I’m sure most women can relate to this constant quest to look good, but what is beauty — just what does looking good mean today? Considering this is Women’s Month in South Africa, I decided now was a good time to find out exactly what kind of woman I want to be.
During a recent visit to my hairdresser — I was there for a wash and blow — I chatted with some of the other women and was sadly reminded of the extent to which African women have become seduced by marketing gimmicks and narrow-minded messaging.
In front of me sat Jenna Samuels, with a look of agony on her face as the hairdresser tightly twisted her plaits. “Is this a regular thing for you,” I asked.
“It’s called suffering for beauty love; a girl’s gotta look good,” she said, smiling through the pain.
“But doesn’t your hair look good naturally?” I followed.
“Oh hell no,” she replied in Afrikaans. “Die kroes kop (this coarse hair)? Besides with so many ways and means to fix it up there’s no excuse for me to look bad, I mean look at Oprah, Tyra the whole world’s going sleek. People who are not with it need to be arrested for having bad hair.”
In South Africa, our appearance is an issue much greater than the physical. For us women of colour it is an issue of identity that can be traced back to our history. Before the liberation of the black man, white was the highest standard, thus white was beauty. A by-product of apartheid was that we were trained that white was always better. Today we don’t think this consciously, but it’s still there and it’s being reinforced in other, more subtle ways.
Today we have the “super model” and the wonderful and endless array of products which she markets in order to make us look more like her; perfect like her. Look at any ad and try and point out an imperfection somewhere on the model. Thing is, she likely has a zit or blemish in exactly the same spot I do, yet lighting, make-up and Photoshop hide it all. In all this, mass media is feeding us a powerful and dangerous message.
Another girl at the salon, Nstwaki Setloboko, loved my skin. She told me how she uses Pond’s cream to make hers lighter. “If skin lighteners were sold here, I’d be the first to buy them,” she said.
Bongo Kwatshub, another customer with fire-engine red hair, chimed into our conversation as she slowly flipped through an article listing tips on the best way to apply make-up. “Lighter skinned girls are prettier.”
I asked her why she thinks that. “I guess it’s the media,” she responded. “We are told that it is beautiful.”
But ladies, what are we trying to achieve with this sleek, straight, “white” hair and make-up? Just who do we want to be? Do we ever think we look good as we are, as we look naturally? I know I don’t, but I think it might be time to reconsider.
From hair to make-up, we women must see that we are constantly a target. And we buy it, hook, line and sinker. The uglier we feel (and are made to feel), the harder we try to make ourselves look (more) beautiful, the more money the big corporations make. Why do you think they use the most beautiful women in the world? Women, mind you, who are only the “most” beautiful because of the make-up artist, the hairdresser, the personal trainer, etc. Without their glam squad they look just like us.
So what’s happened is a new standard has been set in our era, most likely by a bunch of old, white guys who are now cashing in. They knew their history and saw a gap, aware that to men, women have always meant little more than how they look; and aware, too, that women always surrender to such fads. History is full of many strange examples that have been damaging to women, from Chinese foot binding to Victorian corsets to African lip plates. And the make-up, creams and other cosmetics of today are no less damaging – most of them are chock-full of harmful chemicals and cancer-causing agents.
It carries on from generation to generation – and today it’s about looking like a Hollywood starlet. There’s nothing worse than your man having a crush on Pamela Anderson; then you decide you want to look like her. And this is what big corporations count on. Want to be thinner? We’ve got slim shake! Want round eyes? We’ve got a kit which will give your eyes the perfect shape and help you create that “smokey” look. Does this sound familiar? As easy as that they’ve got us, with the picture of that perfect model in the ad.
This Women’s Month I have a challenge for us women. I dare us to push the refresh button and take our beauty into our own hands. We can start by looking in the mirror every day and appreciating the natural beauty we see in front of us. We should not have to put on new faces to be beautiful.
I am beautiful with my stretch marks that signify the physical, emotional and mental growth I’ve experienced over the years and the beautiful children I carried. I am beautiful because my luscious, coarse curls feel soft and light and look gorgeous. It draws attention to my beautiful brown skin as I walk into a room filled with other make-up painted faces. I am beautiful because I am me, I may not be who you want me to be. And I will not be who you tell me to be. I am who I am and that is just perfect by me.
Editors note: Nicola Daniels is a writer with the Afrikaans paper Sondag Son. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service.Post published in: Opinions