“Intelligent women. I think it’s gendered. Which is in some ways why I even internalise those ideas… if I consider myself as a serious writer, and that I want to be seen as a serious writer, I will hide my high heels-” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Three years old. My earliest memory of getting dressed up. A pink, nylon dress, frayed and puckered, all adorned with tattered ribbons. To me, this outfit was wonderful- magical even. And it made me feel beautiful. I was a princess, in the finest, slipperiest of silk gowns. I’d sit for hours, dabbing and smearing an Estee Lauder lipstick across (and around) my lips, clumsily smacking them together with glee. Fast forward twenty odd years and my love for dressing up (albeit now more eloquently) remains strong. My ability to apply lipstick, however, is yet to improve. Either way, growing up an all round girly-girl, has eventually led me to notice something. That something being, if a woman shows too much of an interest in hair, makeup or fashion, she can oh so often be written off as lesser educated, or even, at its most extreme, a lesser person- something, I perhaps naively, only initially discovered during my final year at university.
I studied English Literature with Creative writing at uni, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve been an avid reader since I was young, starting out with the the utterly scandalous (but classic) Girls in Love, and eventually moving on to the actual classics – Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. The escapism of a good book, was, and still is mesmerizing, and the idea that I’d do anything other than write when I grew up seemed ridiculous. So when pursuing fashion journalism first became a thought- the idea that I’d be able to write creatively and combine my love for clothes in an actual job- it seemed like the natural step. But I remember as clear as day. The first time I felt embarrassed by what I had chosen to do, or, at that time, what I was considering. In my final year, I’d met with a ‘careers specialist’. I’d explained I was interested in fashion journalism and he’d nodded before saying, ‘Very good.. so not a politics type girl are we?’ He’d chuckle. It was a joke. I laughed and downplayed myself as it was the only thing I could think do to. Later, I remember feeling embarrassed. Okay- so I can’t be astute or academic if I have an interest in fashion? Interesting.
And really, it is interesting. This wider notion that somehow, a woman interested in her appearance, in clothes and makeup is somehow… lesser? Somehow less intelligent and more frivolous. Somehow less interested in current affairs or prevalent issues in the world. Someone not to be taken seriously. Indeed, there’s a notion that women working in fashion, beauty, or perhaps even in the creative sphere are less intelligent as a whole. The make-up artists, the stylists, the writers… the list goes on. So where do we begin to discuss this point?
I was going to argue this point (probably poorly) myself, but I recalled someone else who undoubtedly did it better. A hell of a lot better. Last year I did a stint at Stylist magazine as part of the features team. I can remember taking a day to transcribe an interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – someone I’d known next to nothing about, rather shamefully- especially considering she’s the pen behind Dior’s ‘We should all be feminists.’ And afterwards, I thought she was bloody brilliant. Her wit and intelligence shone as bright as the yellow of the skirt she’d go on to wear on the cover. As a much celebrated feminist writer, she’d been met with criticism when she’d been announced as the face of No.7 Cosmetics. Of the criticism (which came from men and women alike) Adichie said:
“Sometimes, I just want to put the brightest colour on my lips and it makes me happy and it doesn’t make me any less intelligent or any less intellectually curious. This is a conversation that is about misogyny; the idea that the things considered traditionally feminine have to be degraded and diminished.”
And suddenly it all clicked into place.
The problem in her eyes? The patriarchal society. Taking men out of the equation, it’s the fact that we, as women, have been conditioned to think certain things about other women, whether we intend to or not. How we look twice at a girl who is wearing more makeup than us. She with her obviously dyed hair. How we question the value of a leather handbag. Or the cost of that tailored jacket. What sort of woman, would waste that much valuable time on her appearance? Couldn’t she be doing something more useful? Indeed, Adichie admitted she’d been conditioned to think the same herself. She continued:
“The woman is either the slut or she’s serious. There’s a binary: you can’t be both. So the criticism about fashion is, if you show an interest in fashion you can’t possibly be intelligent. It’s misogynistic. It dehumanises women.”
I feel like, (although probably in the case of you and I, such extremities are a little redundant) we can understand the point she makes when she refers to the woman who is a slut, and the woman who is serious. But what about the woman who seeks to be neither. She who seeks to show an interest in how she presents herself- without having to explain or justify it.
In finishing this ramble, I’ll remind myself of my opening quote (once again unashamedly pinched from Adichie)
“Intelligent women. I think it’s gendered. Which is in some ways why I even internalise those ideas… if I consider myself as a serious writer, and that I want to be seen as a serious writer, I will hide my high heels.”
It was at this point she went on to state that she no longer hides her high heels. And neither shall I. I shall not apologise for my love of makeup. For my love of fashion or hair. I shall not seek to justify my decision to pursue the career that I have chosen. A career that has been, will be, and continues to be hard bloody work. And I’ve only just got my foot through the door. A woman, interested in fashion, is no less valid. No less intelligent. And no less astute. So this evening, as I get ready to head out the door, I’m choosing to own the fact I enjoy beautiful things. I’m choosing to own the fact I’m a woman who loves fashion. And I’m choosing to own the fact I have a brain… all whilst wearing my frills, lace…and the prettiest of pinks.