By Rose Miyonga
With the prominence of smart, beautiful women of colour in the pubic eye wearing head wraps, it might seem like head wraps are having a renaissance. But i would argue that they never went away. Phenomenal women like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lupita Nyong’o and Zadie Smith deserve credit for wearing their head wraps with such style and grace, and their power is only enhanced by the fact that the history of the garment makes them part of a long tradition of women of African origin defying the conventions of Western beauty standards and standing tall and powerful at the intersection between tradition and avant-garde.
Head wraps are worn by women and men all over the world for various cultural, social and religious reasons, and the history of the head wrap in Africa is diverse.
The African American head wrap has a distinct story. At one time it was mandatory for slaves to cover their hair and, as photographer Juliana Kasumu discovered while working in her photo-series, Moussour to Tignon: The Evolution of the Head-Tie, head wraps were made compulsory for Black women, freed and enslaved in 1786 by Esteban Rodríguez Miró. The governor of Louisiana and Florida decreed that black women, both freed and enslaved, had to wear a head wrap as a means of racial classification.
But like all policies intended to strip Black women of the natural power of their Afro hair throughout history have, it failed.
Kasumu notes: “They looked even more beautiful, and more appealing, and they used to decorate these head wraps with jewels, and plumes. They became more attractive if anything. It just backfired.”
For me, the head wrap is like a crown that gives height, power and presence. It connects me to a long legacy of Black women who refused to crush their beauty to make other people feel more comfortable. Sometimes it’s functional, like when I rub homemade leave-in conditioner into my hair and wrap it to let it soak in, but more often it’s because of how it makes me feel. It makes me stand tall, think hard and feel proud.
“Like all hairstyles for black women, headwraps mean a myriad of things to me. From protective style, to channelling Royal African Realness, emulating Erykah Badu, or even just feeling too lazy to do something with my hair, I find that it’s a look that gets to adapt and change with my mood and style.
My Aunty Chipili was always in headwraps; different materials, different prints and always tied in new ways. I guess symbolically for me it was and still is her crown. A sense of pride exudes from black women who wear headwraps and they also emit a regal energy – I mean look at Nefertiti.
Style inspo firstly comes from every single Igbo and Yoruba aunty heading off to a wedding or Sunday service in the most deluxe gele’s, their looks and fabrics are consistently immaculate. Also, I remember, as a kid my mum having a cassette of Miriam Makeba lying around and being enamoured by Miriam’s noble headwrap and dangly earrings on the cover art. Solange always has fun with it her looks and headwraps and Erykah Badu’s layering techniques are killer. I really love how Nina Simone’s wraps matched the fabrics of her designer suits and bespoke chic clothes. She’s a lasting symbol of opulence and unapologetic blackness.
Last, but not least, Aunty Chipili, who like Nina, always wore whatever she wanted and paired it with an elegantly-tied headwrap.”
“The creative process for styling any of Lupita’s looks is always a joint effort between myself, Lupita and her stylist. Like me, Lupita is always filled with ideas. Her hair is so versatile and we both get excited talking about our visions and possibilities for it. There must be a balance though, of fabulous hair that works with the overall styling; complementing what she is wearing, not distracting from it.
For the Queen of Katwe promotional tour, premieres and so on, Lupita knew that she wanted to wear a head wrap. We started thinking about this about a year in advance and researched sources from all over the world. Our main influence which helped to inform our vision of what we wanted to achieve, was African tribes.
Her stylist and I spent quite a long time in various markets and fabric stores in Kenya, sourcing materials. We took these to the design houses that Lupita was working with, who then either used the same fabric for fashioning her dress or used it to inspire their own choice of fabric.
Lupita had to explain to her fashion houses that we wouldn’t know exactly how her head wraps would look, until the day. On the day of styling any head wrap, I always think that the most important thing is to approach it with a flexible mindset and be prepared to go with the flow. Because each piece of material will bend, shape and fold in its own way. Create with the material.
Styling a head wrap in a modern way, for me, boils down to these three things: creating height, a striking silhouette and choosing the best fabric to either match or complement your outfit.
Femininity, elegance and confidence. You can’t help but walk with your head held high when wearing a wrap. And it’s been shown that if you walk tall with a positive posture, you feel more confident. Which I think can only be a good thing.
Of course, I am also highly aware that head wraps can have cultural and religious meaning; which I am always very respectful of. I keep this in mind when working with my clients, choosing colours appropriate to events that they are attending, for instance.
Head wraps are worn by people all over the world; in many ways and for lots of different reasons; functional, fashionable, cultural or religious. Those of African origin tend to vary in style depending on where they are created.
The Nigerian head wrap is called a gele and has inspired some of my creations for Lupita. Geles are usually quite big and bold with lots of height. I wanted to make sure that I did this head wrap justice with a blend of keeping its integrity but making it more modern. I was pleased that this was recognised and embraced by a lot of people who are familiar with geles; and received some very positive comments about it.”
“Head wraps are a part of who I am, part of my identity as an African women. I’m African first- you see me that’s what you notice first. Head wraps also represent my fierce lioness side. I feel extremely powerful when wearing my head wrap, as a child most women who I admired, including my mother, wore heard wraps.
I don’t wear it for political reasons or solidarity with others, all my life I fought for being my true authentic self and wearing a heard wrap is me at my core, however the head wraps has being a symbol to exhibit my African roots when speaking at a global stage, a symbol of pride.
I love bold colours, such as red , green and egg yolk, I would wear it with my western clothing, love pairing heard warps with my fitted suits, you will find my head wrap colour will match my statement accessory wether it’s a necklace, rig or hand bag.
My biggest style inspiration has always being my mother, as a child I couldn’t wait to grow up so I can dress like her, she always had her own sense of style till today my mother designs a lot of my dresses, we have similar taste, we like simple and unique looks, I guess the head wrap gives me that opportunity to experiment with colours and print.”
Posted by Kay
We met facialist and skincare consultant Dija Ayodele at a talk we both did at Selfridges and asked if she would like to contribute. “I have some ideas’” she said, and a few weeks later she sent us this well-researched piece all about the widespread culture of skin bleaching.
Recently, Kenyan ‘socialite’ Vera Sidika has been making waves because of her open admission of skin-lightening on a popular Kenyan TV show, #theTrend.
Sidika said her decision to lighten her skin was economically-motivated, claiming she has received more work offers with her markedly lighter skin tone. After the show’s airing, #theTrend’s host, Larry Madowo, was “accused of promoting or endorsing a white-centred view of beauty for African girls by interviewing her”. Consequently, NTV – the station behind the show ran a follow-up programme to “discuss skin lightening” and “encouraged people to share their thoughts using #BleachedBeauty”; and, as of last month, there have been over 4000 responses, most of them intensely critical of Sidika’s decision to go lighter.
But, though viewers’ reception of Sidika’s story was hostile, #BleachedBeauty revealed that the socialite and self-described “video-vixen[’s]” tale is not an isolated one; many girls, like Sidika, are lightening their skin in the hope of securing a partner, better jobs, and social acceptance.
Speaking to an unmarried, female cousin in Sierra Leone who uses skin-lightening products, she told me that “being overweight and very dark skinned is a double curse for her. How will she ever find a husband? It’s much better to be the fat light skinned girl than the fat black one. At least men will say I’m fat but my skin is pretty and yellow.”
Sidika and my cousin’s admissions spotlight the ever-rising debate on the issue of skin-lightening, skin-bleaching or what some refer to as skin-toning. Regardless of whichever term is used, the process refers to someone using topical creams or injected chemical cocktails to change the shade of their skin, making themselves lighter than they genetically are.
An affluent friend told me she used skin-lightening creams because she wanted to look “fresh and glowing.” For her, it wasn’t about going a lighter colour; it was more about achieving an even skin tone. But, she did go lighter. She told me of using an unknown mixture she bought from another friend who bought them in Lagos; all her friends were using it, so she thought why not – even though she had no clear idea of what the cream was made up of.
Dr Terry Loong, Medical Director of the Mayfair based Skin Energy Clinic says that this is a particular problem when people buy skin-lightening products on the black market – they have no idea what’s in it. “You could be putting on poison and you just don’t know.” Some lightening products contain mercury, phenols, steroids, hydroquinone and retinol in any mix – ingredients that cannot be legally bought over the counter in the UK, and some of which need application under strict doctor supervision.
Previously, I had thought it was only poorer women in society who engaged in skin-lightening, but my conversation with these women told me otherwise. They spoke of educated, intelligent and well-travelled women who lightened their skin; it appears the practice cuts across the social strata. It’s just that richer women can afford better creams that don’t result in the tell-tale black knuckles, fishy odour and patchy, reddened skin.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) claims that Nigeria is the skin-lightening hothouse of the world. A whopping 77% of women have used a skin-lightening product, closely followed by Togo at 59%. This claim is supported by NOI Polls who released findings in March that show 64% of Nigerians believe skin lightening has become highly predominant amongst Nigerians nationwide.
But, skin-lightening is not only a big issue in Nigeria or other African nations: in India, skin-lightening is infamously popular – a lot of it having to do with the caste structure and some cultural aspects that perpetuate the idea that fair skin is ideal.
In 2010, a report by AC Neilson showed the lightening cream market in India was worth $432 million and forecast to grow by 18% each year. This is supported by data from the World Health Organisation, which reveals 61% of the dermatological markets consist of skin-lightening products. Celebrities are the usually recruited as the promoters for whitening brands, and in Bollywood films a lot of the leading ladies are lighter, with darker skin actresses playing the “horrible sister/step mother” roles.
A Thai subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch company, Unilever, was recently forced to apologise over a university competition which suggested that scholarships would be offered to lighter skinned entrants.
The competition wanted students to send in pictures of themselves alongside Citra Pearly White UV body lotion.
The advert broadcast on TV showed a dark female student alongside a lighter-skinned fellow student. The former was seemed unable to answer the presenter’s questions whereas the latter sailed through and described as beautiful – another subtle hint that the darker the skin tone, the less intelligent the bearer.
In places like Japan and Korea, some women always have an umbrella with them to not only shade them from rain and harmful UV rays, but also to prevent darkening of the skin.
In a 2012 Huffington Post feature, skincare entrepreneur Suki Kramer said, “Lightening creams in Japan are marketed completely differently as Asian women are looking for milky, snow white skin tone – it’s what’s considered elegant and fashionable. Bleaching the skin is not only trendy, but a normal part of their skin care regimens.”
Another point to consider is the cost of skin lightening. Skin-lightening under medical supervision can cost upwards of £2000. This high cost fuels the black market of skin-lightening products and pushes those wanting lightening for aesthetic reasons to seek cheaper products from cowboy suppliers on the black market. Yinka and Michael Oluyemi, who ran Yinka Bodyline and Beauty Express in Peckham, were handed suspended prison sentences and a fine of £70,000 in 2007 after admitting ten charges of flouting medical and safety rules by selling banned skin lightening products – even after receiving numerous official warnings to remove the products from their shelves. A year earlier, Brixton-based Ace Afro Hair and Beauty was fined £50,000 for selling toxic skin bleaching products.
With all this in mind, I find it very interesting that people who use bleaching creams don’t think that’s what they are doing. In the course of my research, so many people said they were just “toning” their skin. I even got chastised on Facebook for using the word ‘bleach’ – they claimed they were merely trying to achieve an even skin tone. I believe this is because people think that so long as the product does not contain hydroquinone (a banned substance in the UK) then they are fine. They forget that there are other chemical cocktails that can cause just as much damage to the skin.
In my opinion, ‘beauty’ in some communities has been associated with fair and honey-hued skin for too long, so many have fallen into the trap of believing it.
Some cite the argument that during slavery, lighter-skinned slaves worked in the house and were treated better, comparatively, than the darker-skinned slaves who worked outside on the fields. Perhaps this is why people are trying to lighten their skin – but slavery ended over 100 years ago- do we use this today as a means of understanding the phenomena? It seems that for some women – and, frankly, whole communities – their collective psyche is still very much in bondage to the idea that white is superior.
Earlier this year, Nigerian-Cameroonian musician Dencia defended her cream, ‘Whitenicious‘, as a toner and dark-spot remover rather than an all-over lightening cream though she is noticeably lighter than she was in the past. Even the name casts a shadow over the intentions of the product: in her words “white means pure and clean“. Dencia has flatly refused to accept that Whitenicious, or the ethos behind it, preys on already fragile minds or promotes a self-deprecating cycle in some women.
People search and compare the best creams, lotions and gels, get DIY tips on mixing their own lightening agents and exchange results. I have seen people actively state that they would like to go two or three shades lighter, so they can look good for a wedding or get more work. To me, websites and forums like these are pits of pressure and insecurity sucking away at the diverse beauty of women.
Not only can lightening cheapen you and eat away at your self worth, it is also very dangerous to your health. Skin lightening increases propensity to skin cancer, burns, boils, ruptured blood vessels, kidney damage, nephrotic syndrome, premature ageing, excessive stretch marks, and skin thinning and tearing.
Aside from the physical health complications that can arise from skin lightening, the psychological effects can be just as damaging. During the skin lightening process, the production and distribution of melanin in the skin is not only reduced but also inhibited. In addition, the chemical agents used increase the breakdown of melanin in the skin and this happens over several phases, leaving the skin sore, sensitized and at risk of severe sun damage. It is not uncommon for people to go too far, too quickly, with skin lightening, leaving their skin irrevocably damaged; consequently, they can end up living in constant regret of their actions, resorting to wearing heavy camouflage make-up to hide the results of a botched bleach job or sometimes even too upset to leave the house. They can also suffer from anxiety, depression and psychosis.
One of the side effects of skin lightening is Ochronosis, a condition where the skin over compensates the effects of bleaching by producing even more melanin, which is almost impossible to get rid of. Facialist and Skin Expert, Antonia Burrell, has seen a few clients in her time that “ended up feeling worse about their skin after [skin lightening] because of the damage and the pink appearance.”
So I ask myself, why do these women think lighter is best? The only answers I can come up with are: lack of self-esteem, lack of belief in their own abilities to achieve greatness without compromise of self by pandering to ideals set by unknown gatekeepers of beauty. That is why lightening cuts across all social classes, indiscriminately. But, with myriad successful, dark-skinned women all around us, skin colour, tone or shade needn’t play such a defining part in attaining success. Even if, like Sidika, your body is your moneymaker, skintone need not be the bargaining chip.
MP Diane Abbot; First Lady Michelle Obama; journalist Femi Oke; former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; singer Shingai Shoniwa; Olympian Christine Ohuruogo; tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams; Sky News presenter Gillian Joseph, and the Queen’s chaplain Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin.
These are women who have risen to the top without a whiff of bleach, focusing on using their talents and intelligence to achieve their dreams. They are positive role models and, prominent black women, who show success is achieved through hard graft, not skintone. They show whether you are light or dark-skinned, you are beautiful just as you are; they own their beauty – and, perhaps we all should too.
See Dija’s blog
Follow Dija on Twitter
Dija will soon be launching her own facial company Facials by Dija – follow the launch on Twitter
Posted by Kay
I first met Lupita Nyong’O in London when we did press together for 12 Years A Slave in London last October (you can read all about that here).
She has since become the darling of 2014 awards season, not only because of her phenomenal performance in the film, but how she seems to scene-steal every red carpet event she walks upon!
Before I tell you about the make-up details, I must say that one of the most rewarding aspects of my job is spending time with a talented woman in the first glorious rays of recognition, and being fortunate enough to play a small part of how they are forever remembered at that special time, via the paparazzi’s lens.
Seeing Lupita again for the Bafta 2014 weekend was wonderful and her nomination for Best Supporting Actress as well as the EE Rising Star Award meant that all eyes would be on her, her dress-and her make-up!
Her gown, as you all know by now was spectacular. Emerald Dior couture- isn’t that the most glorious of colours and let’s just tell it, few people wear colours like this Kenyan beauty.
Lancome Teint Idole Ultra (shade 15) as a sheer fluid base.
Lancome Air De Teint (shade 13) under and around the eyes and at the top of the cheekbones.
I mixed the 2 Lancome palettes below together to create a smouldering dark green..
Added this rich shade of terracotta to Lupita’s cheeks..
Lips For maximum lipstick pigment, apply, blot and apply again.
Illustration of Lupita in Dior by Holly Shorthall
Last October I had the pleasure of working with a very special newcomer- Lupita Nyong’O, who was in London for the press and screening of Steve McQueen‘s much anticipated ‘12 Years A Slave‘ starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
I was thrilled when I got confirmed as I rarely get to make-up someone with Lupita’s skintone for the red carpet. The chance to be able to do something glamorous (rather than editorial which is usually more conceptual or ‘urban’) using my favourite new products was a fabulous opportunity.
I ensured that her skin was moisturised but not oily. This is particularly important for darker skins that are being photographed with flash. Flash isn’t a friend to dark skin, it can turn a perfect application of healthy, glowing make-up into an appearance of simply being greasy.
Having said that, I don’t mind a little shine, there has been a tendency for many women of colour to overdo the powdering for fear of the shine, but personally, I find it old-fashioned and a little ageing. Skin can look a little ‘dead-looking’ when velvety matte, especially in real life and under the crude light of red carpet shots.
I applied two shades of Mac Studio Fix with a sponge, starting at the centre and around the eyes with NW48 (lighter, more orange with neutralizes grey/ash) and finished around the edges of the face in the darker NW58.
Then I powdered, using Bobbi Brown‘s Loose Finishing Powder in Basic Brown with a brush (and again just before she went out).
Next up was Nars Blush in Exhibit A, and I love to put rich terracotta tones back into dark skin, plus it’s very complimentary with the Red/Coral-toned lipstick.
Now for the eyes… Illusion D’Ombres by Chanel are one of the greatest innovations in eye shadows in years-and I mean that. They act like a cream, look like a powder, and are so easy to use that they make everyone look like a pro! I love to use them with my fingers. Lupita wears Apparition here.
Lupita loves colour and she requested a ‘coral-y red’. I love this Nars Semi Matte Lipstick in Heatwave.
I often use individual eyelashes on the red carpet, they are not so difficult to use and are often found cheaply at chemists/drugstores- but remember to get a dark glue as the white can often be detected. Duo have the best ones.
Eyelash curlers also make a HUGE difference to eyelashes.
My favourite at present is Rimmel London Lash Accelorator in Black.
And for shine control, better to keep blotting papers with you rather than powder alone. This will help avoid a chalky-looking build-up.
Chanel have a gorgeous blotting paper compact with a mirror, but you can get them in chemists/drugstores everywhere these days.
So that’s the Lupita lowdown from London, Hope you enjoy giving it a try…
Hair by Vernon Francois.