The email arrived on a Sunday morning with the subject heading ‘Boots Campaign Proposal’.
I was planning my excuses before I even opened it; I’m too busy, I’m too tired, I need to prioritise my third novel, thank you for thinking of me, best wishes etc.
Then I read it.
“Boots would like to invite Louise to a brunch hosted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in London on the 19th of October with other influential women. They will discuss and debate a series of topics surrounding how makeup can be used to make a woman feel strong and empowered.”
I stopped breathing when I saw her name.
I have to make it clear to you that I never get star-struck. Having been on set with some of the biggest celebrities in the world, I have come to the conclusion that people are just people, regardless of their fame or wealth.
But this was Adichie, arguably the most gifted author to come out of Nigeria since Chinua Achebe. She is also a feminist icon, with her TED talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ watched by millions of people, sampled by Beyonce in her song ‘Flawless’, and most recently, inspiring Dior’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection.
I came to Adichie’s work late, reading Americanah in 2013 and promptly devouring every single word she had ever written — every novel, every short story, every article, every Facebook post, and each of them has shaped me in some indelible way.
I particularly remember a column for Elle called ‘Why Can’t a Smart Woman Love Fashion?’ in which she wrote about a culture where “women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance... if you spoke of fashion it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers.”
I realised that I had fallen prey to this trap. I had moved home to Ireland after working at a magazine in New York and I had experienced an almost evangelical feminist awakening.
I would reject all the trappings of the patriarchy, I decided. I wouldn’t wear makeup or care about fashion anymore. I would free myself of the burden of engaging in all that ‘nonsense’ and refuse to perform femininity.
When I read that essay by Chimamanda, I realised that I wasn’t fighting some feminist flame-war, that I was, in fact, simply doing the patriarchy’s work for it.
I considered the latent misogyny in labelling everything that women have traditionally been interested in as superficial and frivolous, subtly encouraging women to aspire to be more like men as if they were the inherently superior sex.
This dismissive attitude towards women’s interests extends far beyond the world of makeup. Consider the terms ‘Chick-lit’ and ‘Chick-flicks’.
Why must literature and movies aimed at women be infantilised in this way? While obviously not all women are going to be interested in fashion or makeup or enjoy romantic comedies or want to read commercial women’s fiction — why should those of us who do feel shame?
Too often I have been told that I ‘don’t look like a writer’, or people have voiced their surprise that I worked in fashion because I write about such serious topics now.
(I would wager that very few male politicians have been questioned about their love of sport or cars or any other stereotypically ‘masculine’ past-time.)
I believe that feminism is about giving women the space to express their true selves.
If you don’t care about clothes then you shouldn’t feel pressured into conforming and similarly, you shouldn’t feel compelled to wear cosmetics in order to be a ‘real woman’ (worst phrase ever).
However, it’s important to note that you’re not betraying the feminist cause by revelling in the pleasure of finding the perfect shade of red lipstick either.
I rarely wear makeup when I’m at my writing desk and I feel just as comfortable in my own skin without it.
When I do decide to apply it, I approach my makeup bag in the same way I did my crayons as a child, with a sense of fun and curiosity.
It was a joy to sit around that table in London with Sali Hughes, Sarah Willingham, Cherry Healey, Gemma Cairney, Gizzi Erskine, and Chimamanda — a group of intelligent, accomplished, interesting women — and talk about beauty without embarrassment or hesitation.
No7 Cosmetics has made an incredibly smart move by asking Chimamanda to be the spokesperson for their Match Made skin tone analysis campaign.
Besides the importance of using a black woman as the face of a major beauty campaign, thus allowing millions of young women of colour to see themselves represented in a way that is still too rare, No7 has also given many women the permission to talk openly about their appreciation of makeup.
If someone as brilliant as Adichie unabashedly enthuses about cat’s eyeliner, then surely others can do so without fear of being dismissed as shallow or silly? As Chimamanda herself said: “The truth is, makeup doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s simply makeup... It’s about the face I choose to show the world and what I choose to say.”
As I left the studio that day, there was so much I wanted to say to her.
I wanted to tell her how her ferociousness and fearlessness had given me the courage to articulate my own.
I wanted to explain to her how her work had changed me, how it had influenced so many of my ideas about myself as a woman.
I wanted to tell her that she had made me think deeply about colonialism and white privilege and had forced me to confront my own subconscious biases.
I wanted to tell her how I had stood at a Beyonce concert in 2014 as an excerpt of her Ted Talk played, the word FEMINIST picked out in 10 feet lights in the background, and I had cried, my heart breaking and mending itself in less than a minute.
In the end, I just said thank you. I hope she knew what I meant.