Real talk? One of the funniest, yet most common misconceptions about feminism—aside from the lie that we are “man-hating” instead of female-advocating—is that somehow so-called “true” feminism rejects any trappings of femininity or care for one’s appearance. Women who enjoy makeup and fashion are often deemed superficial as if aesthetic pleasure can’t authentically and equally coexist with feminist commitment and discourse.
As we saw during Beyoncé’s very public emergence into feminism (among others), a woman who in any way revels in her sexuality or simultaneously appeals to the male gaze is often labeled unserious, disingenuous, dangerous or an outright “terrorist,” as bell hooks called the entertainer. It increasingly begs the question: Who owns feminism or unilaterally defines its presentation? And why are we still discussing feminism in binary terms that divorce it from any behavior or appearance of what we’ve traditionally called “femininity?”
“Feminism has had such bad stereotypes attached to it that often one has to be in a sort of perpetually defensive crouch about feminism, and even that is exhausting to me,” novelist and famed feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently admitted to Vanity Fair. Adichie is, of course, the Nigerian-born author whose 2012 TED Talk and subsequent book of essays “We Should All Be Feminists” brought her to the attention of Beyoncé and, soon thereafter, to international recognition as the singer included Adichie’s ethos and voice in both Lemonade and her Formation tour.
But while Adichie has made clear that Bey’s type of feminism isn’t her own (h/t Elle), she nevertheless enjoys performing her own brand of femininity through fashion, a journey that became especially conflicted as she became a student and aspiring writer in America. As described in a 2017 essay for Elle:
I had learned a lesson about Western culture: Women who wanted to be taken seriously were supposed to substantiate their seriousness with a studied indifference to appearance. For serious women writers in particular, it was better not to dress well at all, and if you did, then it was best to pretend that you had not put much thought into it. If you spoke of fashion, it had to be either with apology or with the slightest of sneers. The further your choices were from the mainstream, the better. The only circumstance under which caring about clothes was acceptable was when making a statement, creating an image of some sort to be edgy, eclectic, counterculture. It could not merely be about taking pleasure in clothes.
Speaking with Vanity Fair, Adichie calls the essay her “coming out from the fashion closet.”
“The world is full of intellectual women who like fashion, who feel this pressure to pretend that they don’t. I think that’s changing. I don’t get this sense of judgment as strongly as I used to,” she now says. “In some ways, I just feel that finally, I can exhale fully. And I think part of it is getting older.
“When I was 27, I was very much invested in performing and doing what the world wanted me to do,” she continued. “I’m 41. My bag of fucks to give is empty. I like fashion. I like history and politics and ideas. Those things are not mutually exclusive.”
Adichie doesn’t just like fashion; she participates in it. Though the writer prioritizes African designers in her wardrobe, you can also regularly spot her at Fashion Week, gracing the front row and events of luxe labels like Dior. And now, Adichie has embarked on her first fashion-related collaboration, fittingly a celebration of self-definition.
In collaboration with fine jewelry brand Foundrae, Adichie has designed the limited edition “Freedom of Expression” medallion, available in May. One hundred percent of retail proceeds from the jewelry will benefit the nonprofit PEN America, which works to protect writers’ human rights and freedom of speech.
“The idea of being able to speak freely is something that seems deceptively simple, but it’s not,” Adichie told Vogue while co-hosting a cocktail party celebrating the collaboration on Wednesday night. “So given that [PEN America stands] for everything I stand for, when I was approached about raising money for them via a world that’s kind of very different—you know, fashion, jewelry, another world I love—I wanted to sort of bridge the gap and do this to support them. It was such an effortlessly good fit.”
It was a genuine concern for our freedoms that informed Adichie’s design, which incorporates many of the symbols those already familiar with Foundrae will recognize, including arrows and an infinity symbol. As she told VF, it was her response to an increasingly repressive era.
“We’re living in a time where I feel a sense of urgency because—and it’s not just America—I think the Western world is moving to the right,” she said. “The reason that I find it really troubling is that the idea of dehumanizing your fellow human beings has become almost acceptable and casual. The crossed arrows represent the idea of living passionately and living knowing that our time here is short and that we need to make the most of it.”
In addition to being an acclaimed author, outspoken feminist and unapologetic follower of both fashion and politics, Adichie is also now mother to a three-year-old daughter developing her own interests and ideas about fashion and gender roles; an evolution Adichie admits sometimes runs contrary to her own feminist ideals and expectations.
“A few days ago, she went to school and came back and said, ‘I want a Mickey Mouse necklace,’ Adichie recounts to Vanity Fair. “And do you know my first reaction was, ‘Oh god, no—you’re just three, really?’ And then I said to myself, “Why? I perform femininity, I love femininity. But then why am I not enthusiastic for her to be?’”
Ironically, Adichie has run into considerable controversy over the idea of performing femininity, as she infamously distinguished trans women as separate from women in 2017 (comments she later attempted to clarify, with mixed results). What she unequivocally seems to recognize is that performing feminity isn’t a rejection of feminism—just a facet of it. True feminism is the space and freedom to be a woman in whatever way you see fit—and supporting the equal right of every woman to do so.
“What I really want is a broad range of possibilities for women,” she says. “One of my closest friends in Lagos doesn’t wear makeup, has no time for fashion, and I think she’s one of the most attractive women I know. And then I have this very close friend in Lagos who has a full face of makeup every day. She has the highest heels. And I love that. I hope that what I’m doing is contributing to that, to the breadth of range of what women can be and are.”