Recently I came across a comment along the line,
Africa would be better off if the money spent on fake hair was spent on books.
It caught my interest for reasons; as an African, a woman, and someone who finds great pleasure in books. While I agree with the sentiment that spending on resources such as books provides an enduring return, the statement left a bitter taste. There is a fair amount of unflattering commentary about ‘fake hair’ – at one point the subject of a popular song here in Uganda. But is ‘fake hair’ the most trivial expenditure in Africa? Are there no pursuits on which money is vacuously spent by African men to the detriment of their families and communities? Or is it Africa as mythical Eden; the bastion of success only to fall at the arrival of women and their ‘fake hair’?
Seriously though, is money spent by women on face, hair, body ‘wasted’ in a society in which keeping up with the strict ever-evolving requirements of beauty, as fake as they may be, is life as many know it? Where beauty practices are considered (by women and men) a normal aspect of womanhood?
We are bombarded on a daily basis with images of ‘ideal beauty’. For black women on the continent and in the diaspora, concepts based on whiteness as the standard, such as light skin and straight, flowing hair, are in our faces 24/7. Whereas the reality of a vast number of female bodies, those classified ‘typically African’, are largely disapproved of, boxed in the ugly – except in some circumstances, and that’s when on a white woman.
In one of the several online articles explaining why Africans have ‘larger’ lips, a writer begins with the disclaimer: there is nothing racist about this post or the topic.
That caution is necessary because in a western-dominant world where features and cultural expressions categorized as African (of black people) are considered inferior by default, big lips are undesirable.
But hey, they are sexy when on Angelina Jolie.
In the same way that “bold braids” were taken to a “new epic level” by Kendall Jenner.
This month Vogue magazine caught itself at crossroads with women, in particular western black women, after it ran a story proclaiming that ‘We are officially in the era of the big booty’. The article is a roll call of white women – the liberators of booty. Backlash was inevitable due to the fact that international fashion magazines have historically portrayed women’s beauty in mostly white, thin, big-booty-free bodies. The mainstream effectively marginalized the booty’d body, long celebrated in black/African culture. Until now; because some valuable people are embracing their behinds. Yet it remains a thing of caricature for performers like Katy Perry.
And going back in time, we are reminded of the enslavement of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa. She was transported to England and taken across Europe on display under the stage name Hottentot Venus. It was tagged a freak show starring her body, with special focus on her buttocks and labia; dehumanized to feed the curiosity of the European eye. As an object of African femininity, considered abnormal (white women being ‘the normal’ according to white supremacist nonsense), her body was prodded and gawked at, in addition to suffering poor upkeep and disease. Sarah died in 1815 at the age of 25. But even in death, the inhumane use of her body prevailed; consumed as a museum exhibit in France. Only after condemnation in South Africa, and at the behest of then-president Nelson Mandela for her remains to be released, did France relent. It was not until 2002 that what was left of Sarah Baartman was repatriated.
Suddenly, now that the gods of vanity have given the green light, women must reconsider the dimensions of their derrières, as cosmetic surgeons sharpen their scalpels ready to mutilate more female bodies, and vendors of butt implants (‘fake butts’?) prepare for a business boom.
Fake hair is one of many must-haves directed at women. Reasons as to why we buy into it include to look good, for convenience, to protect natural hair, confidence issues, and so on. This fuss is inevitable when an otherwise neutral feature like hair is politicized into a marker of difference between women and men, sexualized into a symbol of beauty among women, and commercialized as a pathway for the individual woman to gain advantage over another. It follows that we are told hair is a woman’s crowning glory. Who determined this?
In the final analysis, beauty practices are taught, policed, and have been normalized in different cultures for women’s survival in a male-dominant world.
And men are the topmost beneficiaries.
Women are under considerable pressure to look good in order to attract men, hold on to men, or get back at men, and other women – over men. We are objectified, subdivided, and pitted against each other by men and fellow women; white/black, light/dark, fat/thin, beautiful/ugly, old/young, fertile/infertile, womanly/not, sexy/not, hot/not. And it is men who benefit from the tension.
We are on our toes in service to the visual interests of the supreme sex. Sweating under layers of chemicals. Heels tormenting feet. Restless about what to wear tomorrow. Broke in the process.
Is ‘choosing’ these discomforts that we have somehow learned to bear really choice?
Just because some women claim not to have any problem whatsoever with living under the demands of beauty qualification, that it is a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s life, or an exercise of agency – my choice, doesn’t strip the pressure or desire to look good of its oppressiveness to women as a class.
Women’s freedom to do with their bodies what they want, when they want, is a core tenet of women’s movement toward liberation from the evil that is sexism. But in a male-dominant society where ‘femininity’ is constructed in deference to men, and the pursuit of beauty, and maintenance of it, enforced as ‘rituals’ of womanhood, women are constrained in the options from which to choose. There is an unwritten requirement to choose wisely in order to be found worthy under the male gaze. And there are penalties for non-compliance.
Looking good in accordance with patriarchal dictates of beauty can be, in some situations, the difference between securing employment and being jobless. It is the currency through which many women access shelter, food, and clothing. Add the culturally-prized husband to this list. We need to be honest about the politics of looking good to see the hypocrisy in one-sided, (often) male, criticism of women’s adherence to beauty practices, and the oppressive reality of these demands on women.
Moreover even from a shillings perspective, many of the major beneficiaries in the global industry, from beauty products to media, to hair-dressing to clothes etc, also happen to be men.
On the Forbes list of Top 10 Beauty Brands only Estée Lauder was established by a woman. In Uganda, these are firms like Movit and Samona – the latter set up by a man, maybe even both. While in Taihe in China, home to hundreds of companies in the billion-dollar business of hair extensions, Fu Quanguao, the man who ‘pioneered the trade in the 1970s’, waxes about the money-maker that is women’s hair issues.
Growing up in the eighties, it was to Loy that my mother and I, as did several others within the neighborhood, made the pilgrimage to have my hair plaited – black African hair, no extensions. Today, walk into a hair salon in Kampala; many of the celebrated fake hair implanters are men. Men who, like Fu, with extensions in tow, are cannibalizing the business of hair plaiting – one of the few professions in Africa for women, by women (predominantly), and through which many African women not only earned a living, but also built community with their sisters. Loy is no longer her vibrant self; the income source from which she raised her children, one of whom had followed in the profession, almost a thing of the past. Her frustrations drove her into the neocolonial hellhole of second-hand clothes hawking.
That men benefit greatly from this beauty stuff is evident without even going into the matter of chest-thumping dudes heaping endless praise on their gorgeous-when-beweaved; directly or indirectly putting pressure on women to keep up with the performance of beauty.
Therefore, in the age of viagra, for men to be the ones constantly picking ‘fake hair’ as this major money-drain, one powerful enough to hold back a continent, is intellectually dishonest. It is akin to blaming a slave for their fate; and for sure many are enslaved by the fashion-beauty complex. Crucially, it ignores the vast wealth lost via theft committed mostly by men at all levels of power across Africa.
It isn’t women’s fake hair rendering our hospitals drugless. It isn’t fake hair causing deaths from hunger and disease. Fake hair isn’t robbing Africa of its natural resources. And it is definitely not fuelling these endless wars. That there is a need for fake hair is unfortunate, but we mustn’t ignore the entire picture.
No group can be liberated if some of its members are trudging along under the heel of oppression – a good chunk of it dished out in the name of ‘preserving’ African culture.
It is easy to focus on fake hair and in effect throw jabs at women whilst ignoring the system which demands conformity to beauty standards. Perhaps a more productive exercise would be to objectively critique all the different systems holding us in a cycle of poverty and perpetual dependence. In doing so, we must examine our own complicity in keeping these ideologies in play. And ultimately, put into action those revolutionary measures which will deliver us, as individuals and society, from the grip of the forces draining us – women and men – of our wellbeing and wealth.