Am I What You're Looking For?

Endia Beal's powerful photographs record young, educated black women who are about to enter the workforce for the first time.

|
Aug 19 2016, 12:00am

This story appeared in the August issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

There's a moment in Beyoncé's music video for "Formation" when Blue Ivy, cherubic, looks right into the camera as her mother sings definitively that she prefers her "baby heir with baby hair and Afros." It is a deeply political statement. Beyoncé, arguably the greatest professional entertainer of our time, chooses to love her blackness. And she chooses to love Blue Ivy's blackness, as well as her own, by publicly embracing an aesthetic. Throughout "Formation," she pays homage to the multiplicity of black women's hairstyles: The video notably shows black women with epic triple topknots, braided chignons, braided crowns. A wig shop is prominently featured. "Formation" is about looking black and that being beautiful.

At the end of the 18th century in Louisiana, black Creole women were subject to laws criminalizing their apparently ostentatious beauty, unacceptable to the white women around them. The "tignon" laws mandated that these women cover their hair with a head wrap—or be thrown in jail. The women complied, but they proceeded to beautify their wraps; a law criminalizing someone for being too beautiful while also being black is going to be ineffective for obvious reasons. Historian Carolyn Long notes that "instead of being considered a badge of dishonor, the tignon... became a fashion statement. The bright [colors] of the scarves, and the imaginative wrapping techniques employed by their wearers, are said to have enhanced the beauty of the women of color." It's no coincidence that "Formation" embraces the singer's Creole heritage and draws on how black women's aesthetics have always been a site for resistance.

How we look continues to be a flashpoint for racism. Beyoncé, having built an empire, has more power than most to speak back to the American tradition of devaluing black women's appearances. But for most, in the workplace and other institutional settings—particularly corporate environments—we must don a metaphoric tignon. We shed the clothes and accessories that make us feel like us in order to better fit in. It's assumed that "professional" in many ways means white. Everywhere—from within the United States military, to retail environments like Abercrombie and Zara, to professional sports (remember those Don Imus comments? The Gabby Douglas fiasco?), to lawyers in the courtroom—black women's hairstyles and other aesthetic choices have repeatedly been marked as unprofessional or problematic.

Photographer Endia Beal grapples with these questions and more in her photo series "Am I What You're Looking For?" Beal records young, educated black women who are about to enter the workforce for the first time. She poses the women in their family homes, in front of a photo backdrop of an office space where she formerly worked. According to Beal, she positioned the women "between the worlds of identity and conformity"—they are anticipating the obstacles they might encounter on their career path because they are black women who look like black women. For the project, Beal's subjects dress themselves in what they consider to be ideal professional attire, and she asks them mock interview questions.

The resulting conversation forces them to confront the emotional prospect that, in fact, they may not fit into the idealized vision of a "professional" woman. The series includes women who bare midriffs in tailored crop tops; women with visible tattoos; women with twinned, voluminous, gravity-defying Afros; women wearing extensions or weaves; women with long Senegalese twists. "Am I What You're Looking For?" honors a constellation of black women's aesthetics, and the conceptual through line is hair, a topic Beal has documented in the past. Her 2013 photo series "Can I Touch It?"—an eye-catching project depicting middle-aged white women in traditionally black hairstyles and pantsuits—went viral.

The range of emotions depicted in Beal's work belies the subjective experience of workplace discrimination. Some of the women look defiantly into the camera; others are less certain of themselves. The women are of some privilege, which is clear from their middle-class family homes, but the relative privilege they enjoy is not enough to shield them from the universality of misogynoir. Beal, who received an MFA from Yale, offers a bittersweet reflection on black women's reality as professionals—perhaps a proxy documentation of her own experience in the very office that serves as the backdrop of the series.

Beal, a professor of art at Winston-Salem State, was inspired in part by the young women in her classroom. "I found that my students were coming to me with the same concerns that I experienced in a corporate setting," she told me. Generations of black women have experienced the same thing in the workplace; Beal wants to interrupt the cycle. "I had the women stand in front of the same office hallway I walked down every day, feeling like I was the other in that space," she said. "I use art as a vehicle to deal with what I'm going through emotionally." Beal hopes that the experience will help the young women to feel emotionally supported as well, adding somewhat maternally, "When you make something together, it brings you closer.

This work was produced with funds provided by Magnum Foundation.

More VICE
Vice Channels