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Health, beauty, and skin-lightening: Identity politics and Black business in modern Britain c.1940s-1990s

Globally and historically, Eurocentric beauty ideals have been steeped in privilege informed by imperial histories and racial hierarchies. Reinforced by the global beauty industry, circumscribed notions of beauty are pervasively implicated within racist capitalist and patriarchal frameworks. The prominent study of the identity politics of hair and skin colour/shade in the United States has often overshadowed experiences elsewhere. This talk, based on a forthcoming chapter in British Culture After Empire: Migration, Race and Decolonisation, 1945-Present (2021), centres a Black British story through an analysis of various generative spaces and quotidian practices.  

In post-war Britain, beauty work manifested itself in numerous ways and engendered a range of responses from African-Caribbean women. This talk explores how the creation of Black British spaces in post-war Britain involved phenomenological corporeal negotiations including the politicisation of hair and skin-lightening practices. Black British beauty spaces included salons, newspapers, beauty businesses, and beauty contests. The negotiations and practices generated within these spaces were often multi-layered and divisive, bringing questions of gender, health, colourism (colour-based discrimination), and class mobility to the fore. At the same time, however, these spaces produced vital resources for belonging, solidarity, and the creation of Black British identities for communities facing the intersecting spectres of structural racism, long-term economic decline, and public sector cuts. As such, Black beauty spaces changed the landscape of health, beauty, and business in modern Britain. 

Speaker 

Dr Mobeen Hussain is an early-career historian of the British Empire focusing on race, gender, embodiment, and corporeal consumption. She completed my BA in English and History and MA in Contemporary History and International Politics at the University of York before undertaking a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Mobeen recently defended her doctoral thesis, entitled 'Race, Gender and Beauty in late colonial India c.1900-1950,' in the Faculty of History at Cambridge (2021). Her thesis, to be adapted into a monograph, examined how bodies were racialised and historicised colourism and practices of skin-lightening in colonial South Asia.  

Mobeen is currently a postdoctoral research fellow on the Colonial Legacies project at Trinity College Dublin. She is also interested in public history and practices of archive formation and collecting. She has previously blogged for Doing History in Public, The Recipes Project, and the British Library’s Endangered Archives blog

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