What does beauty mean to women in the UK?

“Every woman can identify with the body-positivity movement; most of us feel some level of insecurity”

In a unique exploration of beauty and identity, Stylist asks 10 women to debate the intricacies of everything from colourism to class…

1. How can we conquer colourism? 

Candice Brathwaite (right), 30, founder of Make Motherhood Diverse, lives in Milton Keynes. She talks to YouTuber Shodease Allen (left), 27, from Birmingham. Follow them on Instagram @candicebrathwaite and @shodease

Candice: “Colourism is different to racism because it’s internal. On paper I tick black British, but colourism usually comes from those who tick my box, but are lighter-skinned. It’s like, ‘We’re both black but I’m lighter than you, so I’m better’. I hate to go all the way back there, but colourism comes from the days of slavery when dark-skinned people worked in the fields and lighter-skinned people worked in the house. They have always had a position of privilege due to a lack of melanin in their skin.”

Shodease: “There’s a whole ‘team light skin’ vs ‘team dark skin’ going on and I hate it. It’s more upsetting when discrimination happens within the race. It’s important to remember where we’ve come from, what our families went through. If we don’t crush colourism within our communities then we cannot progress in the wider world. We have to show how all people of colour should be treated.”

S: “Colour inequality is huge in the beauty industry. Colourism exists in every shop where there are fewer dark shades than light. Women of colour can’t confidently go to a counter and be sure to find something for them.”

C: “Yes. Colourism and racism are issues in the beauty industry because at the highest point in these boardrooms there’s no one of colour. So not everyone is going to be fairly represented.” 

S: “What privileges do darker-skinned women have?”

C: “Privileges? Wow. I hope I don’t get shot for this, but dark-skinned women have zero privileges. Dark-skinned women are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. We’re not seen as intelligent desirable or beautiful. The darkerskinned woman has always been seen as the overweight mothering type who had to look after the kids, to sacrifice and to stay out of public life. Meanwhile the lighter-skinned woman – black or Asian – has always been the sex symbol. What Fenty has done is incredible, but would Fenty have been so successful if it was headed up by a dark-skinned woman? I doubt it.”

S: “I hadn’t realised that aspect of colourism until now; it’s a check-my-privilege moment. But I can’t even think of a darker-hued woman who could sell Fenty how Rihanna is selling it. Can you?”

C: “There’s no one in that atmosphere of buy-ability or likeability who has the visual appeal for all audiences.”

S: “I’ve seen so many examples of black women’s skin being lightened in the media. I’ve even seen Beyoncé lightened which is like – Beyoncé! What? They obviously feel she’s more attractive with lighter skin. That’s such a bad message. A lot of major skincare brands sell bleaching creams abroad, especially in Jamaica and the Middle East and, although you won’t see them in Boots, they’re available here. It makes me feel really sad that anyone feels driven to lighten their complexion.”

C: “So sad. It breaks my heart.”

S: “Did you watch the royal wedding? It was such a historic moment for women of colour, but it was so white. I’m all for wearing your hair the way you like it, but I can’t help feeling that wedding wouldn’t have happened if Meghan wore her hair in its natural tight curls. Look at the fuss about her mum’s dreadlocks.”

C: “Meghan Markle is the whitest black person the establishment could find. Harry would never have married someone of Lupita’s hue. Through the eyes of society, Meghan has a racial ambiguity that is safe. She could pass as a tanned Italian woman. For someone with a darker complexion, there’s nowhere to run from their blackness and their history and their lineage.”

S: “My mum is a good mum but she’s as much a product of society as the rest of us, and she relaxed my hair when I was six years old. I’ve had straight hair most of my life. I grew up in a predominantly white area and I’m sure that’s influenced me – I wanted straight hair, blue eyes and to be really thin.”

C: “Hair is a big factor of colourism. One UK magazine put Lupita on the cover, but digitally removed her afro. Similarly, Solange wore her hair in an African hairstyle for a magazine shoot, with cane rows built into a crown. And her image was retouched to remove it: it wasn’t OK to wear a crown that sends a pro-black message.”

S: “I feel uncomfortable that a simple decision about my hair is a political statement. Wearing my hair straight and glossy is part of my identity but I’m just one woman – I feel weird about the pressure to constantly represent. But there is a real fear of being judged for being ‘too black’. It’s depressingly normal for mixed-race women to remove their braids for job interviews.”

C: “I’ve done the straightening thing. I’ve had extensions. I was always trying to be prettier, to make myself more acceptable. Then I went on holiday to New York when I was 17 and I saw this glorious black woman with a shaved head. I felt my whole universe shift. I wanted that kind of power, so I shaved my head. I don’t fall into the traditional sense of what’s beautiful, so I’m free to just be me.”

S: “I want to move forward from colourism. There’s this idea that lighter-skinned people have it easy, but the truth is we’d all benefit if society embraced a wider definition of beauty. But how?”

C: “A wider pool of talent, a more diverse range of models, but also internally a more diverse spectrum of decision-makers for these brands. And don’t just hire one token black person, be they dark skin or light skin. We will all benefit from embracing the full spectrum.”

2. Can women ever win when it comes to grooming?

Laura Slater (top), 36, is the director of baby boutique Eat Sleep Love, and lives in Blackheath. She talks to Rhiannon Coleman (bottom), 34, from Shadwell, head of office expansion at a money transfer company. Follow them on Instagram @eatsleeplovebaby and @coley.rhino

Laura: “This idea that people think you’re daft if you have a full face of make-up but you’re not making an effort if you don’t do anything at all is a very male judgment. It’s sexism. If you’re female, people will pay undue attention to your appearance, and it cuts both ways.”

Rhiannon: “Shunning make-up could help women be treated equally in the workplace. Because I never wear make-up, my relationship with male colleagues has an element of sexuality taken out of it – they don’t see me as pretty or think I’m trying to do something extra-curricular for them. So we’re very much on a level. In comparison, other assistants who look polished often conjure a flirty attitude as a reaction to how they look.”

L: “When I worked at a broking firm in my 20s, some men thought I was fair game because I wore lipstick. I did my job really well, I was a tough negotiator, but the language they used on me – ‘darling’, ‘babe’, ‘doll’ – wasn’t respectful. Certain men think if you’ve got a full face of make-up then you’re not as intelligent as them. It’s so far from the truth, but there definitely is that perception among a subsection of society.”

R: “But wearing make-up can also give women an advantage. I notice how people respond to a woman who walks into a meeting looking immaculate. We are conditioned to respond to people who look good.”

L: “My business sells a luxury service so I feel it’s essential to look absolutely polished – clients respond to the effort I make with my appearance. So every day I wear foundation, a full lip, mascara, eyeshadows, eye pencil. I’ll fill my brows in, brighten under my eyes, and apply blush to my cheeks. I’m known for wearing a bold lipstick and strong perfume. I love beauty: the products, the art of applying them, the ritual. I regularly get my nails done and have a wax too. My hair is cut and coloured every six weeks. I like the way it makes me feel feminine. If I didn’t do all this, I’m sure people would be concerned enough to take me aside and ask if I was OK.”

R: “Do you remember the row last year about whether employers can force women to wear high heels at work? Could similar legislation apply to grooming?”

L: “No, because grooming is so personal – how do you judge what’s the appropriate amount of make-up? Who would say to an employee in an appraisal, ‘It’s been noted you haven’t spent enough time or effort on your face?’”

R: “‘Business attire’ is the official dress code in many offices and that could be considered to include make-up. Employers can argue that all staff should be dressed smartly, and there is an expectation for that to include make-up. But to impose that expectation would be sexual discrimination.”

L: “Most employers would want to employ someone who looks smart, and grooming is a part of that. You could take offence and say, ‘Why should I wear make-up? What difference does it make to the job that I do? What has that got to do with meeting a deadline or closing a sale?’ So if it makes no difference whether you’re well-groomed or not, there is no legal standing for an employer to insist that you do or don’t wear make-up.”

L: “The only way for women to win when it comes to grooming is to be confident in your own choices. However you choose to look, do it for you, not for anyone else.”

R: “The key to never feeling overlooked for your beauty choices is to create your look for yourself. So whether your signature is your lipstick or you’re defined by your strength and fitness, be who you are and you’ll feel happier and more successful at work.”

3. Can body modification be done without regret? 

Laurence Sessou (right), 39, is a neuromuscular therapist from Brixton. She talks to ReeRee Rockette (left), 35, a teacher and salon owner from Finsbury Park. Follow them on Instagram @moniasseartistmuse and @rockalily

ReeRee: “Regret is a strong word. I have a few tattoos I wish I could move. Having Mr Happy on my wrist was an impulsive decision.”

Laurence: “It is possible to have body modifications without regret. The question is, are you are willing to die with those symbols on you? If there’s the slightest doubt, don’t do it. My scarification is directly linked to my spiritual growth and my ancestry. I’m originally from Benin, West Africa, where we have a tribal tradition of marking your skin. On my back I have a map of my ancestors. On my chest I have the beautiful representation of our divine feminine reproductive system. Here is our clitoris.”

R: “Wow. How did you decide that?”

L: “I don’t want to say it was divine intervention but the artist started drawing flower designs and I said, ‘Wow, this is like a pussy, this is perfect’. And he started cutting.”

R: “My tattoos don’t mean much at all. I literally pick from a catalogue in the tattoo shop. At first they were more meaningful – I started with my dad’s initial on my hip after he died. I have ‘love eternal’ in his handwriting on my wrist. Then gradually I got more covered. Yours have depth and meaning, mine are like tacky holiday souvenirs, like fridge magnets.”

L: “Fridge magnets! I see tattoos of an expression of who I am inside – that’s what makes them beautiful.”

R: “Instagram feeds the notion that tattoos are not a big deal. There are tons of tattooed women. But I feel like an anomaly in the real world. I hate that tattoos somehow give people license to touch me without asking. I freeze. That is a transgression; it triggers all your fears of men grabbing you.”

L: “It used to be that a tattoo artist wouldn’t mark your neck unless you already had larger pieces.”

R: “You should be heavily tattooed elsewhere first, under a shirt generally, before they will do your hands and your neck. You’ve understood what being a tattooed person in society is like. It isn’t nothing, being looked at all the time. Cheryl Cole famously has a little curly tattoo on her hand. Suddenly that’s a first tattoo for an 18-year-old. There are now so many tattoo shops in competition they can’t afford to turn work away. The good tattooists will say ‘no, you can’t get a cheeky moustache on your finger first’. A tattoo shop that’s struggling won’t. It’s OK to hate a tattoo on your hip. It’s not OK when it’s on your forehead.”

L: “If you don’t know what you want, don’t do it.”

R: “Totally. Fashions will change. I’ve got two Arabic ones that were cool once and look horrible now.”

L: “People often think scarification is the next level, beyond tattooing. For me, it’s a tradition rooted in hundreds of year of in spiritual practice. I had my first scarification done after my second vision quest, which is a rite of passage ceremony we do in Benin. I went into the mountains for seven days without water, food, company or distractions of any sort. The quest teaches you who you really are inside. Scarification was born in the tribes of Africa, but now there is no spiritual connection. A lot of people who do it now are into piercings and extensions, which involves pulling the skin with corset-like hooks. For some people it is simply an extreme practice.”

R: “That community is all about pushing boundaries – first it’s tattoos then scarification or eyeball tattooing. Maybe it’s chasing pain.”

L: “Sometimes people are intimidated by my scarification. They do not see the beauty that I see. I have to be responsible: I chose to have this done, so of course people are going to look.”

4. What do our beauty choices say about social class? 

Stefania Warren (right), 32, creator of children’s art shop All Of The Above lives in Fulham. She talks to Jenny Essex (left), 41, a beauty blogger from Hornchurch. Follow them on Instagram @stefania.warren and @justjennyfromtheblog

Jenny: “When you’re a working-class woman who makes an effort to look her best, you can expect bitching all the time. ‘Here comes the plastic fantastic’, ‘She thinks she’s all that’ – I’ve heard it all. People judge me and think I’m doing what I’m doing purely for vanity and showing off, but I’m trying to get some confidence. I consciously try not to judge on appearance or make assumption about who people are or where they come from. I judge them on the way they behave – their manners, kindness and ability to listen. Things like spray tans and hair extensions are often associated with working-class areas and inevitably there are stereotypes. Middle-class women are sleeker, because they can afford more.”

Stefania: “There’s evidence to show that even if we don’t consciously acknowledge it, we make assumptions about someone’s status in three seconds, mostly based on how they look. Our beauty budget inevitably reveals our social class.”

J: “Some people think the beauty world is intimidating because it’s expensive, but I never pay full-price for anything. It’s about creating a network, a community where we swap services. I’ve had every kind of anti-ageing treatment, from Botox to eye lifts, face lifts, fillers and body contouring. I have semi-permanent make-up all the time – my brows, eyeliner, lip liner and lip blush are all tattooed on, and I get them topped up four times a year. I love that look.”

S: “Do you ever get scared? What if those treatments go wrong?”

J: “I research the practitioners and I’m friends with them for a while, so I can negotiate cut-price treatments and trust them to do a good job. We kind of groom each other over the internet. You need that trust to let someone stab you in the face. I’ve had mainly good experiences. But one doctor I went to wasn’t a dermatologist; she stripped my dermal layers with chemical peels because she didn’t realise I had rosacea. I’ve had Botox that was past its sell-by date, which sounds a bit scary but all that happened is it wore off in a few weeks – Botox usually lasts up to six months. I used to have hair extension but I had a couple of disasters with mobile salons. One woman completely matted my hair with microthreads and made me look like I had a bird’s nest and mullet – I was in tears. Another time all the glue showed through and my extensions fell out all over the house. Then I had hair extensions done in a salon, which was a completely different experience. They can last a year if you really look after them. I’d love to have my teeth done; I’ve been looking into it but it’s so expensive. My kids wouldn’t be able to eat if I did.”

S: “There are women from all walks of life who prioritise beauty products over paying their rent. I’d hate to think how much I’ve spent on skincare – I’ve got at least £500 worth of creams and serums.”

J: “I get accused of being ‘addicted’ to plastic surgery because I’ve had so many aesthetic treatments, as if I’m not smart enough to make my own decisions. It’s snobbery. There is a connection with beauty, wealth and youth, and I’m proud of the work I’ve had done because people always think I’m younger than I am.”

S: “It’s so important that you don’t have to earn six figures to feel beautiful. If you look good, you feel good, and you perform more successfully in every area of your life.”

5. What does body positivity mean to you right now? 

Chanel Ambrose (right), 30, a lifestyle blogger from Wembley, talks to Shell Mills (left), 37, a full-time mum from Launceston, Cornwall. Follow them on Instagram @chanelambrose and @shellandthelittlies

Chanel: “Body positivity means accepting yourself for who you are. I’ve been criticised, judged and bullied since school for being a big girl – I’m a size 24 now. Society has made it acceptable. The body positivity movement was started by plus-size women as a reaction to fat-shaming. We established a safe space on social media to post unfiltered, un-airbrushed images. It’s where we show other women you don’t have to be thin to be beautiful or happy. But I’ve seen size-eight women hashtagging their pics #bodypositivity: I feel they’ve jumped on the bandwagon. They simply don’t face the same criticism and scrutiny.”

Shell: “I’m a size eight. Do you really think slim people never feel negative about their bodies? We all have our insecurities. I too was picked on at school for being the chubby girl. I went through every fad diet because I didn’t understand what ‘healthy’ looked like. I’m only at the beginning of my body positivity journey and I feel the best I ever have. I want the body positivity movement to be a great place for the next generation. Now, I try to look at photos of myself with a new mindset – I look for happiness instead of picking over my flaws.”

C: “I hadn’t thought about body positivity like this before, but I see it’s a good thing the issue has been pushed into the mainstream by the plus-size community. Every woman can identify with it; most of us feel some level of insecurity.”

S: “The world would be a healthier, happier place if we were all more body positive. The shift comes when you focus on the amazing things your body has done. My worst time was during three years of infertility struggles. I’d struggle with eating because of the stress, and that can have a negative effect because if you’re underweight it can be harder to get pregnant.”

C: “I’ve had to consciously stop blaming my body for things going wrong in my life. I’ve had several miscarriages and blamed my size. In fact, my doctors discovered my cervix was the issue. But all the unsuccessful pregnancies took a huge toll; I was depressed and developed anxiety about my size. I hope this doesn’t sound superficial but when I started glamming myself up it made me feel good. Then I started sharing my story online and found other women who looked like me.”

S: “Self-care isn’t superficial at all. On days when I feel rubbish, having a shower, and doing my hair and my make-up always gives me confidence.”

C: “After all my struggles, I’m in a good place. I have two sons. My husband loves my body and appreciates me for who I am. I still get bad days. But there’s another side where you can say, ‘This is me. I’m going to work with what I have’.”

S: “Body positivity has helped me maintain a healthy weight. But is it healthy for everyone?”

C: “Often, an overweight woman celebrating her shape is perceived as promoting an unhealthy lifestyle, and there’s a lot of criticism. But body positivity is acceptance; it’s loving your body whatever your shape. It doesn’t mean telling people to eat their heads off! Arguably, it’s far healthier than a guilt-driven diet culture.”

This article originally appeared in Stylist’s 2018 Beauty Issue, out 26 June. To see more from the issue, click here.

Photography: Sarah Brimley