They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that’s not the impression you’d get from flipping through a fashion magazine. The images we see in mainstream media every day suggest that there’s only one way to be beautiful: white skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, thin body. Not only do these ideals exclude women of color altogether, but they also reinforce the troubling idea that you should change your hair, skin color, or body to be a part of the club.
But thanks to social media and the internet, there are new gatekeepers changing the conversation about what it means to be beautiful, practicing inclusive representation, and creating places to explore, talk, and educate. Antonia Opiah is one of them. In 2013, she started launched her hair blog and e-commerce site Un-ruly, which has everything from hair commentary, styling tips and recommendations for products to buy. It was in creating this website that Opiah became comfortable in her own skin and hair.
In a Skype interview, she explained that, prior to creating Un-ruly, her hair was natural, but only for practical reasons. "I made a conscious decision not to relax my hair because my hairline was thinning, but I was still wearing weaves and wigs. I was sort of in that camp that said, I’m natural but it’s not because I’m going back to my roots. But very quickly, wearing my hair natural became something that had an emotional impact on me,” Opiah told Fusion. “By way of wearing my hair natural I started to really think about why I had chosen to keep it straight and why I was still choosing to wear wigs… it really made me start questioning what I considered beautiful and what hairstyles I considered beautiful on me."
Now Opiah is traveling around the world, from Milan to London to Tel Aviv, asking other black women about their experiences and opinions on beauty standards in a web series called Pretty. We talked to the Un-ruly founder about the factors that play into feeling comfortable in one's beauty and why it's important to explore other perspectives of blackness.
How did the idea for Un-ruly come about?
It came about for selfish reasons. I always changed my hair, like most black women do. I usually changed it once a month. At the time, I was looking for a place where I could get hair ideas. I was stuck in a hair rut. I was looking for a website where I could find an abundance of black hair inspiration, but I couldn’t really find that. I wasn’t that hip to Pinterest and Instagram wasn’t that big at the time, and looking at Google Images, I was kind of let down. I was like, 'Wait, I have the background to create an online destination for black hair,' so I figured, why not go ahead and do that?
Un-ruly is a place where you can buy hair products, but also a place where you can start a conversation and learn.
When I created [Un-ruly], I always had in mind a beauty supply store or a beauty shop where you can just go in and be yourself. I remember walking into a salon in Bed-Stuy, taking off my wig and no one caring, because we are all black women and we know the drill. It’s not anything crazy to have a woman take off her wig and have cornrows underneath. I wanted to recreate, and I am still trying to recreate, [that] sort of safe place online for black women to talk about hairstyles, but also to talk about whatever else might come up.
Why do you think it’s important for black women to have an online space to talk about hair?
The commercials that you see for hair products mostly target white women. When I was growing up, I remember watching Marcia Brady brush her hair 100 times on TV and thinking, "Oh, okay, I should do the same thing," because that’s just what I was being exposed to. Typically, when black women are learning about their hair, they aren’t learning about it through mainstream channels. They are learning about it through their friends, their family, and these non-mainstream spaces. As a result, black hair has been this marginalized thing with its own very specific needs. Now, with the internet and with technology being the way that it is, it’s like we can surface black hair. We can have a forum where we can learn from each other about our hair.
Usually, when we talk about European culture, we think about whiteness. The media's obsessed with the style and beauty of white French women. Then, when we think about black culture, we think about the African-American experience. In Pretty you debunk both of those ideas. Why did you think it was important to explore other perspectives of blackness?
I’ve been living in France and I’ve met a lot of black women here. It became clear very quickly that, when we hear or see a black story being told, it’s usually the black American experience. Diversity is really diverse: Even within blackness, there are so many types of black women, so many types of black men. I wanted to dig deep into those other experiences and tell those stories, because it only adds to our larger story. I wanted to get a connection on a couple of different levels to the global black experience.
Pretty is a series that talks to women about their idea of beauty, but so much of it is about how irrelevant the idea of beauty is all together.
I’ve been glad to see that many women that I’ve spoken to have known that: that being pretty is not everything and that there are different ideas of beauty that go beyond the surface. But I do think appearance does play an important role in everyone’s lives. It’s how we communicate who we are and it’s how we make a first impression. I personally haven’t figured out how to synthesize that fact with the idea that beauty is so much more than just what’s on this surface. I have more plans and a lot of women I want to speak to. I think I am going to be digging a little bit deeper into the way surface beauty and inner beauty play with each other.
What factors do you think play into accepting your beauty for what it is?
I feel like it’s different for different people. I think accepting yourself—both the good and the bad, your quirks and the things that make you uniquely you—that’s a huge part of being comfortable with yourself and loving yourself. But there are other factors. One of the girls that I interviewed, she lived in Sweden, and there’s not a lot of black people in Sweden. The way she felt about herself was greatly impacted by that. She told me that moving to England had a huge impact on how she felt about herself because the environment was different. London, it’s a more cosmopolitan city where it’s not abnormal or crazy to be black among other races and ethnicities.
One of the things I’ve realized is that unless you have a self-esteem of steel, there is no way that you can not react to how someone treats you, whether that be because you're beautiful and you get all kinds of doors opened for you or because you're black in a completely white town and people look at you like you're weird. I would say that part of how you feel about yourself is dependent on how well you can deal with how people respond to you. Strengthening and growing that part of you, the ability to take people’s responses with a grain of salt, factors into how you feel about yourself.
Moving from New York to Paris, do you think people react to you differently?
Paris is weird. They have this whole thing that they call color-blind France, where everyone is French and no one is like black French or African French or Tunisian French. I think that it is good and bad. The population of black people in France isn’t as big as it is in, say, England, but I feel like people here are pretty acquainted with blackness. It’s not uncommon to see black people. They aren’t intrigued or fascinated by it, especially not in Paris. I have never really felt my race in Paris, but that also might because I’m an American and people can kind of see that or at least hear it when I speak.
In one of the episodes of Pretty, a woman talks about how black beauty is undeniably very present and takes up space, but black women are invisible and ignored. What are your thoughts on that contradiction?
Throughout this series, [we've seen] that blackness is still widely associated with being "less than" or not worth representation. I think that’s one thing that motivates me to do pretty much everything that I do. It’s a sad fact, and it’s a fact that has sort of worked its way into the definition of blackness and the definition of black beauty. A lot of times, you’ll hear blackness being defined as the ability to overcome strife or adversity—what she [says] about being present but also invisible speaks to that. We have to overcompensate for the fact that we’re so ignored or so associated with negative things. There is a kind of power that comes from trying to do things that everyone else is trying to do, but starting maybe 10 steps behind.
Another thing that makes Un-ruly different is that there isn't just a focus on natural hair. There is talk about black women with curly hair, black women with straight hair, black women with braids, black women with weaves. Why did you think it was important to be inclusive?
I feel like, given the history of black hair, versatility is a big part of its DNA. There are some sites that are strictly dedicated to natural hair and there’s a few relaxed hair blogs. I think those are great because they cater to very specific needs. I wanted to make sure Un-ruly was a place for black hair, period, and all kinds of black hairstyles. Maybe that’s just a reflection of who I am, but I think that there is a good segment of the black female population that also feels the same way. You can wear a wig one day and wear braids the next day or wear your natural hair. I think we’re at the point where we have a lot of choices. My big thing is just making sure that you are aware of why you are making the choices that you are making, and that the choices that you are making are your own.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.