hair care style

I am NOT my hair….REVISITED at Kaya FM

About a year ago, I wrote this article on the politics of hair/authenticity/blackness etc for City Press. Its blurb went like Trudi Makhaya relaxes her hair, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t proud of who she is, which is true…
Perhaps what black women need to transcend is not just the Western beauty standard, but the politically correct one that shackles us to a provincial utopia.

Black men and women should constantly push the boundaries of what looking black, African and authentic means.

Not every alteration is harmful or driven by self-hate.
Two weeks ago, I revisited this subject with host John Perlman and all-round fabulous poet/student/woman Nova Masango. The podcast is here.

The show’s producer Ncebakazi Manzi shared her thoughts in a post (My hair is political) here. You can hear inputs from some of the show’s listeners on the podcast, but also at this facebook page.

City Press article

afro-chic creative economy style

On Beauty

Lupita Nyong’o on beauty:

And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no [consolation], she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. 
And then … Alek Wek. A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. My complexion had always been an obstacle to overcome and all of a sudden Oprah was telling me it wasn’t. It was perplexing and I wanted to reject it because I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy. But a flower couldn’t help but bloom inside of me, when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. But … to the courters that I thought mattered I was still unbeautiful. And my mother again would say to me you can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you and these words plagued and bothered me; I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume, it was something that I just had to be. 

As recorded by Essence.

afro-chic hair care style women

The ‘natural beauty’ myth

Source: City Press/Elizabeth Sejake

In last Sunday’s City Press (18 August), I have an opinion piece that argues that black women’s style choices should be limited by our imagination, not ideology. The article brought some heat to my otherwise cool twitter timeline.

I’d like to send a shout-out to two talented visual women – Maki Mashego, whose art work revived this line of thinking in me, and Elizabeth Sejake, who took amazing pictures of that work (and me in the background).

Unedited version of the piece:

I am about to take possession of a beautiful and moving work of art by a young artist named Maki Mashigo. This piece, one of a duo, titled Moriri 2, grapples with the dilemmas black women face as they respond to a generally exclusionary global beauty standard. In her artist’s statement, Ms Mashigo makes thought-provoking observations about hair practices as pseudo-religious acts that encompass both pain and celebration. Unfortunately, most commentators on this subject are not as sophisticated as Ms Mashigo.

Though I am at one with this sister in questioning the narrow and sometime dangerous beauty standard, I find that this discussion, especially as it relates to black women’s hairstyle choices, is biased towards a narrative of victimhood and inauthenticity even when this is not appropriate.

This brings me to a debate I stumbled into on Facebook about a year ago. Why are most black women aspiring to look white, my digital acquaintance had asked? He went on to list “weaves, bleach, cigarettes, heavy make-up, behaviour and twang” as manifestations of this quest for whiteness.

What should we make of those who try to tell women how they should look? Modern feminism, in all its waves, has struggled with the beauty question but has yet to resolve the issue adequately. Later generations were left with the impression that the classic brand of feminism was hostile to any expressions of femininity whatsoever. Later waves of feminism, such as lipstick feminism, tried face the issue head-on, but they were possibly not compelling enough.

And in this vacuum, predatory aspects of popular culture have seeped in. The media is littered with imagery that seeks to disempower women through impossible standards of appearance. Women are assaulted by an unsophisticated and vulgar privileging of youth at the expense of mature beauty and elegance. The arbiters of taste continue to set standards that are exclusionary and that reflect narrow, Western-based beauty ideals.

We are stuck. We know that the beauty and fashion industries often exploit female insecurity. Yet we also struggle to draw the line between the internalisation of such exploitation by women and the daily creative acts of women as they seek self-expression through style.

All this presents a particular conundrum for black women. Many modern black women do not only want to challenge the restrictive beauty standard but they also want to put forth their own vision of a contemporary black aesthetic.

Is telling black women to look ‘natural’ not as problematic as the imposition of the Western beauty standard?

Black women’s own vision of their style may include the employment of modern tools; some mechanical, some chemical.

The ‘back to nature’ call is not that different from messages that seek to strip black women of their femininity. By taking away flat irons, make-up, liposuction and other such tools from black women, we can keep our sisters as pure, uncorrupted mules of the earth whilst glamour is reserved for other racial groups. Those who want to keep black women invisible deploy this oppressive image of desexualised servitude to achieve their ends. Even in esteemed spaces such as Parliament, attempts are made to silence black women by scathing references to their hair and clothes.

Those who mourn the penetration of the beauty industry into black society yearn for some mythical natural state of times past. They attack black women who choose to have straight hair. They conflate benign stylistic choices with problematic ones irrespective of the nature of the technique, the motivations behind pursuing it or even the consequences. Lipstick, weaves, hair straighteners, skin lighteners, anorexia are all thrown into one pot.

One can quarrel with the ‘Western beauty standard’ but to prescribe a ‘natural African’ one is equally limiting. Though I would not advocate for self-hating mimicry, there should be nothing wrong in drawing elements from other cultures and countries in forming an aesthetic perspective.

I abhor the historical violent imposition of Western values on our communities. I can respect what Steve Biko and others like him were trying to achieve at the height of apartheid, when blackness was vilified. However pride in who I am does not mean that I must be insular and reject Western or other influences wholesale and for all time.

It is troubling to observe a discourse that tries to foist victimhood on black women even when they are clearly taking matters into their own hands. And yet, black women’s self-stylisation, if one bothers to actually look at black women, has little to do with whiteness as is often the accusation. For every Beyonce there is a Kelly Rowland; bless her, with her thin, long-haired, chocolate look that could be Lagosian or Jamaican or from Limpopo.

My digital acquaintance also argued that black men only ascribe to a ‘black’ physical standard, that they pick up their stylistic cues from other black men only. I don’t think it is factually correct that black men are blind to the world in their aesthetic choices. Further, picking up ideas on any subject from people who are like you to the exclusion of everyone else, is nothing to be proud of. Purity does not yield creativity, cross-fertilisation does.

The idea that black women let the side down for keeping with hair straighteners whereas black men rejected them a while back also seems bogus to me. There is a limit to male consumption of beauty products, be it hair products or face cream. I would argue that black men rejected hair straightening not because they are Afrocentric but because they are men. Hair straightening didn’t take off in much the same way that make-up for men won’t take off. Men of all races tend to look ‘natural’ and women tend to enhance their looks. This is not an outcome of racial pride by any particular group of men. This blandness we have to endure from our brothers of all races is possibly the price they have to pay for clinging to old fashioned views of masculinity.

Perhaps what black women need to transcend is not just the Western beauty standard but also the politically correct one that shackles us to a provincial utopia? Black men and women should constantly push the boundaries of what looking black/African/authentic means. Not every alteration is harmful or driven by self-hate.

City Press article

creative economy fashion style

Curiosity about oneself

Soon after flying into New York on Sunday, I headed to the Met for a talk featuring Iris Apfel – Good Taste/Bad Taste: The evolution of contemporary chic. This was very well attended, with Park Avenue matrons rubbing shoulders with minimally clad artists.

How does this woman do it? She is 90. She was recently the face of MAC lipstick. Her style has been the subject of an exhibition at the Costume Institute. She is certainly one of those women who inspire us to welcome the prospect of aging, gracefully, of course.

The talk also featured teenage blogger Tavi Gevinson. The discussion was wide-ranging and touched on how contemporary women experience fashion, beauty and style. Iris talked about how women have become fearful and desperate in their quest to look great. Some suffer from too much good taste and end up looking uptight (Kate Middleton was cited as one such character). At the other end of the spectrum are designers such as Prada, who made ugly cool, or Gaultier, with his 1993 collection of ‘rabbinic chic’, or Marc Jacobs with his grunge collection.

Personal style is curiosity about oneself, Iris quoted an unknown source. For Tavi, fashion is fantasy or building a force-field around oneself. Good fashion is good performance art. And yet, sadly, beauty has become a burdensome responsibility for a certain kind of woman, whereas style should be about freedom.

The old feminist debates endure (though Iris thinks most feminism was bunk). Perhaps the difference is that nowadays women pay for their own bondage.

Personal style is curiosity about oneself. I will hold on that.

Iris Apfel at home
Muse of New York
Advanced Style blog
Rookie Mag – Tavi Gevinson
Gaultier’s Rabbi Chic