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Beauty is…cultural transformation and empowerment

Saturday 3 May 2014

Michelle Yaa Asantewa

2014-05-01, Issue 676

The new film looks at a range of themes and through a variety of formats examines its central question of what beauty is for the African woman At the screening of ‘Beauty Is…’ on 26 April at SOAS, University of London, someone asked whether there was a need for this film – perhaps even the debate. Responses by the audience and the panel were unanimous that such a film was very much needed. The two-hour long documentary, directed by community activist and educator Toyin Agbetu of Ligali is part of an international campaign to raise awareness and implement solutions to some of the issues it covers. These include the effects of skin bleaching, hair burns and media misrepresentation. The film asks the philosophical question about what beauty is, continuing a long discussion about the economical, emotional, psychological and political impact perceptions of beauty have on African people.

Before I changed my focus to African centred spirituality, I had planned to do my undergraduate dissertation on the topic of black female beauty and identity. This was sparked by my return to Guyana in 1995. I was sporting a number one hair cut (‘boys cut,’ as they called it). A cousin, whom I hadn’t seen for 15 years declared that ‘hair is your beauty: what are you doing to your race.’ She was so strong in her view that I wanted to explore the idea of beauty being connected to identity. I organised a focus group, which included about 10 family members and friends, all women to discuss themes of beauty, particularly hair, and skin complexion that concerned African women (at that time I used “black” women instead of the more accurate ‘African’). That was nearly 20 years ago.

The outcome of the discussion I had with women back then has not changed much. A newer element of weaving and skin bleaching dominate the discussion, as presented in ‘Beauty Is…’ but the content then, as now was focussed on: ‘light skinned’ versus ‘dark’ – for which terms like ‘colorism,’ ‘shadism’ and ‘pigmentocracy’ are applied as well as complexes about hair texture, length, natural versus ‘processed’ and so on. Many African women can recall that the desire to have long hair was simulated by wearing and flicking a towel on our heads. As featured in the film most of us went through various transitions with our hair: perming – curly/wet look, ‘relaxed’ (meaning straightened); extensions (including weave-ons) braiding, locking and other natural styles.

The film was ambitiously broad, looking at a range of themes and through a variety of formats to examine its central question of what beauty is. Though there were elements that hinted at similarities with Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair,’ this was very much a UK based production. There was an impressive array of contributors in the film including a pharmacist, dermatologist, UK Trading Standards representative, photographer, natural hair care specialists, hair stylists, beautician, political scholar, community activists, cultural ‘edutainers’, school teachers, artist and a doll manufacturer. I list these to stress the extent of the research that must have gone into producing the film to give it far reaching appeal. Despite this variety of contributors I think a counsellor or psychologist might have been included to share their expertise of the deeper psychological effects of aspiring to ideals of beauty that have their basis in Eurocentricism and the correlative inferiority complex of Africans. This is the subject of Joy De Gruy’s book ‘Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.’ Of course, to go there more deeply would require much more time, as was proven by the extended Q&A discussion following the film. The political and economic impact of buying beauty was emphasised, however. One of the sketches was of a young mother who had fallen into debt but still gave priority to maintaining her weave. There was no critical reflection on the part of the young woman about her need to have the weave over economic stability. African women both in the UK and US are the largest consumers of beauty and hair care products, supporting an image industry worth billions and in which very few businesses are African owned.

An opening sketch showed a discussion between ‘boyz’ in a changing room. The banter between them moved from entertaining –subtly sexist and machismo to a near punch up because one of the ‘boyz’ was aggressively vocal about his preference for light skinned women (and the concurrent brown babies that this implied). As the discussion became heated he insulted one of the ‘boyz’ by boldly asserting his girlfriend was ugly just because of her dark complexion. In the sketch he was eventually ostracised and left alone to ponder his thinking and sense of perspective. It’s a shame the film didn’t return to the sketch to explore how the young man might have revisited his views. However, the documentary continued this theme through the format of barbershop ‘reasonings’ in which African men gave their views about what kind of African women they preferred.

Some contributors in this section expressed that they respected and were attracted to women who were confident in themselves. It was noted too that a number of dark skinned African men (‘9 times out of 10 if not 10 times out of 10’) preferred light skinned women. The film didn’t explore the possible reverse of this whereby some dark skinned women preferred light-skinned men. Or rather the question didn’t seem to be addressed in the same way by the women in their focus groups, for which the caption was ‘discussion’ compared to the ‘reasoning’ of the men. It might have been interesting to have a joint focus group of men and women so that if both were honest they could exchange their perceptions about each other. There was a tendency for women to be defined by men in the process. For example, one discussant in the women’s focus group explained that her choice (to wear natural hair or processed) was due to what she believed was male preference. She felt that men should tell women they prefer them to look natural. This is another layer of internalising the problem of self-image and identity, subjugating women to the ideals of men.

The structure of the film – opening the issues for discussion and allowing the contributors to give their personal and collective views without a narrator’s interpretation – didn’t challenge this sexism. The sketch with dolls is particularly memorable because I thought it was a good medium to engage young people in the debate. The ‘women/girls’ (African and European inspired dolls) were in the end competing for the attention of a male (muscled, brown) doll, thereby reinforcing definitions of beauty and identity through men. Although the point was being made that he went against the expectation (that he might choose the European ‘doll’) he instead chose the African doll, removing the false hair she had tried to wear to fit in with the other dolls. For me, this maintained a level of sexism.

The women of the main focus group described their journeys with their hair – one young woman expressed how she felt isolated at secondary school because she didn’t wear a weave. Another, who had bleached her skin relayed that in Senegal, where she was from, it was not possible to buy ordinary moisturising creams (though natural shea butter was available) because most of the creams were for skin bleaching. She explained that now that she had started to bleach her skin, it would not return to its natural colour – this is the extent to which the melanocytes (that produces melanin, giving Africans our varying dark complexions) had been damaged.

There were sensitive and moving contributions by two young women; one suffered with Alopecia, the other from Vitiligo. These contributions effectively highlighted that for some people complexes about hair and skin complexion was not a matter of choice but medical. Living with the condition of Alopecia (which entails hair loss, sometimes total or partial) meant a daily routine of wearing a wig and painting on eyebrows. The young woman considered herself ‘ugly’ when she didn’t have on the wig and wondered how anyone could love her when the baldness of her head made her look like an ‘egg.’ I think this was one of the successes of the film, revealing something ultimately deeper about what beauty is. There was something serene and gentle about the young lady as she told her story; forcing the viewer to look beyond her physical appearance and ultimately questioning our own perspectives of beauty. Everyone was sympathetic to the romanticism when we learnt that she was married to a man who said he wasn’t in love with her physical appearance but an inner quality she possessed.

The young woman with vitiligo relayed a shocking story that, as a solution to her condition, her doctor suggested she used a cream that would eliminate the melanocytes and instead retain the pigment that would make her appear ‘white.’ She gave another account of an African woman complimenting her on achieving her light complexion, hailing this as a mark of beauty, and asking her what skin bleaching cream she had used. Her reaction revealed a sense of confidence and pride in her African identity, as she was outraged that this woman should think it natural to desire ‘whiteness’ when she had to live her life struggling to physically express that she was African. This was not the only struggle, however, because she had to endure further torments at school.

Actress Judith Jacobs (who has featured in the UK ‘No Problem’ and ‘Eastenders’ television programmes) gave an honest, personal and sometimes humorous account of her journey with her daughter. She explained that although she was very much against her daughter relaxing (perming) her hair, instead of wearing locks like her parents, and despite providing books that would help her understanding of her cultural identity, as soon as she was old enough her daughter relaxed her hair. This experience was shared by others on the film. It raises the serious question of identity – as someone also noted in the film “I am not my hair” from the song by India Arie. It is a political question, however, and sometimes African women (and men who wear locks) choose natural hair as a cultural and political decision.

Certainly, the film recognised that African women were constantly bombarded by images that do not represent who we are (both in appearance and culturally). The L’Oreal ads featuring a digitally enhanced Beyoncé which deliberately makes her appear European is one such example. If the question of image and racial identity was insignificant these ads would feature Beyoncé with her natural hair, still using the tag that “she’s worth it.” But in truth she is worth the effort of whitening her complexion because this promotes the interests of an image industry that profits from Africans and impacts our cultural identity. The recent fame of Lupita Nyong’o is seen as an attempt to celebrate diversity in beauty. She has landed a contract with Lancôme Paris which may boost the confidence of African women, particularly, dark skinned women, but for me there is still a danger of relying on the mainstream media and beauty industry to dictate what should be the accepted norms of beauty.

In its attempt to source some of the historical influences of misrepresentation, the film also looked at the impact of religion. The image of a white, blond, blue-eyed Christ was cited as a major influence on the way Africans perceive themselves. ‘Edutainer’ Akala remarked that since Christ was depicted as ‘white,’ being the son of God meant that God too must be white. This provides the basis for Africans who follow Euro-Christianity to aspire to ‘whiteness.’ In contrast to this image of a white God, African traditional practices were denigrated as satanic, animistic and pagan. A young Muslim woman expressed confidence in her decision to wear the hijab, covering her head at all times, making a statement that was at once religious, personal and political. She convincingly argued that women were at different stages in their journey of self-determination and should be respected, rather than condemned by others for being at any stage of this journey. During the Q&A session, it was noted that in the practice of Islam, there was no image but that which the individual imagined God would look like. It was also stressed that in the debate we should be mindful of isolating those who choose to practice Euro Christian /Judaism or other Abrahamic religions. This is a necessary though highly sensitive aspect of the discussion. It is important that to include it to deepen the debate and highlight the extent of the issues relating to perceptions of beauty and African cultural identity.

Although religion and culture were important themes in the film, there was no association of wig wearing, body care and beauty products to Egyptian culture. This would have provided a traditional context in which to consider the question of beauty. But arguably, the omission suggests that this would not have addressed the contemporary obsession with straight hair and images of beauty that do not represent the diversity of Africans.

There were several disturbing features in the film. The audience gasped at images of the potential damages caused by skin bleaching creams containing hydroquinone and in some cases formaldehyde. Beauty products containing these ingredients are banned in the UK but director Toyin Agbetu demonstrated how easily it was to obtain these products from the internet because the regulations do not extend to online trade. The film is part of a wider campaign, challenging governments on an international scale to extend their regulations to include domestic and online sales of these products. Although women were aware of the damaging side effects of using the creams, and despite the UK ban on those containing hydroquinone it was observed that they were readily available on the “black market.” It was also highlighted that in some cases this ingredient was also distributed through prescriptions from GP surgeries.

The audience squirmed when we observed parents perming their daughter’s hair from as young as two years, or in some instances allowing toddlers to wear weaves. Some members of the audience considered this a form of abuse and questioned whether there should be some form of regulation preventing parents from the practice. Clearly, this is a serious issue which suggests some level of cultural and psychological deterioration. From the audience, some women iterated the difficulties of ‘managing’ natural hair and the inability to plait, cornrow or braid their children’s hair. This inherent cultural tradition, passed down from mothers (usually) to daughters (usually) seems superficially to be eroding. It was for this reason I set up Nubia pamper Day to encourage the collective bonding and nurturing inspired by the tradition of African women combing each other’s hair. But I say superficially because I have observed recently that young African girls are re-embracing natural hair, particularly in the form of ‘box braids.’ This might have something to do with the fact that extensions like the Brazilian Weave are costly. But I prefer to think that the resurgence has something to do with a slow but sure cultural revolution that ought not to go unnoticed. This didn’t quite come across in the film which I would say spoke to a particular generation. Indeed, a member of the audience later pointed out that in recent years more African women were choosing natural hair over chemical relaxers and processes. With the readily available online tutorials women across generations are learning how to groom and care for their natural hair.

It would be interesting to see what young people made of the film. In fact it would be worth supporting young African women who wanted to make documentaries that presented the subject from their perspective. Though they are important for their objective of raising awareness and advancing the debate about perceptions of beauty, it must be noted that ‘Beauty Is…’, ‘Good Hair’ and Bill Duke’s ‘Dark Girls’ were produced by African men, whose age I wouldn’t care to guess. I recognise their principled position and commitment. However I think we need to be conscious of unwittingly reinforcing patriarchal influences, even as we attempt to assert African self-determination, cultural transformation and empowerment.

The screening was followed by an intense Q&A session. The panel included political scholar and activist Dr Ama Biney (also featured on the film), Lekia Lee (Project Embrace), Belinda of BeUnique Hair Care Products and host Dr Kwadwo Osei-Nyame Jr. Contributions by both panellists and audience expressed how painful, frustrating and deeply psychological the issues are. It was emphasised that the film needed to be widely distributed – the producers hope to translate it into several languages to reach Africans across the world. They asked for volunteers to help with their efforts.

BeUnique founder Belinda (also featured on the film) felt that the film would be useful for non-Africans to raise their understanding of how ideals of beauty, epitomising Eurocentricism have an alienating effect on African people. It would highlight the harmful physical and psychological impact and perhaps gain support for the wider campaign. However, she acknowledged the limitations of engaging students in such cultural debates when these were likely to be relegated to black history month only. There were excellent suggestions calling for teachers who were inspired by the film to create lessons plans that could be utilised by others (teachers and educators) and devising strategies to bring the debate to a wider community audience. This is an important film and from the discussion which followed it reveals the need for individual and collective responsibility to advance the total liberation of Africans – culturally, economically, politically and psychologically. The ellipsis in the title is an important signal that we can take control of our own sense of identity and self-worth – that we can define beauty on our terms, that we do not need to subscribe to others perceptions, whether these influences are internal or external. Through honest and sometimes painful self-reflection, for me ‘Beauty is…’ a spiritual and creative journey leading to individual and collective empowerment.

* Dr Michelle Yaa Asantewa is the founder of Nubia Pamper Day and teaches Creative Writing as an independent scholar. She is also a writer and publishes a blog at http://waywivewordz.blogspot.co.uk

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