Nina Simone and Black Beauty

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Nina Simone, 1968.

Nina Simone is relevant in a discourse about beauty and race because of her dark skin and traditionally African features, and her refusal to conform to white beauty standards. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in an Atlantic article, “Simone was in possession of nearly every feature that we denigrated as children. And yet somehow she willed herself into a goddess.”[1] Here, Coates brings up Simone’s relevancy. She rejected the norms, and did so fairly successfully, as is evidenced by her career. He goes on to explain the importance of Simone’s presence, arguing, “we look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view—there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us.”[2] Simone was explicitly black, and thus challenged and challenegs delusions of color-blind racism that uphold white beauty standards.

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Let It Be Me album cover.

Simone was not able to pass into a normatively acceptable sphere of blackness because of her dark skin and black features, unlike Vanessa Williams, for example, who was a successful first black Miss America because of her lighter skin and more European features. Because of this, Simone had to carve out her own space, one that was inevitably framed as in opposition of white beauty standards. Claudia Roth Pierpont writes about Simone in a New Yorker article saying, “‘I can’t be white and I’m the kind of colored girl who looks like everything white people despise or have been taught to despise,’ she wrote in a note to herself, not during her adolescence but in the years when she was already a successful performer. ‘If I were a boy, it wouldn’t matter so much, but I’m a girl and in front of the public all the time wide open for them to jeer and approve of or disapprove of.’”[3] Simone was clearly aware of her positionality in the context of American beauty standards, but rather than let that defeat her, she rejected the beauty standards, instead rejoicing in her blackness.

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Nina Simone at a concert in Paris on October 22, 1991.

Because she didn’t fit the conventional norms, Simone ironically had more liberty to defy them. This is reflected in her music, where she often sang about her black identity. Simone still had agency. Kathy Davis argues, “against my own inclination to view women who have cosmetic surgery as ‘cultural dopes,’ I positioned them as ‘competent actors’ with an ‘intimate and subtle knowledge of society,’ including the dominant discourses and practices of feminine beauty.”[4] Davis is getting at Simone’s awareness of how she could work within her own place within the system of beauty and race. However, unlike women who have cosmetic surgery, Simone attempted to define beauty on her own terms. This was important because of what her place in a consumerist society meant. Meeta Rani Jha argues that “black celebrities, such as Beyoncé, who imitate ‘white’ standards of feminine beauty, reinforce racist beauty norms.”[5] Simone, aware that she did not embody white beauty norms, didn’t try to attain them, like Beyoncé and women who have cosmetic surgery. Instead of working within a white supremacist system, Simone chose to reject it. This was a significant effort because it worked to chip away at the white beauty standards that Simone couldn’t easily conform to.

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The Essential Nina Simone album cover

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Nina Simone’s Face,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/nina-simone-face/472107/.

[2] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Nina Simone’s Face,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/nina-simone-face/472107/

[3] Claudia Roth Pierpont, “A Raised Voice,” The New Yorker, August 11 & 18, 2014 issue, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice.

[4] Kathy Davis, Dubious Equalities and Embodies Differences (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 13.

[5] Meeta Rani Jha, The Global Beauty Industry, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 45.

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