Social Activist and filmmaker Toyin Agbetu’s latest project Beauty Is, is an interesting look at the concept of beauty from a Pan-African Perspective. The documentary digs deeper than the usual physical debates in its exploration of the topic. Looking beyond the usual physical debates as well as what Agbetu describes as “surface level rituals” that we engage with to encourage others to find us attractive. Beauty Is also looks at religion and confidence and how these affect male-female relations. Ntombenhle Shezi, a freelance writer from Johannesburg​, South Africa interviewed him about the project.

NS: The past couple of years have seen quite a focus on the topic of black beauty and identity. Chris Rocks Good Hair Documentary is one such example.  Why did you decide to make Beauty Is at this time?

The decision to make Beauty Is came out of a discussion with a friend about the need for a deeper and more holistic approach to the topic than made by previous films. Many times when you ask someone about beauty their first focus is often hair.  I felt the need to address this distorted perception of beauty by revisiting the subject and its philosophical meaning from a Pan African perspective. My children, both genders had been adversely affected by media stereotypes that sought to invalidate notions of our natural African aesthetic as beautiful.  As a parent I believed making Beauty Is… was my duty, in fact the film is only one part of a wider campaign to help address the issue.

NS: What was the research process involved in making this documentary?

Research for the Beauty Is film included three years of reading books, watching films and various programmes on the subject, attending and engaging in various debates and discussion on the subject and interviewing over fifty people on the topic. There is almost 100 hours worth of footage that had to be distilled into a two hour film.

NS: Some of the topics you tackle include the issue of hair relaxer and colourism.  In your documentary you engage with a variety of black women who have different ideas on beauty in relation to these things. How objective where you when having this discussion with the women featured? Where you able to approach the topic of skin lightening creams for example without letting your own biases or judgements (if you had any) show?

TA: Although I have strong views opposing the usage of skin bleaching and chemical hair straightening products, my primary opposition is to their harmful physical effects and the culture that encourages their use. There is little point attacking the end user who is basically a consumer whose personal vulnerabilities are being exploited. My objective with this film was to challenge those promoting or selling toxic ideas and products. I deliberately aimed to be inclusive of everyone no matter where they were on the ‘love of self’ journey. As a filmmaker I encouraged a diverse range of views to be shared, even those that I ideologically opposed. When it came to personal beauty ideals I worked hard not to alienate those that were merely being curious, lacking in confidence or simply being creative with the way they looked.

NS: Before, black women were completely left out mainstream media. Now you see magazines and blogs dedicated to black hair.  Hair product companies as well as big make-up houses are manufacturing products for black women. You look at Lupita , almost on every magazine cover, something that is very encouraging especially for young girls.  A couple of years ago that was not happening.  Do you think perceptions of black beauty in mainstream media and consumerism are somewhat changing?

TA: Despite the widespread usage of African women in magazines and adverts, I do not believe this is a genuine shift towards acceptance of the natural African as beautiful.  In most renditions of African people the aesthetic is compromised. In fact what is so frightening is that the image of African women wearing Asian hair glued or stitched onto their head has become so widespread it is regarded ‘normal’. The mainstream media’s’ current preoccupation with Lupita Nyong’o reminds me much of their approach with Alek Wek and Grace Jones before her. Despite Lupita’s excellent portfolio of work demonstrating her talent behind the camera and her beautiful character, her looks are being commodified and presented as an exotic expression of womanhood. Whilst we see a beautiful African woman, the mainstream media sees her as a fetish, a fad, someone representing a current trend that will inevitably go out of fashion when the fashionista become bored and move onto the next best thing. It is very dangerous as well as naive to allow Western institutions to have influence over us by defining African beauty standards. The tragic history of Sara ‘Saartjie’ Baartman should have taught us this.

NS: What about the idea of choice.  Although we may  perceive hair straightening products as being informed by Western perceptions of beauty, some women may argue that choosing to look a certain way (as Western as that seems) is a simple matter of choice.  Nothing deep, no self-hate – just choice.

TA: I am a strong advocate for creative expression so arguments that the use of hair straighteners is a matter of choice should resonate with me. However when I look at the number of people smoking cigarettes or consuming excess alcohol despite having awareness that these drugs are worse than many narcotics I have to question this illusion of ‘choice’. During the process of making this film some brothers have told me about the ‘back of head’ test. It’s the situation where if you line up a row of African women with weaves or chemically straightened hair next to each other it becomes almost impossible to distinguish them from each other or if you focus on their heads alone, their European and Asian counterparts. I think we sometimes like to say a thing is choice and play down the reality that advertising works. That’s why so many billions are spent and made each year convincing consumers to purchase items they don’t need or indeed are sometimes harmful to them.

NS: What are some of the responses you have received in relation to you as a man making a documentary about a topic that can be quite sensitive for women? 

TA: Whilst most women have been very appreciative of me making this film, especially after viewing it, there have been a few that took issue with the fact that a man should even dare talk on the matter. I found this position quite interesting. Even if we remove the fact that I am a father, husband, brother, uncle and community educator out of the equation, even if we ignore that Beauty’s co- producer, co-writer and head of campaign promotion team are women, are men not allowed to have a view on beauty? Thankfully the overwhelming response from women to my role in creating Beauty Is has been positive. Those who have watched the film have seen that I recognised the need for sensitivity when dealing with this very important topic and have done my best to create a safe virtual space on screen with an empowering message.

NA: Do you believe it is important for men to be engaging with this topic of beauty especially in relation to black women?

TA:  I believe it is absolutely crucial for men to be engaged in the process of reclaiming beauty standards for sistas. Patriarchy is one of the major factors disempowering women and maintaining an artificial hierarchy of womanhood. Many men reinforce these toxic ideals through ignorant comments and actions which harm the development and wellbeing of the girls and women in their lives. If a solution is to be found that reverses centuries of misrepresentation of African beauty then men, who also suffer from the effects of cultural media bias need to be part of the conversation and action required to help dismantle the system.

NS:Tell me more about the Beauty Is campaign.

There are three strands to the campaign. The first is to sever the legacy of skin bleaching that our children inherit from watching elders apply toxic creams to become ‘whiter’. If we can make the skin bleaching of children across the world illegal then the next generation would take forward a more positive message into the future –  being me, is enough.

The second part of the campaign is to find out once and for all how much damage is being done to women through the prolonged use of chemical straighteners that through scalp burns allows chemicals into the blood stream. Manufacturers have a duty of care to their customers, if indeed these products are leading to fibroids which seem likely then they too should be banned.

Finally, we would love to introduce ‘ethnosmetics’ into the class room and lecture hall. This is basically a subject to increase awareness of how the media, cosmetic and fashion industry works to propagate Europeans standards of beauty whilst discriminating against African and other peoples of the world. Our diversity is a beautiful thing, it should be celebrated.

NS: Was there anything in particular that you took away while making this documentary?

TA: I learned so many things I can only outline a few here. Men and women need to work together to define what is normal and not leave it to institutions and corporations only interested in serving their own capitalist interests. We are never really alone if we ask for help. Many of the women who went on their natural hair journeys told me of how they overcame their initial fear of returning to their natural self and being rejected by looking at blogs and watching videos of other women who had already done it. I’m a great fan of self-help, self-empowerment and self-determination. During the process of making this film I realised that many African women in the Diaspora had in defining this journey created a new rites of passage for themselves. I also learned how much the shadism issue within our communities scars everyone involved. People who are naturally born with lighter brown skin are unfairly made to feel guilty for a system that demonises those with a darker complexion. The solution is for both to unite and challenge the status quo.

NS: What are you hoping your audience will take away from seeing this documentary?

TA: It is character that makes us beautiful. The way we look either masks or reflects that Truth. As one of our contributors reveals, when we feel ugly some of us demonstrate this through ugly behaviours, likewise if we see ourselves as a beautiful people, it would become much harder to harm or attack one another based on looks.

Beauty Is is on limited release in the UK Details of screenings are available on the website


Ntombenhle Shezi