Want to Fight Sexism? Don’t Eschew Beauty — Embrace It!

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Nigerian feminist and author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, hits the nail on the head, again!  This isn’t the first time I’ve brought her up.  You may recall that I wrote about this in a recent post,  Stand Beautiful on Feminism — For More Reasons Than You Think.

And this past week I brought her up again.  I had the privilege of speaking a lovely and brilliant group of people: the Professional Beauty Association.  While the topic of the conversation was tapping our innate creativity, there was NO WAY I wasn’t going to reference points of view of, examples of and my own stories around beauty.  One such example was Boots No.7’s recent partnership with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi.  I chose this story to point out how all brands, especially beauty brands, can have a bigger purpose than the just selling products. For Boots No7, make-up is a way for women to “speak louder.”  Who better to represent that thought than the brilliant, make-up wearing author?!

But the real reason this gorgeous and brilliant spokesperson is top of mind for me has to do with a recent interview of her I read in the New York Times.  In it she explains how she felt very comfortable in her native Nigerian expressing her beauty. But when she started moving in Western Circles she was worried she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she wore make-up and embraced her femininity with high heels or womanly clothing.  At first she succumbed to those fears and stopped wearing make-up.   But then she got her mojo back and went back to embracing her love for beauty.

More interestingly is her take on WHY we deem such behaviors — donning cosmetics, feminine clothing and high heels, as frivolous in the first place.  She attributes this disdain not on feminism but sexism! Here’s how she puts it:

“It’s about a culture that diminishes women. The things we traditionally think of as masculine are not things our culture dismissed as frivolous. Sports, for example, we think of as masculine. It’s something that our culture takes quite seriously. … I think it’s part of a larger picture of a world that simply doesn’t give women the same status that it gives men.”

Aha!  This reminds me of a post I wrote a number of years ago, When Goddesses Ruled. I tried to explain our culture’s discomfort with beauty.  Here’s what I wrote:

What explains this discomfort with beauty in our culture? I’ve spoken about the strong influence of Calvinistic doctrine that emphasizes productivity over sensual pursuits and the Puritanical aversion to Catholicism’s appreciation for the aesthetic (see Beauty is Beautiful).  And as women have fought to gain equality over the past few decades, they have sometimes felt the need to purposefully push “traditional” behaviors (like beautification) aside for more male ones, e.g. playing sports or working on Wall Street.

Here’s yet another explanation.  In “Look at My Ugly Face!”, Sara Halprin, psychologist, author, and documentary film-maker explains that in ancient societies, “women’s procreative power was understood to be linked to all sorts of creative abilities.”  Goddesses ruled!  But as men took on the claim of being the “creative ones,” and the more powerful of the two genders (and also more violent and competitive), around 4,000 years ago ,the biological act of childbearing, along with female sexuality and appearance, was downplayed.  Women’s sexuality had to be “visibly harnessed to the service” of men. “To justify the subjugation of women,” she continues, “her beauty was viewed with profound ambivalence, as a threat, a danger, as evidence of impurity, and at the same time, as the sole justification of a woman’s existence.”

Finally, Halprin points out how, up until recently, women were expected to be obedient to men and their beauty served as decorative support to their husbands.  Ironically though, women also ‘suffer from being perceived as dangerous to men…a woman’s beauty is associated with her sexual appeal and sex is viewed with suspicion by patriarchal society.”

As I examine my thoughts from the past and Ngozi Adichi’s words, I can’t help but think that NOT embracing our beauty is our giving in to social pressures and the ideals of masculinity over femininity.  Of course I believe we all should decide for ourselves what femininity looks like but all I can say is we shouldn’t shun it but rather relish in it.

Stand Beautiful on Feminism — For More Reasons Than You Think

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Lots of wonderful buzz this week about female empowerment, especially amongst us nasty women ;).  The election has certainly heightened our awareness, emotions and convictions around this topic.

But there was another piece of news on this topic that had nothing to do with elections.  Instead it had to do with an unlikely new “face” for a beauty brand: Nigerian author and feminist speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie .  She is the new spokesperson for Boots No.7.  According a statement emailed to Mashable, Adichi feels “women use cosmetics to be ready for something: to show up, speak up, and make an impact in their world in their own way.”  For her make-up isn’t a tool to hide women’s power and turn them into sexual objects.  Rather it is a wonderful source of transformation, confidence and power.  What’s better, she gets to the heart of the matter and addresses the seeming conflict of being a feminist who loves make-up.  She reveals that she shied away from make-up at one point so as not to be deemed frivolous.  But this wasn’t her true self.  It was only when she gained a greater sense of confidence that she chose to go back to wearing make-up again. Check it out in this great new video.

While we may have heard similar statements in the past about the powerful role of cosmetics, to have such a powerful voice speak about her appreciation for cosmetics is new.  And then to take such a strong stance by associating herself with a brand in such a way is even more surprising.  I applaud her for fighting against the typical rhetoric that claims enhancing our beauty is wasteful at best or degrading at worst.

But I would interpret the empowering nature of cosmetics and skin care in another important way too.  Beyond how skin care or make-up make us look, think about what the actual process of engaging with it does to ourselves.  Sure, there are the usual mini frustrations of a wobbly eyeliner lid or a spilled nail polish bottle.  But most of time, the ritual of applying these lotions and potions or colors and creams, is deep.  I wrote about this a few years back in a few different posts: Another Powerful Role for Cosmetics & One More Minute Please I explained that the very act of pampering or applying skin care and make-up allows us to gift ourselves a form of, in what my good friend and Anthropologist, Tom Maschio calls, “self-care.”

Here’s how I described it in then:

When we touch, caress, adorn and pamper our bodies, we are connecting with them and, eventually, our spirits too. Caring for our bodies is soothing and uplifting at the same time.

Our bodies aren’t detached objects just to be prepared for public appearance but, rather, are inextricably linked to the self.  And every part of the body — appendage, organ, secretion, etc., function together harmoniously. Beautification, i.e., the act of massaging, applying, fixing, plucking, whatever the actual activity, isn’t just a means to an end but an act of health care and self-love.

So, for all of us women –and men included –who enjoy adding some scent, sparkle, color or plumpness to our appearances, remember that it not only boosts our confidence but it gives us a spiritual high too.  It helps us connect to our bodies — to admire them, care for them, energize or calm them and, ultimately, connect with them.    And if loving and caring for our bodies doesn’t lead to feeling empowered, I don’t know what does!