A Hot Mess

Black women have no say in what is pretty considering it is the job of non-white women to dispel the standards of beauty, and white women to reinvent it.


In the latest episode of “Black Fascination”, fashion designer Rick Owens brought a thick-boned crew of black (mostly) steppers from the US to Paris Fashion Week to stomp down the runway wearing his latest collection. Fashion critics raved, calling it amongst many accolades, “powerful”, “provocative”, and “transformative”. I called it a ‘hot mess’ and immediately got charged with the crime of being a typical never satisfied black woman, because of course, I have to catch any bone thrown my way, even if that bone comes in ill-fitted clothing, disastrous hair, and “grit face.” To be honest, what I’m really being told is that I don’t have the power to demarcate where fascination becomes mistaken for revolution. And to be discomfortingly honest, the real message is that black women have no say in what is pretty considering it is the job of non-white women to dispel the standards of beauty, and white women to reinvent it.

If anything, Owens’ fashion show allows for some great practice in mastering the art of decoding the language of the purveyors of pretty. The designer explained how the idea blossomed from step shows he found surfing YouTube. He stated, “I was attracted to how gritty it was, It was such a fuck-you to conventional beauty. They were saying, ‘We’re beautiful in our own way.’” Pause. Rewind. Decode. In other words, black women don’t care about beauty the way that normal-or rather, white- people do. Not at all Owens, we just dominate the hair weave market because we’re really concerned with configuring our own brand of pretty. While I wish there was some truth to this, the real truth is that black women are as concerned with beauty as much as any woman across this globe. By removing us from this demographic we become exceptional. We become unlike most women, making us more susceptible to the patronization of well-meaning, but uninformed, do-gooders.

Speaking of uninformed; Owens is dreadfully off when it comes to step culture. Most telling is his focus on having his performers “mean-mug”, or “grit face”. He explains it as a standard aesthetic of stepping. False! For sororities especially, this screwing of the face is rare, for it is considered not pretty. Actually, we (I was initiated into a Black sorority years ago and was on our step team) often stepped in heels, because we thought of ourselves as ladies. This still holds true. So I would like to know why when I surf YouTube videos of women stepping I mostly encounter a concern with daintiness and the performance of sexiness but Owens seemed to only find growling women? This focus on ugly perplexed even some of Owens’ performers, who were forcefully instructed by him to make the grit-face though it made them uncomfortable.

This idea that the show was a tour-de-force in the battle to bring more diversity to the fashion industry is naïve. The women were not models, they were performers. More than likely they will not grace another runway and there are no modeling agents ringing their phones to book them for Fashion Week 2014. They will not challenge the lack of diversity in the fashion industry any more than white models shot against African landscapes.  Perhaps most informing is the curious silence of black supermodels Naomi Campbell and Iman who are part of “Diversity Coalition” an advocacy group that penned a letter shortly before Paris Fashion Week calling for more color on the runway. Perhaps, like me, the never satisfied Black woman, they had something else in mind.

Further Reading

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Cinematic universality

Fatou Cissé’s directorial debut meditates on the uncertain fate and importance of Malian cinema amidst the growing dismissiveness towards the humanities across the world.

The meanings of Heath Streak

Zimbabwean cricketing legend Heath Streak’s career mirrors many of the unresolved tensions of race and class in Zimbabwe. Yet few white Zimbabwean sporting figures are able to stir interest and conversation across the nation’s many divides.


After winning Italy’s Serie A with Napoli, Victor Osimhen has cemented his claim to being Africa’s biggest footballing icon. But is the trend of individual stardom good for sports and politics?

Breaking the chains of indifference

The significance of ending the ongoing war in Sudan cannot be overstated, and represents more than just an end to violence. It provides a critical moment for the international community to follow the lead of the Sudanese people.

The magic man

Chris Blackwell’s long-awaited autobiography shows him as a romantic rogue; a risk taker whose life compass has been an open mind and gift to hear and see slightly into the future.

How to think about colonialism

Contemporary approaches to the legacy of colonialism tend to narrowly emphasize political agency as the solution to Africa’s problems. But agency is configured through historically particular relations of which we are not sole authors.

More than just a flag

South Africa’s apartheid flag has been declared hate speech by a top court. But while courts are important and their judgments matter, racism is a long and internationally entrenched social phenomenon that cannot be undone via judicial processes.

Resistance is a continuous endeavor

For more than 75 years, Palestinians have organized for a liberated future. Today, as resistance against Israeli apartheid intensifies, unity and revolutionary optimism has become the main infrastructure of struggle.

Paradise forgotten

While there is much to mourn about the passing of legendary American singer and actor Harry Belafonte, we should hold a place for his bold statement-album against apartheid South Africa.

The two Africas

In the latest controversies about race and ancient Egypt, both the warring ‘North Africans as white’ and ‘black Africans as Afrocentrists’ camps find refuge in the empty-yet-powerful discourse of precolonial excellence.