Jackie Aina. Naptural85. MakeupShayla. Jeanette Jenkins. If you’re familiar with these names, you are likely well versed in the world of social media influencers. In a chapter for the 2017 edition of The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography, digital anthropologist Crystal Abidin offers the following definition of the term:
Although the original concept pre-dates the Internet, today Influencers can be defined as everyday Internet users who accumulate a relatively large following on blogs and social media through the textual and visual narration of their personal lives and lifestyles.
– Abidin (2017:159)
From hair and beauty to fitness and wellness, Black women and non-binary femmes have taken up space in every niche of social media. Their presence on the internet has had a significant impact on a number of industries because many of them forge pathways into businesses that have traditionally excluded people of color. In this blog post, I will summarize five key insights on Black women influencers from Black feminist scholars.
1. Plus-size Black Women Redefine Beauty
In a recent article published in Social Media + Society, Regina Duthely-Barbee, an Assistant Professor of English at University of Puget Sound, explains how Black women influencers on Instagram redefined beauty through plus-size fashion content. Specifically, the digital self-representation of self-fashioned plus-size Black women challenges respectability politics and controlling images that would otherwise constrain their agency by depicting them as mammies or sassy aunts.
2. Black Women Travelers Influence Culture Through Instagram
Historically, travel media excluded Black women, but today they are prominent figures in the internet-driven Black Travel Movement (BTM). Given the colonial history of global tourism, Black women travelers who post about their trips on social media offer a unique view on mobility, citizenship, and identity. For example, the TikTok user @standbywithadrie educates her followers on encountering racism as a Black woman traveler.
In a 2021 article for Social Media + Society, Toni Omega Arthur focuses on influencers Jessica Nabongo and Oneika Raymond to illustrate intersectionality in travel media as an extension of Black women’s internationalism. Arthur, an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University, describes their user-generated content as “digital culture bearing.” In this way, travel influencers who are Black women use their online platforms to teach their followers about African cultures.
3. Blackfishing is the Appropriation of Black Femininity Online
In 2018 writer Wanna Thompson coined blackfishing to call out non-Black women mimicking Black feminine aesthetics to gain visibility on Instagram. Wesley E. Stevens, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, unpacks this media phenomenon and what it signifies about race, gender, and capitalism in the internet age in a 2021 Social Media + Society article.
Stevens asserts blackfishing Instagram models appropriate Black cultural aesthetics to signify whiteness as the desired standard of Black beauty. Furthermore, these influencers commodify Black femme culture as brand ambassadors, whitewashing and reselling Black aesthetic practices by using this digital blackface to profit off a gendered and sexualized performance of Black identity.
4. Black Women Online Confront Racism in Beauty Culture
Western beauty standards have historically promoted anti-Black colorism. This colorism has propelled a cosmetics industry that advertises skin bleaching or lightening creams and recruits largely white women and women of color with lighter complexion as its brand ambassadors. However, in the digital era, women of color are illuminating racism in the beauty business.
Kiara M. Childs, a graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, analyzes these dynamics in a 2022 article for Social Media + Society. Beauty culture devalues Black women as unattractive. This continues even as platforms like Instagram and YouTube enable the beauty industry to cultivate a cyberculture around brands, influencers, and consumers. However, Black women, both daily users and influencers, use these channels to challenge how the beauty industry promotes anti-black colorism while professing to support diversity.
5. Black Women Influencers Challenge Controlling Images
Sherri Williams, an Assistant Professor of Communication at American University, identifies the ways Black women use digital media to generate affirming self-representations in a 2021 Feminist Media Studies article. Black men comedians used drag to perpetuate stereotypes of angry, violent, unattractive, and intimidating plus-size Black women in the early 21st century.
Nowadays, content creators like Sesali Bowen, SheRea Del Sol, and Phalande Jean post on Instagram and Tumblr to promote body positivity online via self-presentations and creative work. Nevertheless, social media platforms disproportionately penalize Black women online via algorithmic oppression and cybercultural norms.