On Style, Seriousness, and Success

I read a wonderfully thought-provoking piece by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie today (though it was published more than a month ago, shame on me) for ELLE, and it brought to mind a question that has long troubled me:

Why is it that somehow being interested in appearance or fashion is at odds with being taken seriously?

Conversely, why is it that being entirely uninterested in appearance also hinders women?

As is the case in so many instances, we are fed contradicting thoughts and beliefs about what it entails to be a successful woman, one who wields intellect and commands respect.

Being a lover of “frilly” fashion–so-called femininity–takes away from our credibility apparently, yet being unkempt is a far greater sin for the professional woman than it is for a man. We are expected to care just enough, but never too much. Too much, and we are shallow, we become trivial, not someone to be taken seriously nor esteemed. Too little and we are slovenly, lazy, somehow less of a woman for our lack of vanity.

As is so often the case, we are presented with a lose-lose situation in which being too “feminine” (which is in itself a construct) is a problem, yet not being feminine enough is equally problematic.

So, what about Adichie’s question, then? Why can’t a smart woman love fashion? Then again, why must a woman love fashion?

Why is it that we are treated as part of an overarching structure rather than individuals? Why can’t I love fashion as much as I love my books, what is wrong with the fact that I collect shoes as readily as I do novels?

Granted, there is a utilitarian purpose for my books–but is there not for fashion? Why must I defend my love of clothing and beauty products as self-expression? Why does it require defending in the first place? In reality, it’s absurd. It makes me no less of an intellectual, and no more of a woman, that I love shoes and lipstick and elaborate jewelry. They bear no correlation.

This is not meant as preaching, but as a challenge. These ways of thought need to be challenged, to be confronted and called out on their absurdity, on the sexist, patronizing system that instill these ways of thought.

With that, I leave you.

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