Media @ McGill

Cheryl Thompson | The Rise of Western Beauty Culture, Black Hair Products, and Chatelaine 1860s to 1990s

Submitted by Justin on


The Media@McGill Graduate Research Fellowship for Continuing Doctoral Students was used to complete the first chapter of my dissertation and to prepare a conference paper for the Canadian Communication Association’s Annual Conference, which was held at the University of Waterloo and Laurier University, May 30 – June 1, 2012. 

The chapter entitled, “Dress in the ‘Promised Land’: Visualizing Black Women’s Bodies in Colonial Canada” is an historical examination of not only slavery in Canada, its distinctiveness from other sites across the Trans-Atlantic, and the visual representation of the black female body, but also how black migration over the period of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries coupled with shifts in the social and cultural fabric of British North America contributed to the black Canadian narrative. The chapter posits that the visual and material culture of slavery must be understood in relation to cultural and political shifts during the colonial period. By shedding light on the survival strategies used by black women in Canada and their physical transformations in terms of dress, I argue that black women cultivated spaces of agency that redefined what it meant to be a black woman while simultaneously resisting the negative demarcation cast upon them by society-at-large. 

The chapter considers the complex history of both French and British colonization. Through an examination of eighteenth-century advertisements of the Quebec Gazette and Montreal Gazette, Upper Canada Gazette, and Nova Scotia Gazette, which are teeming with slave sales and escape notices, I explore black slave women’s survival strategies and the extent to which they were shaped by African traditions, but also cultural patterns derived from the United States and Caribbean – the sites where most slaves arriving in Canada came from. 

Meanwhile, the conference paper entitled, “The Rise of Western Beauty Culture, Black Women, and Canada’s Ladies’ Magazine, Chatelaine” formed part of a panel discussion, (e)Racing the Nation? Analyzing Popular Media Discourses, National Belonging and Citizenship. The panel was concerned with the complex ways communities, groups, and individuals are framed in media, including English and French newspapers and popular magazines, and government documents. Through an intertextual reading of advertisements and editorial content from Chatelaine magazine from 1928 to 2000 (I conducted this research during winter term, 2012), this paper analyzed the products for hair and cosmetics that were marketed for white women and those products that were marketed for black women. Its aim was to articulate differences in terms of ideals of beauty and hair care. Second, if, as Emily Spencer (2007) argues, Chatelaine was unquestionably a mass circulation magazine that targeted white, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class Canadian women for its readership, the question my paper sought to explore was how then did the magazine represent black Canadian women?  

In the late-1960s, as African American women became more visible in the public sphere, several major beauty magazines, like Cosmopolitan, Glamour, and Mademoiselle began featuring black models on their covers for the first time, such as Naomi Sims. In Chatelaine, black women were often the topic of editorials on immigration and racism beginning in the late 1950s through to the 1970s but the first black woman does not appear on the magazine’s cover until 1991 – Zanana L. Akande, a former NDP Cabinet Minister, the first black woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and the first black woman to serve as a cabinet minister in Canada. Given the changes that occurred between the 1960s and 1990s, in terms of immigration reforms, shifts in demographics, and the increased presence of black Canadians in the media, this paper ultimately raised questions about why Chatelaine magazine, which has always marketed itself as “Canada’s ladies’ magazine,” has struggled to diversify its contents.

This award served to assist me in conducting the extensive amount of research required to complete these two projects. With the assistance of Media@McGill, I am now in a position to begin work on my second chapter; as well, I will be revising my conference paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.