Antonia Opiah loves changing her hair. She used to change her hair once a month but had a hard time finding inspiration for new styles. “Back in my day,” she joked, “Instagram wasn’t that popular. So, I decided to create a platform that would be a source of inspiration for Black hair.” That platform became Un-ruly.com, a website that covers everything from hairstyles, products and tips to opinion pieces on larger issues.
From there, her film series “Pretty” was born: a global video project that explores the complicated relationship women have with their physical appearance and society’s standards of beauty. In addition to handling a majority of the filming and editing, Opiah sources the women and interviews them herself, which lends a personal, very real (and very rare) dynamic that comes through the moment you hit play.
Below, a Q&A with Antonia Opiah, one woman trying to shake up, pull apart and rebuild what “pretty” means.
What was the process of starting Un-ruly like?
I’m an entrepreneur at heart and have a digital marketing background, so I approached creating Un-ruly as a business. I researched the Black hair industry and what sorts of sites were out there and put together a solid plan for the site. With my web background, I knew enough to create an alpha version of what I had in mind.
Once it was actually up and running, things changed. I put a lot more attention into the content than I had planned. The part of me that had minored in creative writing came out and all of a sudden the platform became something more — I ended up talking not just about hair but also about issues that I had opinions about. Then I brought on contributors who talked about hair and their own experiences.
Your “About Us” states the website’s mission clearly: “A Place for Black Hair and Women.” What is it about hair that’s so personal and important to your readers? How does the topic of hair lend itself to broader issues across your site?
For Black women, hair is a HUGE connector because our hair has been marginalized. It’s not something that we learned about by watching Marcia Brady on The Brady Bunch or by sitting through Herbal Essences commercials. Our hair has never been mainstream, so conversations about our hair have always been kept in intimate settings. The exchange of hair tips has always been through mums, sisters and friends, or friends of friends — never through the masses. And so those exchanges have been kept personal.
I’ve always looked at Un-ruly like a “beauty supply” store or hair salon — one where you can go, take off your wig if you’re wearing one, or walk in with a bonnet, and everyone knows what’s up because we’ve all been there. There’s nothing to explain, no excuses to make for how you look; you can just be yourself because you’re in a place where everyone’s had the same experience, everyone’s there for the same reason. And just like in a beauty salon, the conversation may begin with how or why you’re getting crochet braids today and end with whether Hillary Clinton is a presidential candidate that Black women will get behind.
I also feel like hair is an icebreaker. That was certainly the case with “You Can Touch My Hair,” the art exhibit-turned-short film we created. Hair was our entry point into a bigger conversation about race relations and how/why aspects of Blackness are still foreign to non-Blacks even though we’ve been in America just as long as anyone else.
Let’s talk about your “Pretty” video series. What prompted you to start it?
Quite a few things prompted it. But to be super candid, I started it because I want to be able to walk in to a room full of people and not feel good or bad because of the way I look. A woman’s value is way too linked to how she looks, and this is my attempt at trying to undo that.
Pretty is “a look at beauty everywhere” with the lens pointed specifically at black women (although, correct me if I’m wrong about that). Of course it’s important to promote the idea that all women around the world are beautiful, but why is an emphasis on the beauty of black women, specifically, so important?
My secret (now, not-so-secret) reason for that is because I wanted to see if anyone would notice. I wanted to see if anyone who wasn’t Black would watch it even though it features Black women. Nowhere in the descriptions of the series or the videos do I say the series is for Black women, or that the series is about Black beauty. It’s just about beauty and it happens to feature primarily Black women.
We see this done all the time with “mainstream” media. You’ll have something be about beauty and it will only feature white women, but it’s sold to everyone. However, the minute a piece of content or an ad primarily features faces that aren’t white, it’s presumably for — Asian women or Latin women or Black women, and not for everyone. (There was actually a study done on this in terms of movies; The Washington Post covered it back in 2011. And recently, an opinion piece on Indiewire explored the topic, too.)
There’s a big conversation going on about diversity in media and who’s to blame for the lack of diversity. I think we’re all a bit to blame — the gatekeepers of the industry and consumers. On the consumer side, I think people tend to shut themselves out of a story if it doesn’t look familiar to them. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever watched anything on Logo TV; I never even thought about why. I think I just assumed that the network’s content wasn’t targeting me. But I did myself a disservice by assuming this —there’s probably lots that I can relate to or be entertained by on Logo.
And that’s actually something that I’ve learned through Pretty, ironically. Stepping outside of one’s own experience is so critical to personal development. Learning about stories and people who aren’t like you teaches you to empathize with people in a way that you might not have otherwise known. Which kind of brings me to one of the other reasons all of the women featured are Black.
This might sound weird, but diversity is so diverse. Even within the Black community there’s so much variety. On a superficial level, the series is showing Black women speaking Hebrew, Italian, French (and soon Arabic and Mandarin). A lot of the women featured in the series have multicultural backgrounds. When Blackness is discussed or portrayed, it’s usually an African American experience and not an experience from other parts of the Diaspora or Africa itself. And so I’ve been especially keen on telling those stories.
A third and final reason the women featured are black is because, in the big conversation we’re having about beauty and body positivity, self-acceptance, etc., we’ve yet to dive into how beauty standards intersect with race, and boy do they intersect. If you go back to some of the earliest “scientific” attempts to define beauty, it was literally defined by pale skin. And that’s stuck. And as a global community, we’ve yet to really dive into the implications of that.
Your site says, “Pretty takes a look at how women all over the world place beauty, what it means to them — if it’s something they struggle with or are at peace with.” Have you come across any trends among your interviewees regarding their opinions on what they consider beautiful? Or what they don’t like about themselves?
At this point, I think the idea that beauty standards vary from country to country is no longer true. We’re living in a global community and if we’re connected to the web, we’re being exposed to (largely) the same imagery. So far I’ve seen that tall, thin and blond is the ideal — at least in the media. But the women whom I’ve spoken to all say that the image of beauty that’s perpetuated isn’t representative of the types of women you’ll actually see in the streets of their city. The definition of beauty we’ve been sold is not just narrow; it’s dishonest.
Do you think anyone’s totally at peace with their beauty?
Here’s the thing, I guess: a person’s physical appearance, when they’re not completely alone, is always a dialogue. It’s never just a statement. It sends a message and that message is received, processed and replied to, and this happens in milliseconds. So I think part of what we’re dealing with when talking about beauty is not just what we’re saying with our appearance but also the responses we’re getting back — how people are treating you as a result of your appearance. If you get nothing but positive responses, you’re going to feel good. If you get nothing but negative responses you’re going to feel bad.
Take Miss Israel 2013, Yityish Aynaw. When I asked her if there was anything she’d changed about her appearance, she said she’d change nothing at all. And why would she? She fits “the mold” and was literally crowned the most beautiful woman in Israel. The world has, for the most part, responded positively to her appearance. But there was that moment of controversy right after she was crowned. People questioned her beauty because she’s Black. And at first that made her feel bad, but she was able to shake it off.
I say all of that because so much of how you feel about yourself has to do with how people respond to you. And I don’t think anyone’s immune to negative responses — whether it’s a response to something you’ve actually said or a response to what your appearance says. I think a person’s ability to feel at peace with his/her beauty (or his/herself) lies in the ability to “shake off” the things that may rattle the conviction you have about who you are.
As the conversation continues around diversity (or lack there of) in fashion, in beauty, in media, what do you think is missing, dialogue-wise? what could improve?
I always tell myself to find the “I” in “They” when these types of conversations are happening. When you take a side in these types of dialogue, it’s so easy to talk about “them” and what “they’re” doing wrong and completely disconnect from “them.” But usually, these things aren’t ever that cut and dry. There’s a gray area, one where “you” fall in with “them.” So I think a lot more playing of devil’s advocate needs to happen on both sides, at least just for the sake of furthering the dialogue.
And now for a big, overwhelming and scary question: What can people do? What are some steps readers can make toward making a change?
I swear, there’s a simple solution under every big problem. I think in this case, a little empathy can go a long way. You can do something by simply stepping outside of your experience and learning about someone else’s. And I guess, not just learn, but really indulge in a person’s story and find the humanity in it and the normalcy in it. There are lots of different types of minority groups in America. The country is a wealth of different cultural experiences. I think we can all start getting to know this country for everything that it is and not just one small part of it, because American culture is a lot more than what we think it is.
This might seem like a minor thing to do, but in time, it can result in a genuine cultural shift. Look at the F-word, for example. Of course there are people still knocking feminism, but in just a few years, the way we talk about feminism has changed tremendously. The fact that we’re even talking about it is huge deal, let alone calling ourselves feminists. And we’re seeing this conversation about men and women being equal trickle into the stories we see in mainstream media.
What’s the best part out of all of this for you?
Getting to meet these women who are strangers first, then quickly become people I know intimately. I have the privilege of not only interviewing these women, but most of the time, I’m editing the videos. So I’m sitting with the footage for hours. I’m hearing their stories over and over again, watching their mannerisms, noticing little idiosyncrasies. And over that period of time, I really get to know them. And I think that’s one of the biggest takeaways. I always tell people that beauty is more about listening than it is looking. It’s hard to get to know someone; it’s hard to hear someone’s story and not find something beautiful in them.
Check out Antonia’s website, Un-ruly, which you can also follow on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. View all of the Pretty episodes on Un-ruly and YouTube. Antonia is wearing a Candelaz sweatshirt with H&M pants and shoes; Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis.