I have always known who I wanted to look like on the outside. It took me 27 years to bring that vision to fruition.
As a licensed childcare provider, 3rd year childhood education major and tutor & activity specialist with over 14 years of experience in the public school system and with private clients, the struggle to let my soul speak through my clothing has always been real.
Couple that conundrum with the fact I became a mother at 19 and it would be pretty difficult not to feel like I had something to prove.
But I didn't.
I never felt like I HAD to prove something with my wardrobe but I always WANTED to. I've viewed my longstanding lack of self care as a huge personal flaw, but between kicking ass in multiple arenas (community organizing, youth outreach, writing, social media marketing) I convinced myself that I was 'too busy' to worry about something so 'insignificant.'
But our appearance is significant. As a black woman how I present myself to the world is directly related to my treatment by certain individuals, entities and institutions. Will it always help me out? Of course not. I do not subscribe to respectability politics in the least. I do not concern myself with the white gaze or the ignorance of black folk who feel as though young boys in urban wear deserve to be harassed and stereotyped or our young women are 'asking for it' when they express their sexual autonomy through their clothing.
But as I started taking myself seriously in my role as a business owner, I decided my appearance needed an upgrade. It was a scary reality check when I began to guilt trip myself for wanting to do simple things like wear make-up and make sure my hair was styled neatly before leaving the house. How did these become habits I thought so negatively of? And then the patriarchy I had internalized hit me.
For all my talk about men not dictating my life choices I had somehow forgotten that you can be both modest and made up, simultaneously studious and stylish- and I had chosen perceived intellectualism over visible self care- because in a man's world- you can NEVER be both.
That tragic fact and our affinity to assume women who seem to put time into their appearance are vain, materialistic and/ or not knowledgeable about 'what really matters' also came into play. It didn't help that the few and far between times I DID share photos of myself on social media sites in the midst of brand building and not focusing on the more noticeable aspects of self care, I would always be met with comments like 'WOW. What natural beauty. We need more women like that.'
Um. Thank you?
I'm grateful for those who accept me as I am and celebrate the authentic beauty of black women. It is a movement that has been long overdue. But we also have to question what it means for black women who like wearing make up and dressing up on a regular basis or prefer protective styles and extensions to rocking their natural hair and more casual clothing. We have gone from invalidating one type of beauty to invalidating another and either way black women lose.
As a mother, educator, activist, writer, entrepreneur, and performance artist there are a multitude of things that make me who I am. This makes 'looking the part' an interesting task. But I've finally decided for myself that fashion is fluid. It might seem like an obvious concept but the average woman doesn't get a 'cool girl' pass when she wears sweats and Tims like a celebrity would. And even I'm guilty of thinking women are 'trying too hard' when they get dolled up for every day occasions like going like school.
It's important that we as women don't subscribe to the parameters set for us by a society hell bent on keeping us second class citizens. Women of color are uniquely criminalized, victimized and simultaneously exploited as a result of their clothing choices, so it serves us especially to promote freedom in the form of fashion whether or not we would wear a certain article of clothing ourselves.
Within the context of professionalism we have even been told that our natural hair is somehow 'inappropriate' for the workplace. We need to view the parameters set on us in fashion as just as preposterous.
This does not mean I plan on wearing pum pum shorts to my next tutoring gig nor does it mean I feel the need to rock a pants suit to my next community organizing meeting. In all things I encourage balance. But what it does mean is that I'm not taking my septum piercing out when I interview with schools about providing services and academic enrichment via my budding non profit.
It is in THIS body, with THIS hair and THIS skin and THIS style that I have accomplished everything in my life thus far and I will be damned if I don't walk in my truth proudly and unapologetically fashionable.
Bio: Tajh Sutton is a proud mother, educator, activist, published model & writer and performance artist. She also teaches step and dance as an activity specialist for various after school programs. Her work has been published on the Huffington Post, Taji Mag, and Blavity. She is in the process of incorporating her youth-centered non-profit which aims to foster critical thinking, creativity and empowerment. She can be found on Instagram at afrocenchick.