Simamkele Dlakavu chose three accomplished women to have a conversation about the politics of aesthetics and what informs their choices.
We live in a world that is shaped by binary thinking, and this is nowhere evident as when it comes to the societal prescriptions placed on women. In this world of binaries, women cannot be multiple things at once. This is especially true when it comes to thinking about aesthetics and beauty particularly with most brilliant women who occupy powerful roles in politics, business, civil society, academia and the arts.
There are often sentiments that these women should not embrace their beauty, and interests in the aesthetics of make-up, hair and fashion because of the social and professional consequences tied to it. In this view, brilliant, intelligent, beautiful and stylish are not words that can describe a single woman because of sexist societal standards dictate that women can be either or and not both.
To attest to this, renowned author; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in her piece Why Can't a Smart Woman Love Fashion, how for a long time she did not wear makeup or dresses because she wanted to be taken seriously as a writer:
“A good publisher had bought my novel. I was 26 years old. I was eager to be taken seriously. And so began my years of pretense. I hid my high heels. I told myself that orange, flattering to my skin tone, was too loud. That my large earrings were too much. I wore clothes I would ordinarily consider uninteresting, nothing too bright or too fitted or too unusual. I made choices thinking only about this: How should a serious woman writer be? I didn't want to look as if I tried too hard. I also wanted to look older. Young and female seemed to me a bad combination for being taken seriously.”
Now as an older and accomplished writer, she says “I no longer pretend not to care about clothes. Because I do care”. Adichie advocates for women to own all aspects of themselves, including what they wear and which colour lipstick they put on. In her wonderful conversation with fellow globally accomplished black female author Zadie Smith, Adichie said this: “I have also admired that she's this brilliant woman who is also a hot babe”. She further emphasised that “I think it's very important that brilliant women step out there to be hot babes”.
I am surrounded by young accomplished women whom I consider to be smart, brilliant and “hot babes” who are generally SLAVING in various industries and sectors. In powerful feminist acts, these young women own their complex identities and are claiming their spaces. I took to them, to have a conversation about the politics of aesthetics and what informs their choices. The first was Panashe Chigumadzi, the editor and founder Vanguard Magazine; the second was Danielle Bowler, musician, Mandela Rhodes Scholar and columnist. And lastly, Lebohang Nova Masango, writer, poet and activist. These young women are powerful because they don't let society dictate what and who they should be and they refuse to be confined and boxed.
Chingumandzi says that from her experience in corporate South Africa “there is that pressure to show that you are serious” and that one needs to have a “very polished look”. However what is deemed as “polished” is not neutral and means a “more Anglo-Saxon appearance”. Chingumadzi explains that when she tried to be more reflective of her African grounding in style, in corporate South Africa, her attempt was “always a very tempered, a carefully considered African style”. Because of the unaccommodating nature of corporate South Africa one is “a bit self-conscious when you wear your Afro, you have to tame your Afro”.
On the other hand, Bowler finds the “idea that you can't share intellectual ideas in a crop top” problematic. She states that she used to wear a lot of blazers, in order to “package (her) smarteness” as well as to try “smarten up”. Now, she says, “if you hire me, you'll hire my political analysis and a crop top”.
“I'm gonna rise, and look fresh”.
Beauty is not the be all and end all
As rightly emphasised by Adichie, beauty is and should “not be a centralising organising principle in my life” and it's dangerous for it to be. There can be an unjust pressure placed on women by society and themselves to be perfect. As “Queen Bey”, aka Beyonce, sings in “Pretty Hurts”, women will alter their image, go through multiple physical surgeries and diets in order to fit into the mould of what society thinks is “pretty”, “hot” and “beautiful”, while their talents, intellect and values are unembraced. Women are encouraged to “dumb down” and “act pretty”. Young beautiful women should be encouraged to place value in all their complex identities, including their thoughts and ideas. In the pressure to be beautiful, Chingumandzi admits that she can get a little obsessed about how she looks, “especially from a body perspective”. And that she has to remind [herself] that “Dude, you are not paid to look good”. Agreeing with the point, Bowler states that as a self-reflective and intellectual young woman, she is always having conversations with herself about being herself. Conversations such as “Beauty is not the beginning and end of everything… and your body is not a constant struggle”.
For Nova, her feelings on beauty are inspired by a quote by Warsan Shire: “It's not my responsibility to be beautiful, I'm not alive for that purpose. My existence isn't about how desirable you find me”.
Therefore when she cares for herself and about her appearance, when she puts on that outfit, when she chooses her tattoos or piercings, those choices are only for herself because “I am not responsible for the fact that you think I'm beautiful”.
Self-care is a political act
Adichie recently said “I am generally admiring of women who like themselves and who wish other women well and who do their part in working for a more just world”. These young women are exactly that. Women liking themselves, taking care of their bodies, caring about the way they look, caring about pretty clothes (or not) and make-up goes beyond the aesthetic, it is a political act and showcase of self-love.
The true definition of a feminist: owning oneself and one's body. I am proud to know that young women now see that they don't have to be either smart or beautiful, that they are whole beings and they can be it all in whatever size, colour, shape and so forth that they come in.
* Simamkele Dlakavu is a 22-year-old story-teller and social activist. She works as a human rights television producer and has worked on shows for eNCA and the BBC. She holds a BA degree in International Relations and Political Studies and Honours in Political Studies from Wits University.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.