Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Looking to Africa for Fashion and Beauty Standards?

Someone made a comment on my post about sarees asking why I wrote about Indian clothing instead of traditional clothing worn by African women (I think she suggested Nigerian clothing). I was irritated by the comment so I looked at the links she posted then deleted it (why put up with negativity if I don't have to right?). Well I did a post in December about Elegant African Women and some fashions they had that I thought were nice. I couldn't find many videos so I posted the ones with dresses I actually liked. Although the dress shapes were nice I don't really like geometric designs and prefer my clothing to have either solids or flowers, and sometimes pinstripes. So I shy away from bright geometic designs like in the African dresses. They dresses are very...almost super modern looking because of the patterns and I prefer retro looks. So for whatever reason I like the sarees more. I suppose if the African dresses were plain I would like them more. Plus, I just don't like head wraps and prefer big loose natural hair. I didn't grow up with fashions like that and actually I'm more accustomed to seeing people wearing sarees in Toronto so I guess I'm used to them. I'm also more accustomed to seeing traditional East Asian clothing in Toronto on television and in movies. I can't even think of an African movie that I've seen where women were wearing dresses like in the videos or the links that were posted in the comments.

This all brings me to the main point I wanted to write about. Why is it that we expect Black people, who have never been to Africa and have been out of Africa for generations to have a preference for African fashions and beauty?  African fashion is foreign to me. The African women I know didn't even wear traditional clothes and they wore Western clothing the way I did! My parents and grandparents are from the Caribbean and they never showed me traditional clothes. The closest thing to traditional would be Caribana costumes but those are basically showgirl costumes so not something anyone would wear in their everyday lives. So do we expect that Black people around the world have some genetic preference for clothing? I think it's really unfair to expect that.

Now this brings me to my second point and this is the difficult one. Why are Black people who have never been to Africa and have been out of Africa for generations supposed to have a preference for African facial features? Again, are people expecting that Black people have a genetic preference for certain features? I think that there are some preferences, like the ones that I mentioned in my post about the Black standard of beauty, that may be widespread because they indicate health and youth. But we must also recognize that a lot of what we think is beautiful is based on what we see and what we are told is beautiful meaning that a lot of our preferences are socialized. So if a Black girl grows up around very few Black women and mostly sees White and Asian women in real life, and mainly White women on television why do we expect her to have a preference for traditional African features? Especially given that the Black women on television tend to be biracial (and in my case family members and friends with medium skin tones).Why would we try to live up to a standard of beauty from a place we don't live especially if its very different from the standard of the people we actually live around? A Black Canadian woman may be considered gorgeous in Kenya but that is irrelevant if she's considered unattractive in Canada where she lives.

What are African facial features anyway? I keep reading people saying that the Black actresses the media calls beautiful have European features. Other than them having lighter skin sometimes I don't think many of them look White at all if you compare them to the average White woman. Here's an example:

I mean when you look at Sanaa Lathan do you actually think her features "look White" compared to Christy Brinkly's? All of the Black women who people rate as beautiful do not have pencil thin noses and neither do many White women! I do not think Sanaa looks White and she is successful in Hollywood. What Black features does she not have? Also remember a lot of Black women like myself have the same skin tone as Sanaa. Is there some African face/jaw shape that Sanaa is supposed to have or is having an oval face a White thing? Let's try again:

Now looking at Halle Berry and Paris Hilton are you seriously trying to tell me that they look alike? No Halle's nose is not the widest I have ever seen by it is nowhere near as pinched as Paris' and her nose is very common and there are some White women who have fuller lips. You know what, a lot of the White women I find attractive actually have broader noses...hmm maybe they actually have more Black features??? I actually think Black men probably have a thing for Elisha Cuthbert, Britney Spears, and Pink below but that's just my theory ;)  Seriously, all three women look like Black women painted White to me and Britney and Pink are not lacking in "thickness" either. Why is it only the so-called White features credited for women's beauty? I think White women with more so-called Black features are actually very attractive and plenty of them are getting tanned, lip injections, and nose jobs that make their features "less White". These women are considered to be highly attractive but they shouldn't be since their noses are not very narrow and pointy and they don't have thin lips like other White women.

It just seems to me that people don't prefer the extremes and consider more "average" features to be attractive. In other words, skin not too light or dark, nose not too wide or thin, lips not to thick or thin, and body not too fat or thin. Although many biracial women have these features some don't, and many Black and White women have similar features. I mean I haven't kept up with the current models today but are there any really popular White models who have Barbara Streisand noses and non-existent lips? White people don't even find very so-called White features to be the most attractive.

Now don't even try to bring up Alek Wek, India Arie, or Whoopie Goldberg and say that they have African features because I have seen many photos of African women and models with the same skin tone who look nothing like them and have thinner noses than anyone I've posted here. There is so much variety so how can there be an African standard to accept? You know all of this talking about facial features makes me uncomfortable so I put off doing this post. It just reminds me of those racist experiments that were done where White scientists measured people's facial features so they could use them to objectively tell who was White or Black and use that to discriminate. It's a slippery slope if Black people start insisting that only Black women with skin of a certain shade, nose of a certain width, and lips or a certain size are beautiful and can be employed on television or as models. Isn't that the same kind of thing that started wars? It's like White people stopped rating us based on skin tone and facial features and Black people want to start doing it again!

I'm going to end this post by saying that I will not automatically prefer African fashion over styles that I like if they are very different from Western styles. I like sarees but like I said, I won't start wearing them because they are too different from Western fashions. There is nothing wrong with admiring other cultures and being inspired by them, it's called being open to new things. Also, when I choose beauty role models I will choose those who have many or a few features that are similar to mine (e.g., Kelly Rowland as my make-up icon). I will have many hair role models, some with a similar skin tone, some with a similar body shape, and some with similar facial features and I will benefit from looking at all of them. That is the only option that makes sense to me. Last of all, everyone has preferences and you can like whatever you want and so will I. I didn't make society the way it is and I did not make you the way you are, I just point out what I notice so don't shoot the messenger!
UPDATE: Actually, I'll come clean because what does it matter anyway. I read a post HERE on Lipstick Alley and it irritated me. I forgot about the earlier comment I wrote about above, but when I read this thread it irritated me all over again. I was actually really glad to there were several women who liked my blog but then there were a couple who just wrote me off immediately, and one was because of the saree post! The other was because of the victim mentality post, but I warned readers it was controversial and it's not as though I made the concept up. I also CLEARLY stated that I may be out of touch with the way other people are feeling about the issue but this blog is to help me understand my thoughts and feelings so whatever. Well you can't get along with everyone and I think that I have a different world view from them. I don't limit myself by race and they do and I believe I can control over my life and they don't so it's unlikely that I will see eye-to-eye.

Furthermore, this isn't a Black Women's Empowerment blog because that is the name of a blog group and I'm not a member. I do read a couple of their blogs but I don't know their underlying philosophy and I don't read the blogs of the group founders. Anyways, they automatically assumed that I use this blog to uplift White men or something. Also they labeled me an elitist who puts down Black women when that is the exact opposite of what I try to do with this blog! It's about my studies to become more feminine and how I'm struggling with that as a Black woman. If others find it helpful that's just a bonus and something nice I can do for someone else. But because they don't like the other BWE blogs they lumped me in with them...so are they seriously going to reject any blog that is about empowering Black women before even reading it? I guess they can shut their minds if they want to. Self-improvement isn't for everyone and maybe they are completely happy with themselves and their lives.


  1. I completely co sign.
    And I am an African woman leaving in Europe who happens to have lived in her home country.

    African women are diverse: I am tired of Alek Wek being thrown at me like an example of what African beauty is or isn't. There is no homogeneity in African features even in Africa- that is why there are tribes. Plus mixing happened there too!!! The AA woman those people promote only exist in their head- see MIMI magazine http://www.mimimagazine.com .

    Honouring one's roots, affirming one's identity mean not renouncing one's preferences. I am not Nigerian but Cameroonian. Most Cameroonian people I know who live in Cameroon actually wear European clothes. Why? It is cheaper (all those NGOs sending their leftovers to the continent). Plus, we like diversity too- so traditional prints (that are Dutch by the way) are not the only way we dress. One of my aunt actually has a kimono top sewn in wax and it suits her fine. And this is an African woman who speaks her tribe language. So keep your stereotypes to yourselves, thanks !!!

    I know nothing of Nigerian clothing. I would never wear it myself because Cameroon & Nigeria happen to have a power struggle à la France-Germany. For this reason, I find it interesting that Nigerians have labelled themselves experts on all things Africans.

    Last but not least, an identity is not only found in clothes. There are actually a lot of African writers. And people interested in Africa would benefit from reading them. Contemporary African literature (and I'm not talking pharaonic Egypt) would give nostalgics a flavor of what Africa is right now.

    For instance:
    http://www.presenceafricaine.com/ (online library, French books only)

  2. Girl i cosign %100 as well. I find enlightenment and empowerment in your many post as well. Girl don't worry about some of these clueless ass brainwashed deep down self hating BW out here. Yes I said it and you would be absolutely surprised at the way some BW are hell bent on keeping you down because they don't have a clue as to how to lift themselves up. And therein lies the problem. It's out of their comfort zone. Even though a lot of BW would love to be more feminine and to not have the attitudes and negative labels society throws on us. Just as they would love to have all the benefits and perks that having this graceful feminine attitude entails. Simply because they don't know how they will try to bring you down and make you feel it's not worth having. I think Harriet Tubman said it best when she said I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed thousands more if only they knew they were slaves!

  3. Thank you so much anonymous and Shae :) Of course this blog is not for everyone so there will be criticism. Some women are actually anti-feminism and ridicule doing ANYTHING that would make them appealing to men or dressing in any way that is old fashioned. Some of my favorite femininity blogs are ridiculed too. It's okay though. I've succeeded where I needed to in life and haven't had some of the struggles others have had so I don't feel like a victim the way they do. I focus on my life and what happened to me personally not what happened to others who have the same skin tone as me. Otherwise I would feel constantly victimized. This blog is not for someone who feels victimized constantly because they will be focusing too much on who they feel hurt them rather than on self-improvement.

    There is no point trying to convince anyone to do anything. Instead I'm just going to live my life and chronicle my journey and my thoughts. If someone reading things what I post is helpful they will change the way they think and act. When I read blogs and I like the ideas I also change and we are all constantly changing. When people around me see the way I live, if they want the same thing then they may decide to change too. If they think what I'm doing is stupid they will just continue doing what they always have and it will have no affect on me either. Seriously though, I'm exposed to way more negativity online than in real life so I really have to moderate how much of that negativity I expose myself to so that it doesn't affect me :)

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    I visited the MIMI site and there was a lot of variety there but a lot of the women did look like those I see everyday too. So I don't think any one person can be held up as the "average" attractive Black or African woman. Just some features in combination with others are more attractive and a lot of it depends on the individual and on how that person was conditioned to think.

  5. You make very good points. While, it is not expected that you should favor clothing you're not accustomed to, I would like to tell you that there are so many different African clothing styles than what is portrayed. Do more research, there are beautiful plain outfits as well as highly patterned ones. Many of the outfits are just as simply beautiful as saree clothing. As a person of Nigerian heritage, sometimes it feels like other African nations feel that we like to speak for Africa, which is untrue, but Nigerians do put themselves out there more and always show great pride.