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Creative Womxn: Danielle Bowler & Kelly Fung on dismantling beauty

Racing into a small room in an all-girls school for a panel discussion, I met Kelly Fung just as she was answering difficult, necessary questions about the fashion and beauty industry. These questions, about the kind of womxn featured in glossy pages, the source of trends, representation, cultural appropriation and the impact of magazines on so many aspects of our lives have filtered into our relationship. They have become the foundation of how we connect. Our friendship built on challenging each other (as producers and consumers of media), numerous disagreements, agreements and contested ideas, and endless conversations on the perfect eyebrows, new products and our latest fashion obsessions. I love that our friendship allows space for both my highly critical and high-femme self to coexist, in the same ways that they do outside of it. — Danielle Bowler

10and5 Creative Womxn x Danielle Bowler and Kelly Fung

Tuesday, August 23, 2016:

Kelly Fung – 3:26PM

Why did you feel you wanted to be part of this project? 

Danielle Bowler – 3:27PM

Identity has always been something that I have found incredibly fascinating – from both an academic and personal perspective. All aspects of it are incredibly complex and layered, and making sense of these is a crucial part of understanding the world we live in and all that it is built on. Exploring multiple aspects of womxnhood has been an important expansion of my interests in race, gender and multiple other aspects of who we are.

Kelly Fung – 3:28PM

It is so complex …Where does one start when exploring identity?

Danielle Bowler – 3:30PM

I think one of the most critical aspects of understanding it is in realising that there is no starting point. There is no beginning or set entry point. Identities, in the words of feminist scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, intersect – and do not fall into neat formations *plays Beyoncé in the background*. So for me it becomes more about understanding those intersections and how they relate to other types of being in the world.

Danielle Bowler #CreativeWomxn

Kelly Fung – 3:32PM

Interesting… For me, it was understanding yourself first, then as a woman, then women in general etc etc etc.

Danielle Bowler – 3:32PM

I think for me it never follows a neat, mapped out path, I think you are often confronted with your multiple ‘selves’ all at once – which makes it important to understand them in relation to each other. A crucial part of coming to understand myself, is understanding all the layers simultaneously – but also to note that at different moments some have been more highlighted than others. I’m also incredibly interested in the way we perform who we are in the world. And I think social media has made that even more palpable, layered and interesting.

Kelly Fung – 3:33PM

Totally. And going back to social media and how we see ourselves vs. how others see us vs. who we actually are…

Danielle Bowler – 3:34PM

I find it so intriguing. I could literally spend the whole day talking about that. But first, why did you want to do the kind of project that we decided on?

Kelly Fung – 3:36PM

Well, I think a project where women’s voices and opinions play a central role is important to take part in. That and the prospect of working with you finally (!) was rather enticing.

Kelly Fung #CreativeWomxn

Danielle Bowler – 3:39PM

I have been thinking about the kind of project we conceptualised and how it exists somewhat outside the way I would choose to present myself to the world (without my ‘flaws’, insecurities or vulnerabilities highlighted). The constant pressure to slay online (and in general life) can be exhausting – I had this conversation with my friends Pontsho Pilane, Carol Mashigo and Gugulethu Mhlungu on and offline, and saw it in Lindokuhle Nkosi’s absolutely beautiful piece on Koleka Putuma (sidenote: everyone should read it).

Kelly Fung – 3:40PM

It’s exhausting and for me has started to go beyond what is real and even fantasy… Has it become a total farce?

Danielle Bowler – 3:45PM

I don’t think it is farce, necessarily. I think it’s more interesting than that. What we do online is just an extension of what we do IRL, with different aspects highlighted and magnified for whichever ‘audience’ we are speaking to. We edit ourselves in different situations constantly – which is not to say that we shouldn’t consider and analyse how social has altered our lives or the way we use it. I also think we are the first generations who have to make sense of ourselves digitally and offline.

When we begin to understand identities as performances (like theorists like Judith Butler urge us to), we start to realise that we are never genuine/authentic/real in any space. All identity is some kind of dance with an idea of who we are/who we are becoming/who we want to be.

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Kelly Fung – 4:23PM

But when does it become too much? When is the opportunity to present something authentic? Not edited, scheduled, filtered…

Danielle Bowler – 4:55PM

I don’t know. I don’t think that anything is ever authentic or unedited. We always use filters, whether imagined, performed or on an app. But I also think that power operates on these apps just like it operates IRL – and that is where I feel pushback is necessary. When specific ideals create one way that we have to be/singular modes of expression.

I think my personal goal is to be as honest with myself about the way I engage with platforms and present myself IRL. Which is why I found this project challenging – because on some level I could dictate the confines of how I presented myself. But on another level, there is no photoshopping out the parts I struggle with.

Kelly Fung – 5:01PM

But I suppose there was the edit in that we could collage, cross out, highlight the parts we liked and didn’t like… But ultimately yes, we both felt quite vulnerable.

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Danielle Bowler – 5:56PM

I did feel so vulnerable. Because I do still want to slay and get the snaps and applause – but what’s been important for me lately is to make sense of why. And you are right, there was editing and filtering – but what was interesting for me was to peel back the veil behind that a little, and expose more through it.

I think I understand what’s critical in performing identity as being conscious of the impact you have on yourself and on others – I think Kyla Phil did this so beautifully in her Superbalist collaboration for Women’s Day.

Kelly Fung – 6:24PM

I think getting approval and validation from others is human nature – now it just being cemented with likes and shares. My thing is that how far away from your own identity do you have to stray in order to get those points of validation?

Danielle Bowler – 6:52PM

Interesting and difficult question. I think that is partially what I find so fascinating about social media – Kenny Jules Morifi-Winslow just wrote about it on her blog Third Citizen. I would also counter that it is difficult, frustrating and infuriating to watch things that your identity is ridiculed and insulted for be considered hip, trendy and beautiful on others.

I often wonder what social media is shifting, emphasising and morphing about our identities and how we make sense of ourselves. It’s an area I am interested in studying. How do you make sense of this in the context of your work?

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Kelly Fung – 8:22PM

It’s almost like a way to express who we are and who we want to be… It’s our own version, like writing our own story. 

In fashion and beauty, we create these worlds that are fantastical, often a heightened version of reality. Social media has made the idea of fashion, which was seen as alienating, more accessible. Now almost everyone can be a photographer, a stylist, a model…

Danielle Bowler – 8:24PM

On various social media platforms we tell different stories of ourselves.

Kelly Fung – 8:24PM

You are now the editor and curator of your own story. You don’t have to wait for an editor to do it for you.

Danielle Bowler – 8:25PM

But I think the fashion media in particular has been challenged and is being challenged on issues of representation and power within that (because nothing escapes this). I was recently sent an article where someone describes fashion magazines as the business of selling dresses, and I immediately thought wow, sure, if you just look at it through the narrow lens of capitalism. But it’s so much more – particularly to the people these worlds are created/not created for. There is an immense responsibility in it, putting it down to selling dresses strategically ignores that.

Kelly Fung – 8:29PM

Oh my gosh yes, and so often people don’t see this or understand it. What started as perhaps a business to catalogue and ‘interpret’ clothing styles, is now a business of cultural reflection, understanding markets, It has evolved so much…and thank goodness for that. The world has changed and the notion of beauty has been turned on its head. It’s an exciting time, difficult but exciting. In the past fashion media have been able to dictate what is beautiful. Now, I often find myself saying out loud “But who are we to say if that girl is beautiful or not?!”.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016:

Danielle Bowler – 2:16PM

And I think those questions have to be asked. But also that people don’t want to be understood as markets, but rather as human beings – which is where many issues come in. For example, I get incredibly uncomfortable with people who do not fit the industry’s normative idea of beautiful being used as ‘trends’ or to be trending. Incorporating people who fashion and beauty have excluded shouldn’t be done for cookies or momentary fantasies, but rather as a deeply introspective commitment to expanding ideas of what beauty looks like and challenging norms.

And I want to see that transformation happen on all levels – especially on mastheads and patterns of ownership. Because it’s not enough to confine it to the pages of the magazine.

To close, I want to ask you, who is your most beautiful womxn right now, for any reason at all?

Kelly Fung – 2:58PM

You are so right… But it all takes baby steps. It’s not only representation but education. 

That’s difficult! I think for me, I could list women who have a look or an aesthetic that I love but that would be going back to the superficial no? What I am loving right now is that fashion and beauty are making strides towards anti-trend and even transcending trend. Beauty is more all-encompassing, feminist focused and real – so right now, strong, independent smart, funny, creative, expressive women are beautiful – regardless of their physical features. And that is something positive we need to look toward. 

Danielle Bowler – 3:34PM

It’s also important that idea of ‘baby steps’ does not mean relegating change to ‘another day’. There are giant leaps that can be really easily made – switching up models used, shifting feature focuses and black womxn being placed in positions of power, and so much more.

I think that when I conceptualise beauty it is both within and outside the realm of aesthetics. I’m always stanning and fangirling over particular people in different moments. Right now the British novelist Zadie Smith represents so many of the things that I would like to grow into and become. On the aesthetic side, she is incredibly beautiful (my gahd!) but I only came to that after extensive googling. Fist and foremost, I find her mind incredible and her writing phenomenal – it always leaves me so inspired and illuminates so much about the world around us. Her novel ‘On Beauty’ is my current favourite book and I find myself spinning on its words constantly. It excavates the foundations that the idea of beauty is built on, and what it means to different kinds of womxn, and the impossibility of living up to the ideal. I guess what I’m realising more and more is how much work we all have to do, personally and collectively, in dismantling this idea of beauty and everything it is attached to.

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Photographs by Paul Samuels.

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