Why A Hijabi CoverGirl Matters To Me
It wasn’t until I cut my hair short that I truly realized how many women wear their hair long. Surely my senses were heightened due to being mistaken for a boy, but it seemed that everywhere I looked, I saw women who could toss their hair, put it in a ponytail, or even just tuck it behind their ears. I’ve worn my hair natural since 2001, when I was a junior in high school. For several years I kept it short simply because I didn’t know what to do with it, or what products to use. As a black woman with an afro, my options felt limited to a relaxer or a weave, braids or dreadlocks. I didn’t see any examples, in my own life or in the realm of pop culture, of who I was or who I could be.
Once, when my sister was visiting me at the University of Chicago, I dragged her all over the city hunting for a “natural hair consultant” – not that one was advertised. I just knew I needed one and hoped that if I dug deeply enough something would present itself. This was, of course, pre-YouTube, well before the rise of beauty bloggers and video tutorials. I needed help to feel beautiful but I didn’t know where to find it. It certainly wasn’t being presented to me.
In the world of economics, they say “a rising tide lifts all boats.” I believe the same is true in beauty – especially in matters of representation. I don’t necessarily need to see myself in everything as long as I can see different groups represented. Instead of sameness, I want to see all the ways we are different. Which is why, although I’m not Muslim, I was excited and pleased to see a Hijabi woman, Nura Afia, as a CoverGirl Ambassador. This sentiment, however, does not appear to be universal. I’ve been party to multiple conversations criticizing this event as cultural appropriation. Perhaps I would agree under different circumstances.
My definition of cultural appropriation is when a caricature or shallow representation of one group is commodified to attract another group. Case-in-point is Urban Outfitters’ many instances of exoticizing Native American culture for a white, mainstream audience. But the new CoverGirl campaign doesn’t do that. It isn’t about hijab-themed make-up targeted at white women. CoverGirl’s new brand ambassador is, moreover, neither a hijabi model who is only shown in ads in specific, Muslim-oriented media markets, nor a non-Muslim woman wearing a scarf on her head and calling it a hijab. The campaign is highlighting a beautiful hijabi woman who is highly skilled in make-up and already has a large following due to her existing body of work. As Afia herself stated in an interview with the New York Times, “These brands aren’t exploiting us. It’s more about including us and making us feel like we matter. It’s about them finally showing us that they know we are beautiful, too.”
Does that truly sound like a cheap ploy to broaden CoverGirl’s customer base? Back in the realm of curly hair, I see parallels with a Shea Moisture ad that circulated online. Of the many questions voiced, one in particular stands out: “Is ethnic not beautiful?” Here’s the truth about beauty in America: it is inextricably linked to capitalism. The values and standards of our society are expressed in part by what products are made available and how they are sold. These factors can either provide visibility or erase it.
When I was running all over Chicago, I couldn’t even find one thing being sold to me. I felt that my hair and I were invisible. The point of the Shea Moisture ads is that products being sold to black women shouldn’t be ghettoized in their own section of the drugstore. Why should I have to hunt down products that work for my hair? As coined by Naomi Wolf in 1991, beauty is labor.  Why should I be forced to work that overtime?
Visibility, however, isn’t just a benefit for me. It opens up ideas and standards of beauty throughout our culture. Speaking about the Shea Moisture ad campaign, Sundial CEO Dennis Richelieu asserted, “This movement is about so much more than selling shampoo, or lotion, or cosmetics. We're advancing a mission and vision to change the social dialogue about how we're looking at beauty as a society and how those archaic structures and views are debilitating to the establishment of new and more inclusive ways of viewing beauty." The power of a hijabi CoverGirl is that now, men and women across America will see that a hijabi woman can be just as aspirational as anyone else. This is visibility. This is representation in beauty. I can’t wait to see Afia’s face in a magazine. I will nod my head in quiet appreciation, then turn the page.
 Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York: Random House, 2016), 26-7.