This Colgate-Palmolive-Peet Company ad for Halo shampoo published in the Sunday news in 1954 signifies point in the long history of beauty when beauty became linked with the culture of consumerism. The ad features a comic about famous American singer Kathy Kallen’s rise to fame. In the first frame, two women critique a young Kallen for her “stringy” hair. As Kallen embarks on her singing career, she wins a singing competition, but realizes “a star must be easy to look at as well as listen to.” By the time Kallen has reached some success her hair was as big a “hit” as her voice because she found Halo shampoo. The last two frames of the comic emphasize Kallen’s reliance on Halo to maintain her lovely hair in the “spotlight.”
This ad is a wonderful example of the ways beauty functioned in media consumer culture. Told from the point of view of Kallen, the ad demonstrates the ways in which beauty companies commonly “appropriated qualities associated with femininity (and feminism) to target women as objects of beauty, as well as subjects who can change and empower themselves by consuming beauty products” (Jha 23). Kallen serves as both object and subject. Featuring a large portrait of Kallen with her silky, smooth hair, and describing Kallen as “pretty Kitty Kallen,” the ad presents Kallen and her hair as the desirable object of beauty. However, the older women’s critique of Kallen, and Kallen’s own recognition of the need to look good in order to achieve success demonstrate the ways in which Kallen is a victim of societal beauty norms. In society, a woman is valued for her beauty above all else, and cannot achieve success with simply talent and hard work. Yet the use of Kallen’s own words to tell her own transformation story, demonstrate that she is a subject with agency.
In addition, beauty companies’ attempts to maximize sales led to them simultaneously defining unrealistic beauty standards and democratizing beauty. Ads like this one exploited women’s insecurities “by projecting fantasies of finding a future happiness through self-transformation” (Jha 22). The fantasy in this ad is that of fame and happiness like Kitty Kallen. The ad defines beauty by deeming kitty kallen “pretty.” But Kallen’s story of self-transformation democratizes beauty, making it available to all through the use of consumerism and Halo Shampoo. However, this ad can tell us a lot more than just how beauty defined through consumerism.
Underlying this ad is a racialized definition of beauty. In this ad, standards of beauty are defined as whiteness, and beauty is available only to those who are white. Jha points out that “beauty functions as a symbolic marker of cultural and moral superiority in a hierarchy of racialized difference assigning goodness, godliness, intelligence, competence, success, and femininity to whiteness” (5). Kallen’s big blue eyes, slightly tan skin, rosy cheeks, button nose, red lips, and luscious brown hair are the definition of beauty. According to Mercer, hair is imbued with “significant ‘statements’ about self and society and the codes of value that bind them or don’t” (Mercer 34). The “stringy” and “dry” characteristics of Kallen’s natural hair, also characteristic of black hair, are deemed undesirable. Bright, sparkling, springy, soft, smooth, and silky curls are “glorified” as the ideal.
This shampoo ad allows us to trace the ways the beauty industry has historically constructed and perpetuated beauty norms to sell products and in doing so constructed standards of beauty that privilege whiteness within American society. However, it is possible to take this analysis of beauty and race one step further. In this ad, whiteness not only determines beauty ideals but also how Kitty Kallen’s beauty transformation is read. Although Kallen does not posses the ideal smooth, silky hair, she is able to achieve a white hair beauty ideal through a product. In this way, Kallen’s hair transformation is read through a beauty discourse: a pragmatic attempt to alter her appearance to achieve more success in life. However, I wonder how Kallen’s hair transformation might be read differently if she were black? Would her narrative of self-transformation still be read as agential or simply through a political and racial discourse: of rejecting natural black hair as a victim of false consciousness from white beauty standards? How does race affect the way that we read people’s beauty choices?
Jha, Meeta Rani. The global beauty industry: colorism, racism, and the national body. London: New York, NY, 2016.
Mercer, Kobena. “Black Hair/style Politics.” New Formations, 1987, 33-54.