Dear hairy brown girls everywhere,
Putting us all under that one bushy umbrella may be a cliché thing to do, as we know being brown and hairy almost comes hand in hand, but being a hairy woman clearly isn’t spoken about enough. Recently, it started making headlines and Harper’s Bazaar paraded armpit hair like the latest accessory. This comes as no surprise from Harper’s Bazaar, a magazine that is trying to be both sexy for the male gaze and feminist at the same time. And who better to parade sexy feminism than Emily Ratajkowski? Because, of course, I forgot hair is only cool when shown off by a slim, white, hetero woman making it ‘fashun’ again.
In an open essay for the September Issue titled Emily Ratajkowski explores what it means to be hyper feminine, Ratajkowski wrote about feminism and choice, and the importance of women’s right to choose but more importantly how she dresses, what she posts, if she decides to shave or not. Hence the photo of her, arm raised, showing-off her armpit hair—in black and white no less, because she’s really serious about this.
But hairy girls everywhere, what was your reaction? Were you praiseful towards the model and activist for taking the hit for women everywhere (mind you, she did get archaic comments telling her to shave her hair for health and cleanliness) or did you, like me, roll your eyes so much your contacts nearly came off?
I am tired of white feminism and this is exactly why: Emily Ratajkowski showing-off her armpit hair for a mainstream magazine that caters mainly to her self-applauding white peers and saying it’s for all women, does nothing actually for all women.
Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe someone out there is now looking at Ratajkowski and is inspired to not shave. But think about this, for Emily Ratajkowski and Harper’s Bazaar to have even made this image of feminism appealing to its readers, Ratajkowski had to sell her sex appeal at the same time, signaling that this, too, can be attractive (as long as you fit into Eurocentric standards of beauty and of, course, look like that in a bra).
And what kind of feminism does this even fall into? The actor’s message may be positive, and, yes, I agree that women can do whatever they want, but this doesn’t mean every time a woman does something in the name of women it’s automatically good for women and worthy of applause.
If Harper’s Bazaar were truly inclusive, they would have featured a range of women commenting on how they feel about their body hair. Women from all walks of life, not just in their sexuality, gender, religion, politics, and upbringing, but also their schools of thought and hair textures. Would Ratajkowski be their choice if her hair were curly, coarse, and looked like it was derived from an African ancestry? Would they have shown a veiled Muslim woman wearing the niqab and talking about her relationship with body hair even if she doesn’t show it?
Being a brown girl and growing up with dark thick hair is amazing. It’s strong. It takes well to oil and comes in textures that both tell our history and that show that we’re made from the sun. Yet, it’s also complicated. There are so many common threads between us, from those that literally shaped our eyebrows and moustaches and perhaps forced us into puberty faster (depending on how cool your mum was and what age she’d let you go to the salon), to stories about shaving from a very young age because being one of the only brown Muslim girls in class is hard enough and we don’t want to be the brown, Muslim, and hairy one on top. Memories of being told that “you must be a man” from boys who now dm you on Instagram. I haven’t even spoken about what it must be like for curvier women, and those who do not fit within the binaries of gender and sexuality.
The issue with Emily Ratajkowski or Harper’s Bazaar’s story isn’t actually about her armpit hair or her curated sex appeal designed to sell one version of what freedom looks like, it’s about how little white feminists have to do to be praised for helping all women.
As brown and black girls, we have to solve the issues surrounding female genital mutilation, child marriage, and the lack of representation in the media in order for us to be acknowledged for doing anything for our communities. And yes, I’m talking about our communities. When brown and black girls do anything for women, we’re boxed in for doing it for our women instead of all women, even if we’re the global majority, whereas Ratajkowski is now credited with representing all women.
But it’s not radical to show off your armpit hair—which is rumoured to be fake anyway as Ratajkowski has said to be lasered everywhere. It’s not revolutionary to be another white woman trying to be the face of feminism when it’s trendy and cool. If anything, it shows me how little work you have to do to be accepted both beneath the patriarchy and in the arms of women. If anything, this is all corny and boring. Next.
Signed with love,
Exhausted and hairy brown girl
Shakerah Penfold has created something I haven’t seen before. As the uncertainty of our times is caused by a myriad of factors—be it unprecedented Brexit proceedings, politicians showing their prejudice across national TV or the rise of hate crime towards minorities—this hostile air can make communities feel polarised and divided. The @AskAPoC Instagram account is a space on the internet where that gap shrinks. This account is where you can ask a question regarding race or stereotypes and be answered by Penfold and the @AskAPoC community. And all it costs is one British pound.
Screen Shot magazine sat down with Penfold to discuss how in an era of being either ‘cancelled’ or ‘woke’, asking unfiltered questions works.
On a daily basis, Penfold works performs a charitable service by pairing vulnerable people with volunteer opportunities. The founder of @AskAPoC describes herself as not having a penchant for long walks on the beach, but one for dismantling racial stereotypes and “fighting the patriarchy before breakfast”. A southerner “lost up North”, Penfold was inspired to create @AskAPoC when she saw a @trueblacksoul post asking white people to ask a question that they have always wanted to know the answer to. Realising this could be a regular conversation and somewhere she could direct people in her workplace (especially when they asked her 21 questions about her hair), @AskAPoC was born.
“So it’s a pretty basic concept whereby curious people can send a question anonymously to the page and it’s answered by myself, and/or the community that the question is aimed at,” explains Penfold. Those who want to ask a question, have to first donate to the charity founded among Penfold and her friends called Food For Thought SL. The money from platforms such as @AskAPoC goes to building sustainable development projects in a village called Robuya in Sierra Leone. After the money is donated, you can then direct message the account and Penfold will share the question and her answer and then give it up to the floor (the @AskAPoC Instagram community) to chime in as well.
Though the questions are largely asked by white women and answered largely by women of colour, the audience for @AskAPoC is diverse, and Penfold and her team don’t know what the race of the quizzers are unless their question reveals it. Was she afraid of creating an echo chamber with her views front and centre? “I wish!” says Penfold over email—I can almost hear her passion over Gmail. “The page is called @AskAPoc, meaning that only people of colour need to answer. However, we still get a LOT of non-people of colour answering and taking up space so there are no chances of an echo chamber.”
With accounts such as @AskAPoC, it’s important to remember that people of colour as a whole are not a monolithic group. Even the phrase ‘people of colour’ is debated on widely, as it implies that white people make the norm and everyone else the are ‘others’. “In fairness, even without that input, people of colour are all raised in different societies and cultures so there’s always conflicting answers. I say go with whichever answer feels right to you,” adds Penfold.
Having experienced racism in the past, and having had to explain why macro and microaggressions are not acceptable for Z, Y, and X reasons, I know the emotional toll racism can take first hand. Therefore, discovering @AskAPoC, I initially thought it’s only fair that the minimum should be to donate to a charity first. But then I thought, why is it always the work of women of colour, and especially black women, to undo ignorance? The intellectual, social, and mostly emotional labour Penfold and her community do regularly is not a small task, especially as the @AskAPoC community grows.
“Sometimes it feels emotionally draining, especially when non-people of colour are in the comments trying to justify or push their own agenda,” says Penfold when I ask if this all feels too heavy to carry. The founder also mentions how yes, there are frequently asked questions that are disheartening such as “Why can’t I wear my hair in braids?” and “Why can’t I say the N-word?”. “However, it’s always balanced when I get emails saying how much someone loves the page and how much they have learned from it”. What Penfold really teaches through @AskAPoC is to spot the intention behind a question. Not all of us live in cosmopolitan cities nor do we all have the same experiences; therefore, being considerate within the @AskAPoC community is imperative, and it works both ways.
It’s also a space to understand how valid black and brown reactions are regardless of the intent.
I don’t believe that people of colour can undo a systemically racist system that continues to undervalue us by the spreading of information only, especially if those stories fall on defensive and deaf ears. Nor do I think we should expect that this is a task for people of colour to undertake on their own. However, what accounts such as @AskAPoC do is allow an open conversation to take place, and, essentially, share hope in what can feel like dire times.
Though black and brown bodies and minds have every reason to be angry at the mistreatment of their communities, their marginalisation also tends to evoke profound compassion, knowing what it’s like to be pushed aside. It’s this empathy that has taught Penfold and her community so much about humanity. “People are so willing to be educated and people like to help others learn. I think that’s beautiful, especially in the world we live in. I love how a community of people of colour who may have faced so much ignorance in their lives have not hardened their hand, but draw on those experiences to try and stop it happening to their fellow sister or brother.”