Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Talks Beauty, Femininity and Feminism

Chimamanda Ngozi
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Perhaps the most unexpected fashion icon of the year has just added another glossy credit to her name. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian-born novelist and feminist known for novels like “Americanah” and “Purple Hibiscus”; recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, the O. Henry Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award (among others); and author of a viral TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which has been viewed over three million times since its delivery in 2012 as well as sampled by Beyoncé, is now the face of No7, the makeup brand owned by the pharmacy chain Boots.

This follows her front-row appearance at Dior’s spring runway show, where she was both guest of honor and inspiration — printed across one of the T-shirts was the title of her TED talk — as well as her inclusion on Vanity Fair’s International Best-Dressed List.

Though her feminism may seem at odds with this embrace of the fashion world, Ms. Adichie has argued, most recently in a letter she posted to her Facebook page about raising a daughter, that diminishing things that are considered feminine, such as makeup and fashion, is part of a culture of sexism. As to why, consider the following. (The conversation has been edited and condensed.)

How have your feelings on makeup evolved?

In general, the cultures that I know — Nigeria, the U.S., the U.K, Western Europe — all largely judge women quite harshly for appearances. But in Nigeria, there’s a slight difference. There isn’t much of a judgment if you’re an accomplished woman and seem to care about your appearance.

But I do remember that when I moved to the U.S. — and I think maybe there are different standards for people who are supposed to be particularly intellectual or particularly creative — I very quickly realized that if you want to seem as a serious writer, you can’t possibly look like a person who looks in the mirror.

Why do you think things that are associated with femininity, like fashion and beauty, are not taken seriously?

It’s about a culture that diminishes women. The things we traditionally think of as masculine are not things our culture dismisses as frivolous. Sports, for example, we think of as masculine. It’s something that our culture takes quite seriously.

I think it’s part of a larger picture of a world that simply doesn’t give women the same status that it gives men. There are many examples, and some have more serious consequences. All over the world, there is violence against women, and many cultures have ways of justifying it or minimizing it. But I think you can actually draw a line from that to other feminine pursuits that culture diminishes.

Why did you finally decide to wear makeup, no matter what people thought?

It’s getting older. You realize there’s very little time for rubbish. You realize life is short, and it’s so much better to be who you are. When I was younger, I didn’t have the sense of self to do that.

But it’s interesting because even when I didn’t wear makeup in the U.S., I wore makeup in Nigeria because I wanted to look my age and not too young. In Nigeria, in particular, it was easy for men to dismiss what I said because they thought I looked like a small girl. I remember seeing a man at the airport after my first novel was published, and he looked at me, quite quizzical, and said, “You look like the writer.” And I said, “Well, I’m kind of her.” His face fell. And he said, “I didn’t think the writer would be such a small girl.” There was such disappointment on his face.

At some point, I wanted to be who I am. And who I am is a person who enjoys, from time to time, putting a bright color on my lips.

What are your thoughts on the #nomakeup movement, exemplified by both Alicia Keys and, more recently, Hillary Clinton?

Women have choices to make. When you’re not feeling good, you don’t have the energy to do your face the way you usually do. I really respect Alicia Keys’s choice not to wear makeup because she felt it was a mask. And she feels now that she’s more truly herself. I think, “Amen to that.” If makeup feels that way for you, then don’t do it. We have to allow women a multiplicity.

Why do you think we don’t?

I think people will judge appearance. Humans are visual beings. We notice because we have eyes. What I would love to see changed is the baggage we bring to those judgments. When we see a man who’s well dressed, we don’t assume that he must be shallow or he must not be a serious person.

Talking about men is helpful because we can then say, “If this woman who we are judging were male, and everything else stayed the same, would we judge her the same way?” I think that would be a fair way to think of it.

A lot of this is especially important to teenagers and women in their 20s. If you were speaking to this group directly, what would you say?

There’s no such thing as perfection. Originality is a beautiful thing. I think it’s much harder now than when I was younger because we didn’t really have the internet. I would say don’t watch too many of those beauty YouTube or makeup videos. They use way too much product. There’s a lot the industry can do. It’s important to have a much wider range of what’s considered beautiful.

Why did you decide to attend the Dior show at Paris Fashion Week this fall?

As a writer, I sort of think of myself as anthropologist. I thought I might be able to collect material. No, but I really went because I really admire the new Dior creative director. She’s such an intelligent, thoughtful, interesting, honest woman. She’s really just my kind of woman. It seemed strange to me that this great, storied fashion house caters to women, and a woman hadn’t been a creative director before.

Will you continue to be a presence in the fashion world?

If you were raised by Grace Adichie, my mother, you had better be interested in fashion. From the time I was a little girl, my mother would dress me up. She would put some of her jewelry on me. I’m a bit of a shoe fiend. I make no apologies for it. The first makeup I used was my mother’s lip gloss. I remember putting on a lot of it, so it was quite shiny. She didn’t mind at all. She said, “You look like you ate hot jollof rice and didn’t wipe it off.”

There’s a part of me that likes shoes, and likes dresses, and likes makeup, and likes books, and likes to write. I think that’s the case for many women. But our culture makes us think we have to choose slices of ourselves that we’re comfortable showing the world.

Do you consider fashion and makeup entry points to a wider audiences?

I decided to do this No7 thing because I thought it might be fun, and then they will give me free makeup. And I’m always up for free things. It wasn’t a carefully calculated thing. It was actually just my being blinded by the selfish overwhelming love of makeup. But I have to be honest, there were times when I thought, “Well, what have I done?” I wasn’t quite aware of how many pictures of me would be out there. It makes me feel a little vulnerable. I told my friends to stop sending me pictures of when they see me at the bus stop in London or something. It’d be very dishonest to say it’s all wonderful. It’s not so much a question of regret. But it does come with feelings of vulnerability that can be uncomfortable.

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