Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie being named the face of Boots No. 7 is not breaking news. The Nigerian-born author has been featured in the ads for the brand’s No. 7 Match Made Skin Tone Analysis (the in-store service that helps you find your perfect foundation shade with the help of a device) since October 2016. But with the Women’s March on Washington just days away, Adichie’s powerful message of female empowerment becomes even more pertinent. She promotes self-love and self-acceptance. She combats the commonly-held gender norms. She’s believes you can be a feminist and love makeup. But don’t let me put words in her mouth. Let me hand over the mic to Adichie, who reminds us once again—and at such an important time in our history—why we should all be feminists. And then maybe throw on a red lipstick.
Tell me about your personal relationship with makeup.
“I’ve always liked makeup. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true. I liked makeup as a teenager and then I went through a phase of not being interested in makeup, and then I came back to liking it. I’d already been published first in Nigeria, but when I came to the U.S. I wanted to be published, I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, and I quickly realized that there’s a certain image expected of a woman who is ‘serious,’ creatively or intellectually, and that image couldn’t necessarily include makeup. So I stopped wearing it for quite a few years because I wanted to be taken seriously. Then at some point I just realized I like makeup, this is who I am, and I started wearing it again.
I don’t want this to seem like it was a very simple, straightforward journey. At some point I started to realize that there was something very wrong with the idea that if you’re a woman and you’re interested in things that are traditionally feminine, then somehow it means that you can’t possibly be serious, or feminist, or intellectual. And I just thought that there’s something deeply problematic about that, for a number of reasons but the most important being, ‘Well why not?’ I mean really, why not? And realizing that the basis of that idea comes from maleness as the norm [in our society], so then of course everything that’s traditionally feminine becomes suspect.”
That leads to my next question, something that we’ve talked about at Allure a lot lately, that there are two stories happening in makeup right now. We’ve got Alicia Keys who’s promoting the no makeup movement, and then there’s a whole community on Instagram who celebrate it in all its glory. How do we get to a point where we’re all just okay with how we want to do our makeup and totally accepting whatever that way is?
“That’s a good question and I wish I had the answer. I think having more conversations [about it] makes a difference. Here’s an example: For the London launch of my Boots No. 7 campaign, they set up this conversation with myself and a number of interesting, brilliant women who all do different things. There was a businesswoman, a journalist, a woman who does TV documentaries, and we sat there for an hour and talked about makeup. I remember afterwards that almost all of us were saying that we had never had that happen. It was really, in a strange kind of way, affirming to see these women who are brilliant, interesting, and doing all kinds of thoughtful, wonderful things also talking about how they love makeup. I remember thinking that this seemed almost revolutionary, although it shouldn’t be.
So what if we had many more of these conversions? What if we had women who are doing wonderful, great things in the world also acknowledging that femininity is important to them? It’s important to make space for the people who are like Alicia Keys, for whom makeup has meant something negative, because I think there can be pressure on women to wear makeup in the way that it hides who they are. I mean, as somebody who likes makeup and is the face of No 7, I actually don’t wear a ton of makeup and I quite like my face without it. But I’m also really happy when I get my cat eye or when I do my eyebrows and they look great, it just makes my day feel better and brighter.”
Do you think this social media makeup trend is moving us backwards? Is it a negative thing?
“Sometimes I worry because it seems to me that everyone looks the same—like the stenciled-in eyebrow that everybody does that looks really silly and it’s boring. I quite like the idea of originality, and I think makeup really should be about making what we already have look a bit better or to use magazine-speak, ‘make things pop.’ But maybe the thing is not to worry too much about it, because I get a sense that YouTube and Instagram are very youthful. I don’t see many women my age, and I’m 39, really liking that kind of look. When you’re young you’re allowed to do things. If you’re expected to be properly sensible when you’re 20, that’s a bit worrying, because then what’s going to happen when you’re 50? That’s when you’re supposed to be sensible.”
Why do you like makeup so much?
“Why do I like it? I like it because I like it. There’s a part of me that is a bit resistant to over-intellectualizing makeup. For example, I have friends with whom I’ve had these conversations and they’ll say things about fashion and makeup like, ‘It’s really about the consciousness of the self.’ And I’m like no. It’s just makeup. It’s fashion. It’s not about the fucking consciousness of the self. I sometimes think that intelligent women feel we need to create this intellectual mask about everything we like, and we hide behind it. I like makeup because I like makeup. And I think it’s also just being human. I know that when I’m in a good mood and I like the way I look in the mirror it makes my day better, it makes me happy. On the other hand, when I’m not having a good day I don’t really want to put on makeup. When I’m not in a good place makeup is not necessarily my friend.”
You’ve been in this role for a couple months now as the face of No. 7. What have you learned since taking on this opportunity?
“That No 7 has really good eyeliner, and that I quite like their green eyeliner on my upper lid. So that’s a major thing I have learned. But also how widespread the idea is that serious women shouldn’t be interested in makeup. I know that there are people who have said, ‘Oh, how surprising. She’s supposed to be feminist and she’s the face of a makeup brand.’ And I find that very interesting. In some ways I think it may subconsciously be part of the reason I said yes to doing this, because it’s part of this journey toward authenticity. If being public about who I am is good and useful for even just one woman out there, then I think it’s worthwhile for me.”
In your opinion, how does the beauty culture differ between Nigeria and the United States?
“In Nigeria people use 275 products and in the U.S. they use 200. I have a little anecdote to tell you what the difference is: I have a friend who’s an amateur makeup artist. She has a really good job in the corporate world in Nigeria but she just likes to do makeup on the side. She was showing me pictures of her work and I said, ‘I think it’s a bit too much makeup.’ She said to me, ‘Well if I did their makeup like your makeup, I’d never make any money because nobody will hire me.’ The point being that Nigerians don’t like my kind of makeup. It’s too subtle for them. It’s not their thing.
The good thing about Nigeria is there isn’t as much judgment on women who wear makeup as I think there is in the West, or it’s not as pronounced. I think a woman in Nigeria who is highly placed, like a CEO of a bank or highly placed in politics, and who wears makeup, there isn’t much judgment. There isn’t that assumption of she must frivolous because she’s wearing red lipstick.”
So as a big fan of your book Americanah, I have to ask: The story focuses a lot on your main character’s hair as part of her experience of moving to the U.S. from Nigeria. Would Ifemelu’s experience with makeup be similar?
“That’s a very good question. Maybe not, because my conception of Ifemelu is that she wasn’t particularly keen on makeup anyway. Her hair was sort of a political journey. For me personally, it was more of the makeup issue because I just didn’t wear makeup in the U.S.”
Speaking of hair, there’s been a lot of talk about the cultural appropriation of hairstyles in the beauty and fashion world, especially from African cultures. What are your thoughts on the conversations that are currently happening?
“In general, my feeling is that people should wear whatever they want to wear. What I have concerns about is the word “tribal” used in fashion; I find it a quite lazy word because I think anything remotely African is immediately labeled tribal. Anything that even resembles anything African, it’s labeled tribal. And I think the word tribal is loaded and problematic and it’s just a very lazy, go-to word for things that I think could be better done.
I’m quite happy to see white women with dreadlocks if that’s what they want. But I think the problem is when a black woman for whom dreadlocks are her life—not just a cool thing— and she doesn’t get the same kind of recognition or praise. Then I think it becomes a bit worrying. For example, looking recently at magazines there are a lot of stories about, ‘How to do the braid.’ And they’re all white women and the braids are very limp and there’s a part of me that wants to bring my African braider to do it properly for them.
Granted it’s not something I’ve really thought about and it’s not really my battle. Of the things that I get very passionate about, this is not one of them. But thinking about it, it seems to me that people feel that the ‘owners’ of things like braids or other styles that are not from mainstream culture, don’t get the recognition for them. In some ways it’s similar to when black women sometimes get offended because a white woman who has a big behind can be praised, but then big behinds have sort of belonged to black women and they’re hardly praised for them. I think in the end, it’s really about being inclusive. And I think that’s one thing the beauty industry still needs to do more of, which is have a wider range of what we should aspire to. Have women of different shades, have women of different sizes, and have them equally as aspirational. And I really think that’s what the problem is, fundamentally. That’s actually another reason why working with No. 7 was an easy decision to make—other than the fact it’s my absolutely favorite shop in London and the products are good products. It’s that the brand has a democratic method that I really like. It’s not beauty as a hallowed space. It’s beauty that’s accessible to everyone, which can be seen from this campaign.”
Courtesy of Boots No. 7
Opening up magazines do you think we’re getting better at becoming more inclusive?
“Yes, I do. I think there’s still a long way to go but certainly there’s an obvious difference from just 10 years ago. I think that’s also the case of beauty brands. I still think they have a long way to go, but at least now they have more than one dark shade. Maybe they have two, but it’s still progress from one. Often in the past, the one dark shade would actually be a shade for a medium-skinned Indian woman. Forget it if you’re really dark skinned. But I think it’s changing. Even looking at magazines now I think that there’s a step toward being more inclusive, having different kinds of women. For me, I’m just really looking forward to a time when it’s not just one black woman and one Asian woman. It would be nice for Asian to mean different things. It would be nice to have South Asian and a woman who looks like she’s Korean for example. It’d be nice to have a woman who looks like she’s Mongolian. And of course for black women it would be so lovely to have the different shades because you know, we’re not all either Halle Berry or Lupita [N’yongo]. There’s a wide range in between. But I’m hopeful, there’s far less to criticize now then 10 years ago.”
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