I like beautifying myself. I know that people give me preferential treatment because of it. People hold doors open for me, listen a little more intently, and stare a bit longer on the street. Do I spend too much time on my wardrobe? Probably. I know how to slay a mean lip colour. African prints are often my first choice. I’ve been known to wear a bow tie or two. I obsess over re-applications of my powder foundation and often feel like a rigorous study session cannot begin without cleverly painted nails.
But then the danger is not being taken seriously. If you’re introverted, as I am, and don’t always care to engage in conversation, one can come across as conceited or not particularly bright. I also know that I’ve judged other womyn for being exceptionally “pretty” and also quiet. I have made the assumption that, maybe there wasn’t much there.
“Do you just know how to put colours together?”
At a recent spoken word performance I did, the emcee (with whom I had just spent the past two weeks in a writing workshop) described me as “really stylish” in my intro. And then proceeded to describe my different fashion choices throughout the week. This was followed by a joke that she would make me a fashion editor for her dream fashion magazine. In a casual conversation at this same workshop, another participant randomly asked: “Do you just know how to put colours together?” I passive-aggressively changed the topic, suddenly becoming shy at the attention. Throughout the workshop, participants commented on my array of elaborate necklaces. And I don’t mind these compliments. Really, I don’t. I put a lot of thought into my appearance, and it’s nice to be recognised for it. But I also see the danger in them becoming the primary way I am identified and taken up in important capital “F” Feminist political spaces.
And this conversation matters because I am a darker skinned chubby faced, Akan-profiled, nappy-headed, curvy, young woman. I have had to do a lot of work to see myself as beautiful. And not in that “we are all beautiful, love yourself” kind of way. But, to really learn which colours, dress-styles, necklines, and hairstyles work for my body type and bone structure. In fact, I often feel that these growing self-love movements do us a disservice by not engaging the practice of dressing to compliment one’s particular proportions. Sure I want to love me on the inside, but I refuse to believe that because I don’t look like Becky, I can’t get my swag on. And I suspect, in large part, that is why my sisters in the workshop appreciated my fashion sense. Because they are also black and brown womyn who often do not see their images reflected back to them, even in their own countries.
African Female Respectability Politics
But still, I worry about how my neon green, purple accented A-line dress makes me look walking into government buildings, or paying parking tickets at the local courthouse. (Granted, not enough to make me change. Besides, it’s usually too late by the time I become self-conscious.) In my community, black girls had to walk a fine line between being pretty/stylish and being smart. Too much of the former sealed your fate as vain and likely not very bright; too much of the latter made you undesirable to boys.
I grew up in working class black immigrant neighbourhoods in Toronto as a second-generation Ghanaian-Canadian. Bright colours would abound, both in clothing and hair weaves. Elaborate braid patterns and flashy shoes and jewellery were in abundance. But in my mother’s house, we were clear that these fashion choices were not to be made. Of course, we were still quite fashionable kids. But we just knew that certain shades of green, red or orange would be met with a resounding disapproval and judgment. Loud colours were for uneducated Jamaicans from Kingston. Bright Skittles-coloured weaves were for African-American girls on BET. Gold nose rings and bamboo earrings were for Caribbean teen mothers with no guidance. Even now, my mother’s heartbreaks when she sees my not-so-subtle nose piercings and random strip of blonde hair in my Grace Jones fade. She cannot fathom that a PhD student could present herself in such a crass, uncultured way. I have to say, I am also amazed at my bravery. Looking at my childhood, one could never have predicted my fashion choices today -not even me. (Certainly not my septum.) These were things (‘modernised’) African girls simply did not do.
Essentially, what I am referring to is a kind of African/Black female respectability politics, which dictates to womyn and girls how to exist in the world. Our fashion choices become representative of our moral character, sexual behaviour and life potential. Our ability to pass through our wardrobe is the difference between girls who are “wifey material” and girls who are just THOTs.
Even my seemingly unhealthy amount of selfies on social media serve a political purpose. As a young black grad student in an all-white town, I spend a lot time alone. Both the solitary nature of grad school and the isolation of London, Ontario means that I can sometimes go a week without human interaction. A person can forget they even exist in this environment. Selfies help me remember that I am here, alive in this body. And, that I matter. The secondary function of my selfie obsession is to document my life. My fashion choices are an expression of who and where I am in my life. As someone who advocates for the importance of African womyn’s narratives, I believe each picture I take adds to my story. It may sound silly, but I have a deep and profound relationship with my lipsticks, eye shadows, and bracelets. (Ghanaian Krobo beads are my current signature, by the way.) In the spirit of disrupting white supremacist patriarchy, I experiment with different shades that compliment my dark-skin tone. I do not buy into the hype that darker-skinned black womyn cannot wear bright colours.
Tone down for what?
I have carried this balancing act well into my twenties. My style is deliberate, conscious and deeply political. But the truth of it is this: there was a time in my life when I took myself entirely too seriously. When I allowed my conceptualisation of the “feminist majority” to dictate what I could and could not wear. That wearing bright orange lipstick was the shit white girls and “ghetto” girls did.
And still this politics of “being pretty” haunts me. Too often, I wonder if I need to tone it down when attending supervisory meetings or academic conferences. Do I need to wear more neutral colours to be taken seriously as a young black African woman in the academy? Should I wear only a couple of Maasai bracelets instead of my usual 5-7 (on each wrist)? But then I am reminded of radical femme activists like Kim Crosby who say her makeup is her war paint in this patriarchal and sexist world, that womyn are damned either way for not fitting some arbitrary standards, that beautification and adornment are all ancient practices in our indigenous communities, and that Black womyn already start at a deficit on the white supremacist beauty scale, that centuries of being misrepresented, desexualised or hypersexualised still haunts us. And that somewhere in Lagos, Toronto, Kampala, Nairobi, there is a little girl being convinced her skin is too dark, her nose too broad and hair too nappy. That I can wear mascara and talk world politics at the same damn time. That I can ball freshly painted nails into black power fists. That there is a need to reclaim adornment for Black womyn. In other words, tone down for what?