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Feminist author and newly minted No.7 brand ambassador Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie loves makeup. She certainly never expected to be tapped as the face of a beauty brand, however. “I have no idea how they found me and I really don’t know what the hell they were thinking asking me,” she laughs of getting the call from Boots, the UK-based company that owns No.7 and that is now a part of Walgreens. “My only hope is that the sales don’t fall. This is a very genuine hope.”
It’s highly unlikely. No.7 hired her for its new “Ready” campaign, a platform that recognizes that women wear makeup to be ready for something, to show up or make an impact. Adichie notes that this is consistent with her own beliefs. (She’s also delighting in the free makeup coming her way, including her new favorite lipstick, the No.7 Moisture Drench in Cranberry Kiss.)
I had the pleasure of chatting with her on the phone for 30 minutes about makeup, how she wishes beauty standards for little girls were different, and her thoughts about the online sport of picking apart women like Alicia Keys and Hillary Clinton for their makeup decisions.
How did Boots find you and approach you for this campaign and what was your initial response to that?
They talked to my management and my initial response was that it just seemed so strange and out there so I thought, No. But I thought about it a little more and I realized there was a good possibility of being sent a lot of free makeup [laughs]. I like the aesthetic of the brand, that it’s relatable but the idea is that every woman can wear makeup of good quality that’s also affordable.
It’s not at all something that I thought I would ever do. And I also want to be honest and say there have been moments since I’ve done the shoot that I’ve felt quite vulnerable in a way that isn’t comfortable. But I think in the larger sense I wanted to be part of the message that women who like makeup also have important and serious things that they’re doing in their lives. And that those can co-exist, that women are a multiplicity of things. I think it’s time to really stop that ridiculous idea that somehow if you’re a serious woman you can’t and should not care about how you look.
Have you always felt that way?
When I moved to the US and I was publishing my first novel, I had quickly realized that for a woman to be taken seriously and to be seen as a “serious intellectual person” she couldn’t possibly look as though she cared a lot about her appearance. My mother raised us to think of our appearance as a mark of courtesy to other people. So she would often say, “If you’re going to see somebody or someone is going to visit us, we owe it to them to at least have showered and put a bit of moisturizer on our faces so we don’t look ashy.”
I think there are some women who genuinely don’t much care about those things. I have friends who don’t care about makeup and I actually like that about them. But there are women who do and I’m one of those women. I think that for a while I just thought that I couldn’t possibly wear the lipstick I wanted to wear because I felt that I would be judged. I think that changed just with getting older, getting more comfortable in my own skin, and realizing that life is so damn short. There is just no point in living life based on what you imagine people expect.
What do you think is the deeper significance of Boots using a writer instead of a model or an actress for a beauty campaign?
I think that there are many women in the world today who are more inspired by “ordinary” women, women who are not actresses or models. One of the things I liked about what No.7 wanted to do was the idea that so many women are doing so many important things. And they put on makeup and go off and do those things. I felt that it was something I could identify with. On the days when I think my cat eye is good, it just makes me happy.
Who are some of those women who are inspirational in that way to you?
Michelle Obama is a woman whom I deeply admire. I just love her from head to toe. I love what she represents, love what she speaks about. I think that there are many women like that who look fantastic but in addition to that are doing fantastic things.
What are some of your earliest makeup memories that have shaped how you view makeup now?
When I was a little girl, my mother had a dressing table and she had her makeup lined up there. I remember being quite young and putting on her lip gloss. It was a particularly sticky lip gloss that was quite popular in Nigeria in the early 1980s and it was extremely shiny. My mother was quite amused by it. She was laughing and she said, “You look like you just ate a hot plate of jollof rice and you did not wipe your lips afterwards.” Jollof rice is the staple Nigerian rice dish and it’s quite oily. It’s actually a warm memory for me. Throughout my teenage years, I wore horrible frosty lipstick and there was a period where my friends and I would only wear lipstick on the lower lip and it was a bit of a frosty bronze, which when I think about it now was an absolute disaster, but at the time we felt we were very cool.
How would you change beauty standards for young girls now if you could?
One of the things that makes me sad is when I read stories about a dark-skinned girl saying “Oh, I’m finally at peace with my looks.” There’s something about that that’s really sad because she shouldn’t even have to go through a journey where she comes to be “at peace” with her looks. It should be something that she takes for granted from the beginning.
Do you think it can change?
I think it’s changeable. I think it’s easy for us to have these conversations and bemoan the narrowness of the figures that are considered aspirational in the beauty world. The people who are in charge can change it. It would be nice if they saw women of different sizes. It would be nice if they saw women of different skin colors. It would be nice to see a black woman with really kinky hair. It would be nice to see a white woman with very red hair. I think that’s important because the reality of our world is that it’s an incredibly diverse place. I don’t believe that there’s an objective beauty standard that falls from the sky. I think that we as a society create what we aspire to. I’ve been studying a bit of pre-colonial history in West Africa and there are regions there where in the 1860s very, very dark skin was valued. People would actually darken their skin. And now, fast forward a hundred years later and it’s the opposite. But the point is we create what is considered beautiful, so we can re-create it.
What do you think about when women, like Alicia Keys and Hillary Clinton, to name some recent examples, are analyzed for their makeup choices?
This is a conversation that I wish we didn’t have to have, but I understand that we have to have it because it’s what’s happening. I just think it’s so weird that women make individual choices and then absolute strangers think they can have all kinds of opinions about them. It’s largely something that happens to women and their appearance. I think Al Gore, after he lost [the presidential election], grew a beard. And there was a lot of gushing and, “Ooh, look how interesting.” I just feel like there’s just way too much judgment on women and their choices about their appearance and I wish there would be less. As a person who deeply supports and admires Hillary Clinton, I just wish instead of talking about her hair and her makeup we would talk about the misogyny that was really at the core of the way her public image was created.
As far as Alicia Keys, I really respect her and her choice. For her, I think makeup has always been some sort of mask and she felt she was hiding behind it, and for her it was almost a liberation. That’s my hope and my prayer for women, that women are allowed to be whatever version makes them feel truly like themselves. For some women it’s exactly what she’s done, which is that she took the mask off. For other women it’s the opposite. I remember actually not wearing makeup and feeling false because I wanted to wear lipstick.
One thing my colleagues and I have struggled with is how to cover fashion and beauty meaningfully after the election when so many people are worried about other things. Do you have thoughts?
I think America is at a strange place now. But I think women still need to know what damn moisturizer works in the winter! As I mourn, and for me the election result is a case for mourning, I still want to know what moisturizer will keep my winter skin from being too dry. One of the things that I think is important is that we shouldn’t moralize makeup. I find that in many cultures there’s almost a moral thing around makeup and appearance for women. I think we just need to get away from it. And also the idea that for men the things that are considered traditionally masculine are not things that our culture dismisses as frivolous. I wish I had a real answer but I don’t. I don’t think men who write about sports — and I’m using an example that our culture considers traditionally masculine — would necessarily be worried about appearing frivolous. Things that are traditionally masculine sort of have this patina of seriousness, even when they’re not, in a way that makeup and fashion don’t. And I find myself questioning that more and more.
There are different forms of resistance. Sometimes just the fact that one continues to do what one is doing is also a way of speaking out for something.
This interview has been edited and condensed.