today’s website), wide dissemination of his findings, are the ethical concerns it raises and the socio-cultural and political considerations it engenders. As Black/African girls and women have historically been challenged to form healthy psychological notions of themselves within the context of a “White Beauty Ideal” (Banks, 2000; Boyd-Franklin, 1991; Greene; 2000; Rooks, 1996; Williams, Frame, & Greene, 1999), Kanazawa’s work can be viewed as scientifically irresponsible. Guideline number four of the APA Guidelines for Multicultural Education, Training, Research, Practice and Organizational Change for Psychologists (2002) states.
Culturally sensitive psychological researchers are encouraged to recognize the importance of conducting culture–centered and ethical psychological research among persons from ethnic, linguistic, and racial minority backgrounds.
Beginning at the formation of the research question and the theoretical and/or practical intentions of this work, one may wonder: What is the purpose of this research? What body of knowledge does it seek to extend? Guthrie’s (2003) seminal work suggests that psychological science has long been misused to legitimize and justify racist social and political policy. Further, that the gender-bias of the findings are presented as findings rather than limitations, suggest that the measure, already deemed inappropriate, may not capture its dependence on, not only a “White Beauty Ideal” (i.e., correlations with BMI), but also may play into racist sexual politics relative to Black/African masculinity (Collins, 2005). This is also problematic.
The public outcry toward Kanazawa’s work and Psychology Today’s swift removal of it from their website speaks to the power of giving voice and putting productive action behind outrage in response to injustice. Even so, the post continues to circulate as one “Tumblr” writer has posted it in its entirety on her site. Juxtaposed by photographs of her, I cannot help but wonder whether these pictures are her argument for Black/African women’s beauty. I am personally saddened by the fact that she may even believe she must defend it.
Wendi Williams, Ph.D.
American Psychological Association (2002, August). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice and organizational change. Retrieved August 13, 2008 from http://www.apa.org/pi/multiculturalguidelines/homepage.html.
Banks, I. (2000). Hair matters: Beauty, power and Black women’s consciousness. New York: NYU Press.
Boyd-Franklin, N. (1991). Recurrent themes in the treatment of African American women in group. Women & Therapy, 11, 25-40.
Collins, P. H. (2005). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, gender and the new racism. New York, NY: Routledge.
Greene, B. (2000). African American lesbian and bisexual women. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 239-249.
Guthrie, R. (2003). Even the rat was White: A historical view of psychology. Allyn & Bacon, Inc.
Rooks, N. (1996). Hair raising: Beauty, culture, & African American women. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Williams, C. B., Frame, M. W. & Green, E. (1999). Counseling groups for African American women: A focus on spirituality. Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 24, 260-273.
Welsh-Asante, Kariamu (1993). The African Aesthetic: Keeper of the Traditions (Contributions in Afro- and African-American Studies). Greenwood Press.