Nina Mdwaba talks about her experience modelling as a woman of colour and how she is done with appeasing white culture’s beauty standards. We are with her, are you?

I was recently involved in a fashion show , where I happened to be the only model of colour. Don’t get me wrong I had a wonderful time and all the people were welcoming , I rarely felt like “the other”. But the closer we got to the show, the closer I knew I was getting to that time of the night I dreaded, where the mua and hair team came in.  

In that moment I knew that I would be made the “other”, the girl who had a face of glitter and bronze that barely showed on my dark skin. I don’t know if the mua team had not been informed that a darker skin model was going to be part of the team or (as I would expect from past experience) the mua and hair team didn’t really give a shit, but they didn’t have products suitable for me!

Now you may look at me and think, your hair is short, what were you expecting? My answer to that would be ,”not much” and to be frank that’s only because I’m used to the same tired , dismissive excuse of “you look great as is”. Well yes, but you have to imagine, when all the models were being fussed over with their sleek blonde hair ( as the show had been curated) I was seated with a face full of glitter and my natural (peroxide bleached) fro.

There was a bitter irony in the fact that one of the hair team members had luminous orange braids (just to throw some appropriation into the mix) but somehow had no idea what to do with a black girl’s hair, so I did my usual of running some water into my curls and that was me for the evening.

Growing up, I bought into the industry of weaves and chemically straightened hair, an industry that every black girl buys into because we’ve been assimilated into believing that the western aesthetic is the only aesthetic. My mother and her mother bought into it too – it’s what was taught to them.

Then I grew up, and the more I read about black beauty, the more I saw and the more I  became my own woman, I realised that I was no longer happy with adopting another’s perception of beauty, so I chopped off my hair and began to grow it naturally.

It didn’t solve my problems – if anything it made things more difficult. I found myself entering into black hair salons where stylists refused to touch my hair because they hadn’t a clue what to do with it now that it wasn’t chemically straightened. I was fed up , so I began to do the work.

I started watching YouTube tutorials, learning about protective hair styles and products that were good for my natural hair, oils and beautiful concoctions that made my curls pop and my hair glisten. I felt more at peace with myself, my appearance and my identity as a black woman. Something I didn’t know was being stripped from me.

It’s been 4 years since I’ve cut my hair and I still get the odd request from (white) people to touch my hair (it’s annoying but I don’t always mind). It’s also kind of sweet when they genuinely want to learn. I’m more than happy to teach people about OUR culture , OUR beauty and OUR natural hair.

It’s funny now I suppose, as I sit here writing this piece remembering the day I told my mother I had cut my hair. I remember the first thing that came out her mouth was “why, are you in mourning?” “Mourning?” I responded. As though something as tragic as a death would have to occur in order for a black woman to decide to cut her hair? I was dumbfounded.

Until I remembered that as a black, South African woman from a rich cultural background filled with traditions, one of which was that a woman/mother is expected to cut her hair when in mourning. Still, in a western setting my mother was unable to separate the two and in the same way, I was unable to put two and two together. I guess what it really came down to was that she too had been assimilated into the western concept of beauty – so much so, that even her own culture was secondary to the “norm” we’d been forced to adopt as our own.

So finally, I’ve reached a point in my life where compromising my Africanness and my blackness at my own expense for the comfort of the West is no longer an option I’m willing to entertain. This is for a number of reasons, but I also  endured a traumatising experience after New Year back home, in what my country supposedly refers to as “A Rainbow Nation” where “every race and diversity is celebrated”. A white man told me I wasn’t black enough because  of the lightness of my skin, referring to me as “mocha” He used horrible racist slurs around me in an attempt at what he probably thought was “banter”. He did this even after I asked him several times to stop, and reminded him that it wasn’t only inappropriate but offensive. I eventually walked away because I realised that you can’t change the mentality of a racist, you can only walk away and hope they haven’t left a permanent mark.

As such I’ve come to an informal agreement with myself that when I see fit , I will educate those who are willing to learn and when I see a wasted opportunity I will walk away. Some people are just not worth the effort.

Optimistically, I hope for a day where the colour of my skin, the texture of my hair and my gender will be a mere aesthetic and not a clarion call to stereotypes, prejudice and hatred. Because My Black Is Infinitely Beautiful.

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