Fine Brown Frames, Diet, Exercise and “Ideal” Black Female Bodies in Postwar America

The Africana Studies department hosted an event titled Fine Brown Frames, Diet, Exercise and “Ideal” Black Female Bodies in Postwar America given by Dr. Ava Purkiss. Her talk revolved around the beauty ideals that were projected onto black female bodies at this time which included physical beauty, exercise, and dietary standards that promoted diet culture and unrealistic beauty standards during the post war period.

The first section of the talk focused on exercise and how this was an integral aspect in achieving the ideal body for a black woman. One magazine specifically noted that exercising for thirty minutes a day was important in achieving an ideal body shape through various ballet poses, and dismissed domestic housework by stating that it should not be counted as being a part of the necessary exercise during the day. It seems hard to believe that only certain types of physical activity were deemed beneficial and also seemed to belittle the great amount of work women did for their household daily. At this time period there was a prominent model who appeared on many posters that promoted the ideal body type and she became an icon of fitness culture; her measurements were used as quantifiable goals to which black women should aspire.

The fitness culture movement began to pick up speed through beauty contests and beauty pageants, which also shed light onto the racial tensions regarding such contests. There was an idea amongst society that the winner of such contests would have to have light brown skin but, in 1946, Evelyn Sanders, a dark-skinned black woman, was crowned the victor through the influence of the audience, despite not being the judge’s first choice. This was an integral step for black women to redefine normative beauty standards within black beauty contests. The pageant atmosphere remained a pivotal scene in which gender and race were integral factors and it was also a platform in which social and political discourse occurred.

The next section of Purkiss’s talk was about diet and African American food culture. This was another sphere in which racial tension was found and stereotypes about African American food were numerous. The combination of implementing both daily exercise and a healthy diet was said to be the most beneficial for women trying to reach the ideal  beauty standards. One interesting historical detail that was mentioned that tied into the unrealistic standards of everyday life for these women was the expectation of women to make two entirely separate meals at meal times: one for the family to eat that was not restricted and incorporated a variety of food and then a meal for the woman of the house which was very restricted and consisted of only a salad, fruit, and one cookie. The dialogue that was created around weight loss and food restriction caused overweight women to be harshly stigmatized and it is easy to see how this discourse was anything but helpful to someone because of the malicious remarks and names that  were used. There was even a weight loss plan created at this time on which the individual that was following it lost a pound a day. From today’s standards, this is very dangerous and not a healthy way to lose weight.

During this talk I learned a great deal about fitness culture and diet in the postwar era and I began to compare the time period to now. I think that the roots of diet culture have culminated into what they are today. This also plays into the beauty ideals that are still unrealistic for people of color and the diet culture that has permeated into societal standards. I think that the dialogue around overweight individuals is still harmful and there is a lot of progress to be made. Also, the racial tensions that stem from beauty ideals and body shape are still prominent today; women still face this pressure from Eurocentric beauty ideals to have lighter skin and a slimmer body. In essence, while the  times have changed since the postwar era, these issues are still at large and continue to be topics that need to be discussed at length.

Written by Ellen McInnes ’22, WGRC student worker

April 9, 2021