Beverly Johnson on the Psychology of Beauty An excerpt from the new book "Family Affair: What It Means to Be African American Today" September 16, 2009 By Beverly Johnson Beverly Johnson's essay on beauty is an excerpt from the new book, Family Affair: What it means to Be African American Today, edited by Gil Robertson, IV, released this month. My first introduction to beauty, like that of many young girls, came from observing the women in my life. Watching my mother prepare herself for an evening out with my father was quite an experience. From the lotions and perfumes to the makeup and hair, it was a long, ritualized process. This ritual always culminated with her putting on an amazing dress and suddenly being ready to present herself to the world. In fact, my favorite dress of hers was a green velvet one with brown mink trim on the cuffs and collar. I also have memories of seeing my grandmother heading off to work decked out in beautiful suits and hats. Even though she worked as a maid at a downtown hotel in Buffalo, NY, you'd never know it judging from her attire. Black women have always had an amazing sense of style, no matter the circumstances. It's part of who we are, individually and culturally. As a young girl, I learned that beauty was about more than just being visually appealing. It was more about personal pride and self-esteem. It surprises people that I did not aspire to have a career in modeling. Really, my dream was to become a lawyer. Growing up, I was the classic ugly duckling, a nerdy bookworm. I wasn't the Barbie-doll type at all! I was an athlete, swimming competitively and serving as a swimming instructor and lifeguard during the summers. The world of modeling never entered my mind. Like many things in life, it happened by chance. Although I eventually developed a love for the fashion world, my initial motivation for modeling was to make money for college. A student at Northeastern University in Boston, I took a job one summer at a clothing boutique. Lily, one of my coworkers, told me that if I ever changed my mind about law school, I should consider modeling. I thought she was nuts! But she gave me the number for a woman who worked in the industry, just in case I changed my mind. After returning to school, I met some girls from New York City who also mentioned modeling to me. They showed me magazines and went on and on about the kind of money they made-certainly more than I made at the boutique. So the very next summer, I found the number Lily had given me and placed a call. After being introduced to Glamour magazine, I was on my way, but this new direction was against my father's wishes. Clearly, he wanted me to finish school and knew that I had no understanding of the industry. I guess most people would've been terrified, but I wasn't. Charge it to my Type A personality, but I had excelled in other areas of my life, so I figured I could do the same with modeling. I had a quiet confidence. As time went on, I knew I had made the right decision. Even my father got on board once he saw that I could continue going to school and work modeling jobs at the same time. Thankfully, the success continued for many years, opening doors and providing opportunities I ambitiously took on. Without question, appearing on the cover of Vogue in 1974 was a life-changing moment for me-professionally and personally. All of the hard work and time I had put into campaigns, runways, and ads around the world came together in this one moment. After the inroads that models like Naomi Sims had made for Black models in the industry, the mainstream was finally acknowledging our beauty. Yes, brown skin and unique features had international appeal, and European traits were not the measuring stick that Black women had to live up to. There were all kinds of emotions running through me- joy, satisfaction, and pride. Surprisingly, one of them was anger. I remember thinking, "It's 1974, and I'm the first? Are you kidding me!" Don't get me wrong, it was an honor to grace Vogue's cover. However, it was the 1970s. I felt there should've been more opportunities for Black models to grace the covers of high-fashion magazines. Why wasn't there someone before me? But on a deeper level, a light bulb went on. The sociopolitical gyrations the cover had generated started me on a journey of self-discovery. I grappled with our history as African-Americans, my identity as a Black woman, and what they mean in our global society. Although beauty is a marketing tool in the fashion world, it is a purely psychological concept. Advertisers are always telling us, "If you wear this dress, you'll feel powerful!" "Style your hair this way, and you'll look trendy!" "Put on these heels, and you'll command attention!" But if you don't see yourself in that magazine, or in that TV ad, how will you, as an African-American woman, ever know that you, too, are desirable? So it became my mission to make Black women a part of the beauty world. Through my work, Black women would see a version of themselves in the world. If the international and largely European-dominated fashion industry could include me, then sisters were beautiful! Our spectrum of hues is not a disadvantage; instead, it's a powerful advantage. Professionally, I felt a great sense of responsibility. I stopped doing Virginia Slims cigarette campaigns and liquor ads when I realized what they were doing to our community, even though they were a huge source of income for me. I became aware that I had a piece to contribute to the larger puzzle. I also began to demand equal treatment. I can remember doing the same modeling jobs for the same number of days and for the same number of pictures, and yet white supermodels got more money. I gathered momentum, determined to make sure that whatever they got, I would get as well! I was quiet until I had enough power to open my mouth. I knew that if I could demand it-and get it-other Black models would be treated fairly, too. Currently, we're seeing the fashion industry take a few steps backward in regards to hiring Black models. Bethann Hardison, the celebrated agent and industry activist, has been challenging the fashion industry. Over the years, Black models have brought additional readership and revenue to mainstream magazines, and now it seems the magazines just want to take the money and run. But we're not going to let them. We're going to stand up and say, "You're doing it again, and we're not going to stand for it!" It's a different story, but it's still the same story. Even in today's climate-with our systemic progress, and presidency of Barack Obama-bigots, racists, and prejudices still exist. We have to continue to bring awareness and tolerance to those attitudes. As I look at the future of Black women in fashion (and as a whole), it's really about us taking control of our lives and empowering ourselves. We must never be afraid to speak up or demand better treatment. We have to continue creating our own businesses, brands, and media, and continue to educate ourselves. In this way, we don't have to go to any outside source for acceptance. I see African-American women continuing to create an original picture of who we are. More importantly, we have to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror-not with criticism or comparison, but with appreciation. Sisters, we are the standard of beauty. We just are. Photo Credit: Credit: Fadil Berisha Beverly Johnson is a supermodel, actress, businesswoman and philanthropist. The first African-American model to grace the cover of Vogue magazine, Johnson's success forever changed the idea of beauty in fashion and opened the door for other Black models to work in the industry.