The ‘natural beauty’ myth

2013-08-18 10:00

Trudi Makhaya relaxes her hair, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t proud of who she is.

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, Mashigo makes thought-provoking observations about hair practices as pseudoreligious acts that encompass both pain and celebration.

Unfortunately, most commentators on this subject are not as sophisticated.

I stumbled upon a debate on Facebook about a year ago where a digital acquaintance asked: Why are most black women aspiring to look white?

He went on to list “weaves, bleach, cigarettes, heavy make-up, behaviour and twang” as manifestations of this quest.

But 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, including “lipstick feminism”, tried to face the issue head-on, but were possibly not compelling enough. In this vacuum, predatory aspects of popular culture seep 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 reflect narrow, Western-based ideas of beauty.

We know the beauty and fashion industries exploit female insecurity.

Yet we struggle to draw the line between this and the daily creative acts of women as they seek self-expression through style.

All this presents a conundrum for black women.

Many modern black women do not only want to challenge the restrictive beauty standard, but 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 while 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 through scathing references to hair and clothes.

Those who mourn the beauty industry’s penetration into black society conflate benign stylistic choices with problematic ones, irrespective of the nature of the technique, the motivation behind it or even the consequences.

Lipstick, weaves, skin lighteners, hair straighteners, anorexia?.?.?.?all are thrown into one pot.

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.

But pride in who I am does not mean 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 Beyoncé there is a Kelly Rowland.

Bless her, with her thin, long-haired, chocolate look that could be from Lagos, Jamaica or Limpopo.

My digital acquaintance also argued that black men only ascribe to a “black” physical standard, picking up their stylistic cues from other black men only.

But I don’t think black men are blind to the world in their aesthetic choices.

This idea that black women let the side down with hair straighteners 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 reject 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 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.

»?Makhaya is relaxed about hair – and relaxes her hair. She blogs at

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