This was the point, my dad once told me, that I knew you were interested in women.
I was 6 years old, waiting for a haircut from our regular barber, Clarence. (To this day, I don’t know Clarence’s last name. He is my Cher.) My older brother and I took out about 20 of the pocket-sized weekly magazines, lined them up in a row and flipped each to Page 43 — it was almost always Page 43. We probably didn’t even need the table of contents; we knew exactly what we were looking for.
We found out on our own that we liked girls right there in between the pages of Jet magazine, in “Beauty of the Week.”
On April 9, Johnson Publishing Co., which published Jet magazine and its sister publication Ebony magazine from the 1940s until 2016, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Illinois, effectively ending the black-centric publisher’s 77-year run.
In 2016, Johnson Publishing sold Jet and Ebony to private equity firm Clear View Group. Last week’s filing will not affect either of those publications. Nevertheless, the fate of Johnson Publishing brought back thoughts of “Beauty of the Week,” which placed just ahead of professional wrestling and Power Rangers on the Family Feud-like board of my pastimes.
Your level of fondness for “Beauty of the Week,” the magazine’s famous section dedicated to black women decked out in swimsuits, depends on your perspective.
For some black men, it was somewhere between adoration of the black female body … and Lawd Have Mercy. Whether on the bus, in the barbershop, on the end table at your grandmother’s house or even in prison cells, from teenagers to middle-aged men, some among us went straight to the centerfold of Jet as soon as we set our eyes on the pint-size glossy cover. Black boys and men (and women, too) ogled the pretty brown-skinned women with the voluptuous curves and breathtaking smiles. And while it wasn’t Penthouse or Maxim’s Hot 100, Johnson Publishing exploited black bodies and sexuality, sometimes printing photos that straddled the line between tasteful and lustful.
At the same time, “Beauty of the Week” brought black female bodies into the mainstream, said Cornell University professor Noliwe M. Rooks, whose research focuses on beauty, race and fashion. As a pushback against pinup girls in other magazines of the early 20th century, Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson created a domain for black women and their sexuality. These images were a sharp contrast to the all-white bodies presented in other publications. And though Jet was never known for featuring plus-size women, its models came in different colors, sizes and shapes — the antithesis of the blond bombshell.
“They’re not stick figures,” Rooks said.
Stick figures they were not. At the time, I was way too young to understand the meaning of sex or even what it was, but I could somehow recognize black beauty (among other things) and how it differed from other suggestive images on television. Sure, there were the hidden dirty magazines around the shop of my dad’s trucking company, or the always-weakened-signaled Channels 32 and 33 on the “black box,” but I just knew there was something different about the women on the 5 1/8-by-7 3/8-inch pieces of paper.
Former Jet editor-in-chief Mira Lowe came to the publication during its twilight in 2007 but grew up reading the magazine, admiring the risks Johnson Publishing was willing to take with black women featured so prominently on its covers and throughout its pages. Before Jet and Ebony, black women simply didn’t appear on magazine covers. Vogue (1974), Glamour (1968), Life (1969) and Playboy (1971) didn’t put black women on their covers until almost 20 years after Jet’s first issue in 1951.
“Jet helped with the penetration in the black community,” Lowe said. “[It] laid the groundwork and was the pioneer to what we see today in mainstream magazines.”
Dudley Brooks, who was Jet and Ebony’s photo director from 2007 to 2014, said Jet was forward-thinking at the time in choosing to showcase black women in a way they hadn’t been before.
The early incarnation of “Beauty of the Week” debuted in 1952 in the centerfold. One of the first models was Florida-born Ruth King, who was working a clerical job in a New York City court when she appeared in the Aug. 14 issue. As would come to be Jet’s trademark, King’s full-page portrait was accompanied by a short bio and body size measurements that Sir Mix-a-Lot would rap about some 40 years later.
Outside of King, it wasn’t just aspiring models looking to be the next “It” girl appearing in “Beauty of the Week.” There were women majoring in speech at historically black colleges and universities, beauty consultants from California, and aspiring politicians and musicians. There was Beverly the waitress, Denise the inhalation therapist and Noni, who liked to deep-sea fish and Jet Ski. These women were everyday girls who were given the opportunity to show the world what “normal” looks like.
But there were also those who used “Beauty of the Week” as a launching pad. Former television personality and author Janet Langhart Cohen graced the section in 1966. She told Jet in 1986 that it’s “where I got my start.” Ja’net Dubois, who played wisecracking neighbor Willona Woods on Good Times, appeared in 1977. The most famous of the bunch was blaxploitation film actress Pam Grier, who was set to star in 1971’s The Big Doll House when she posed for the magazine in a two-piece bathing suit in Chicago.
“I think it was just after I finished Black Mama White Mama, and things were starting to blow up, and they said, ‘You’ve got to do Jet and Ebony,’ ” Grier told The Undefeated in 2016. “You can see I am so rough. I just seemed not like the beauties of today: toned and tanned and shiny. I was ashy, no makeup, my hair was all over the place.”
While “Beauty of the Week” was an opportunity to uplift and portray black women in a non-disrespectful manner, at the end of the day it was what it was.
“It was eye candy,” said Brooks, now the deputy director of photography at The Washington Post. “Things that used to be considered normal or accepted widely years ago move on.”
The women, for the most part, were photographed solely in swimsuits and, from 1959-93, were accompanied by their body measurements.
The photos have been called a “quick dose of random, incongruous cheesecake” meant to offset the more serious news stories in the magazine, no more obvious than in 1955 when Jet published the gruesome images from Emmett Till’s funeral just 26 pages ahead of 15-year-old Judith Stewart in a two-piece bathing suit.
The merits of presenting black women in next to no clothing can be argued every day of the week, but, at the same time, the editors and art directors appeared ahead of their time in the mid-20th century, showcasing women of various skin tones, waist sizes and hair lengths. A 2011 research study found that Jet presents “a larger female body size ideal … contrary to mainstream Caucasian media’s practices,” which may reflect a “broader definition of female attractiveness.” From Saartjie Baartman to former first lady Michelle Obama to Serena Williams, black women’s bodies have been ridiculed, mocked and simultaneously ignored for centuries, but Jet (and older publications such as Tan) had the audacity to put black women front and center for the world to see.
There’s not much I remember about my childhood. I vaguely recall learning to ride my bike or almost getting lost at a Six Flags theme park or dressing up for Halloween. But “Beauty of the Week” is one of those things that sits in the back of your memory, never being forgotten. I haven’t picked up a physical copy of the magazine since the early 2000s, but I can envision being in my grandparents’ living room as everyone else watched television, wading through the first 42 pages of the latest Jet, anticipating which pretty woman I’d get to see that week, like an adult L.O.L. Surprise! doll box. (Jet switched to a digital-only operation in 2014 and hasn’t posted a “Beauty of the Week” on its website in more than a year.)
When I was commissioned to write this story, I was told by my editor to keep it classy and tasteful. But crossing that line never crossed my mind. “Beauty of the Week” didn’t make me the man I am today, in that clichéd kind of way, but I can say without a doubt that it helped me learn to appreciate and respect black women and their bodies.
And now, the dissolution of Johnson Publishing means a part of Jet’s soul is gone forever.
And with it, a part of my adolescence.