March Issue of Essence Faces Criticism

Richard Prince, writing for the Maynard Institute of Journalism Education, has some harsh words for the March issue of Essence. He says that the majority of the women in the magazine are wearing wigs or weaves – and the deeper message behind that, that black women aren’t beautiful unless they have artificial hair – is upsetting.

He writes that Essence must have been only thinking about one thing when doing this: the bottom line.

“The images seem guaranteed to bolster the $247.7 million American market for ethnic personal care products — which comprise the majority of the Essence advertisers.”

Essence Spokesperson Dana Baxter replied to Prince’s claim, and said generalizations are never wise. “Making such a broad generalization based on just one issue of the magazine obscures the brand and its inclusiveness over the past 40 years,” she explained.

Danielle Belton, the author behind the popular blog Black Snob, told Prince Baxter’s response missed the point:

No matter how many people shout ‘It’s just hair,’ hair issues run pretty deep with black people. Mostly because you can economically change your hair. Other features black people battle with, like having wide noses or dark skin, can’t be fixed in two-to-four hours at the salon for under $100. Or with a $40 wig from a Korean-run black hair care shop. Because hair is a something you can actually ‘do’ something about if you don’t like it, you’re going to get a wide range of reactions to things like this with one side wanting to point out the problems in it and the other [wanting] to laugh it off.

We’re sure that Essence is hoping that this criticism just goes away, because in the end, it’s in a difficult place. A magazine lives and dies with advertising dollars, so where do they draw the line on what types of ads appear in its pages? If a company that makes relaxers approaches them – willing to put up big money for a big spot – how can they ignore it?

On the other hand, if Essence begins to take a hard line approach and considers its audience and the sensitivity behind the issue, it could win new readers.

And if you’re wondering if writing about black women’s hair was a bit awkward for a blog written by a bunch of white dudes with very little hair – yes, yes it was.