“Hai, and people say dark skinned girls cannot wear lip stick”. I posted a thought (below) about the moment a girl jumped and exclaimed this at me while I was doing a quick late night shop before my summer holidays. It had been a busy Thursday in the office so I literally just loosened my hair and threw some lipstick on before I stepped out – why not, after all I was taking myself out for a couple hours. I am aware that some people have views about what they call “dark skin” or “light skin” but her reaction took me by surprise. I mean this was not like the time when I was in Totness in Devon when someone shook my hand and the other time I was there when someone hugged me because I was the first black person that was not on TV that they had seen in real life. That surprised me but this girl’s reaction surprised me more.
In the late 90s, Totnes was a small English village with a lot of history but close to no multiculturalism. Having lived in London/South East of England, it seemed strange at the time that these women had never seen a black person “except for on East Enders”, one woman told me. However I thought it was nice that they made the effort and thought it was important that they exchanged a few kind words with me. That was very different to this moment. This girl was young and at the helm of high street fashion in Oxford Street, London so I am pretty sure I was definitely not the first black girl with “dark” skin wearing lipstick that she had seen. As I thought about it a little more, I realised that this had nothing to do with the shade of lipstick or even my shade of skin – it was more to do with how we, as a society, miseducate each other out of understanding our true beauty and value by labeling and shaming each other.
Let me explain – ahead of joining big school my brother would make me mix tapes – Aaliyah, TLC etc. I think he saw it as his duty to educate me and make sure I did not get bullied. He even handed me down his baggy jeans. I remember when I discovered TLC… and the album “crazy, sexy, cool”… it was amazing. I was their 4th group member and felt so cool in my baggy dungarees and tops – except we were right next to the Kalahari desert in Botswana and it was everything but cool. It was so hot that my friends and I could not go outside until 2/3pm everyday and even then we were often dying, pouring buckets of sweat. Although we were everything but cool – we just felt so cool and every time we were boiling in our dungarees and couldn’t take the heat piercing through the heavy denim we would console ourselves by saying “Fashion Kills”…
“If you have “it”, your someone and if you don’t have “it” your nobody”
Fashion Kills… what we do for Fashion… It’s so interesting what we do to fit in, to not be excluded or labelled, named and shamed as uncool, unacceptable, not in the “in” crowd. In Victorian times, to be considered beautiful and valuable – women would pluck their hairlines as far back as possible to make their foreheads bigger. A bigger forehead meant you had a bigger brain which obviously showed that you were more intelligent and, therefore, more valuable. They would put white powder on their faces because to be whiter than snow meant you were pure and not dirty like the “poor” – it was a sign of wealth, value and beauty. What was “trending” as beautiful and what communicated your value as a person then is so different to now. Today, in relation to these Victorian Fashion fads, people are often generally trying to avoid receding hairlines like the plague and, instead of dousing themselves in baby powder, they are instead flocking to sun beds and/or swimming in bronzer.
How can the pendulum on what is beautiful swing so far from one generation to another – how can the measure of how valuable humanity is shift so far when the same blood flowing through all our veins rises from and returns to the same dust – regardless of our shades. It’s almost as though each time a generation rises we see our face in the mirror, beholding how wonderful we are but then somehow a narrative of the day rises to stain that image and we see ourselves forever through the stain of the day, forgetting (but never truly losing) the truth about who we are and all we are worth. This stain always seems to rise and fall which implies it has a sell by date with each generation but yet, somehow the only way it thrives and survives – the only way it’s passed on not unlike a virus is through us – the narrative keepers and shapers of each generation. And very much like Chinese whispers, the same stain simply resurfaces in a different shape and form as we express what we have grown to understand about ourselves to each other and the next generation.
Narratives are powerful but make no mistake to be a narrative-shaper is a gift. I love fashion and being creative is a gift that every generation should be free to use to express themselves. I am not against plucking eye brows or dying hair or simplifying nor defining beauty as that – what I am against is the narrative that says “if you have “it” – the definitive measure of value, the fashionable trend, definition of beauty, wealth and all that is desirable – if you have “it”, your someone and if you don’t have “it” your nobody. It’s a dangerous narrative because sadly to reinforce the power of your “it” in this narrative you often have to downplay the power, wonder, beauty and value of those who the narrative says don’t have the “it” of the day. People ask why would guys and girls risk bleaching or tan their skin beyond repair, for example? Because the narrative is a hard task master to please. It enslaves you to thinking you are not good or valuable enough. You are constantly measuring yourself up against others so that anyone who fits the mould is a competitor and anyone that does not fit the mould is beneath you – shoring or topping up your sense of value, if you like, at the expense of another. By definition this narrative is costly.
“I like to think that if Fashion Kills, then lets slay away and give ourselves and others permission to rest in our individual and collective value and colour our lives and our world with the treasures, gifts and wonders this life has to give”
So back to the thought… “Fashion Kills”. Fashion can be used as a force for good and evil. It can be wielded and used to cut up people by raising up bars and hoops that people have to jump through and over only to find a false sense of value in something that fades with fads. However Fashion can also be used to kill false narratives and reflect an honest picture about the beauty in and within humanity. When the girl in the shop exclaimed “Hai, and people say dark skinned girls cannot wear lip stick” – I don’t know what she had been told about her skin. I could have said and thought many things. I said thanks, offered to give her the shade name and she immediately ran to get a pen and passionately wrote it down vowing to go get the shade and don it like, perhaps she knew she could. For me lipstick is just a bit of fun. But if fashion does kill – I like to think that on that Thursday that lip stick was a weapon that killed the narrative that she was not pretty enough to wear a shade of lipstick she wanted to wear. I like to think that that little weapon, somehow liberated her to love herself, with or without the lippy and set her free to be herself, irrespective of the narrative. I like to think that if Fashion Kills, then lets slay away and give ourselves and others permission to rest in our individual and collective value and colour our lives and our world with the treasures, gifts and wonders this life has to give – maybe starting with a kind word of encouragement to somebody – like the unassuming ladies of Totnes and my new friend on Oxford Street. Today, I hope that this will be my encouraging and kind word to you – whatever your colour of skin, height and weight, whether or not you have curls in your hair – whatever you have got and have been gifted with – you do you the best you can – your beautiful inside out, valuable, incredible, brilliant and LOVED – just the way you are.