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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

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