A little bit about ourselves…
We are a group of five female undergraduate students at a liberal arts college in Minnesota. We hail from the East Coast, Midwest, and Singapore, comprise of members who identify as white, American and Hmong refugee woman, and our socioeconomic positions span upper to working class. We experience our bodies in a multitude of ways: contentedly, outside of “normative” clothing sizes, a work in progress, in a happy but complicated relationship, as a means of interacting with the world and getting where I want to go. Collectively we identify as able bodied, though several of us need glasses. We define our sexualities as, straight, heterosexual, and pansexual.
Fashion as a Tool for Change
Here, we will be comparing two theorists on the overlapping theme of beauty and fashion as a form of social change to a similar scholarly work. We’ll begin with discussing Minh-Ha T. Pham’s article entitled, “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion,” and Mimi Thi Nguyen’s interview with associate professor Tanisha C. Ford.
These two authors take a similar stance representing a positive view of fashion in the American public sphere. For them, Fashion, is a tool for political change as it mediates the ways in which the bodies of women, specifically women of color, are read in the public sphere. Both argue that women of color are twice scrutinized in fashion; first, as women and second, as people of color. Pham, here, emphasises how traditional African garments are viewed differently on different racial bodies.
As a woman of color, one group member recounts an encounter where she was wearing a so-called “ethnic” skirt around campus, triggering many racial and ethnic stereotypes about her own ethnicity. The underlying dilemma here lies in the assumption that she is different due to her skin color and fashion choice, suggesting she must be from somewhere else.
Both articles argue therefore that women of color specifically can use the way they dress to change the way in which others perceive them. Pham writes, “Professional women of color thus consciously and unconsciously fashion themselves in ways that diminish their racial difference.” Ford cites women in the SNCC who styled their hair naturally and wore overalls for political reasons, discussing the decisions of women of color in academia who choose to dress themselves in boldly fashionable clothing rather than traditional, masculine professors’ garb. By doing so, they redefine how professionals are expected to appear both stylistically and physically.
Nguyen’s article, “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the Age of Terror”, however points out that fashion can also be used as a negative tool, demonstrating how it acts as an imposing force in Afghanistan. Nguyen discusses the ways in which the makeover of Afghani women becomes a metaphor for national regime change, highlighting the problematic nature of the NGO, Beauticians without Borders, which views the first action as a stepping stone to the next. The imposition of Western beauty values appears as a form of cultural colonialism, co opting Afghani beauty standards and cultural practices.
One group member mentioned her own experience with cultural colonialism, buying several pairs of colored eye contact lenses sold by beauty stores in her community and wearing them when going out in public. She believed in the societal myth that green, blue, or grey eyes are more attractive and beautiful, altering her eye color to conform to Western beauty norms.
Another member explained how many Asian men and women choose to manipulate their eyelids with tape or even surgery in order to achieve the more Western eyelid look: a creased eyelid, rather than a monolid. She had implemented the tool of the eyelid tape to create that creased lid, however for her, it was not to look more Western. Instead, her eyes were naturally uneven. However, as Western eyelids are seen as more appealing and even, she used this tape to permanently level out her eyelids. Though there was no desire to look Western, the accepted ideas of Western beauty influenced her decision to change.
A Few Final Thoughts
When we first began comparing these two issues it seemed that Nguyen was contradicting herself, first arguing that fashion could be used in empowering ways to challenge systemic sexism and racism among women of color in the public sphere of the US, then challenging this through illustrating the problematic nature of the Kabul Beauty School. However, after further discussion we reached a consensus that fashion and beauty can be used as political tools which are capable of creating social change, but can also orchestrate oppression and colonialism. The central factor in all of this is context. Black American fashionistas are working within their own cultural context in which they exercise far more agency than the Afghani women who are being taught new cultural standards of beauty by Western volunteers through a form of cultural imperialism.