The Modern Girl, Cosmetics and Racial Respectability in 1930s South Africa

Lynn Thomas (University of Washington)

    In the 1930s, a debate raged in the black South African newspaper *Bantu World* over school-educated unmarried young women, often referred to as the African "modern girl." Some writers praised the modern girl for her wit, fashionable appearance, and self-assuredness. As one columnist put it, "when you ask her what chocolates she wants, she smiles brightly and says, "Chocolate Gingers, please!" Many other observers questioned the African modern girl's comportment and consumer habits, arguing that she was too self-indulgent, too reluctant to marry, and too concerned with imitating her "white sisters."

    My paper will explore this debate by focusing on how advertisers, journalists, and letter writers defined, defended, and denounced young women's use of cosmetics -- specifically, red lipsticks, white face powders, skin bleach creams, and hair straightening products. Founded in 1932 by white businessmen and edited by moderate black male nationalists, *Bantu World* aimed to both cater to and cultivate black consumers. Within the pages of *Bantu World*, cosmetic usage became one of the most common practices through which newspaper writers and readers considered whether school-educated African young women were contributing to "racial uplift" or "prostituting" both their sex and race. By locating cosmetic advertisements and textual discussions of cosmetics within South African and transnational (notably, African-American) capitalist enterprises and shifting ideologies of race, gender, and visuality, my paper will explore why cosmetics and, eventually, skin bleach creams, in particular, became one of the commodities -- if not the commodity -- most closely identified with the African modern girl.

    The paper's conclusion will consider how these *Bantu World* debates of the 1930s foreshadowed and influenced skin bleach controversies that took place across postcolonial and white minority-ruled Africa during the 1960s and 1970s when African nationalism dominated political discourses and the ideology of Black Consciousness posed significant challenges to the apartheid state.