By now, you have likely seen the internet outrage over the contrast between Beyoncé’s dramatic onstage look at South Africa’s Global Summit compared to Ed Sheeran’s trademark scruffy skater uniform. The whole thing serves as a metaphor for the amount of effort expected of black women compared to white men. Or as my former colleague Rich Bellis brilliantly put it: “Imagine Beyoncé trying to be Beyoncé while dressing like Avril Lavigne. You can’t! It’s impossible!” (It should be noted that while Lavigne was at the height of her fame and commercial success during her “Sk8er” look phase, she is now considerably more glam.)
He’s right in that in order to reach Beyoncé’s level of fame and success as a woman, there seems no other option than to be spend hours perfecting a dazzling look (and probably full choreography). But like in so many other aspects of both personal and professional life, male artists simply have more options in the way they present themselves, from Chance the Rapper’s overalls to Sheeran’s rolled-out-of-bed look to Michael Bublé’s signature tux.
Women in the public eye don’t seem to have the option to be comfortable or dress down. On the last episode of the 2 Dope Queens podcast, former first first lady Michelle Obama explained the exhaustive lengths she had to go to while in office to plan her hair, makeup, and outfits while in office: “I’ve done a little bit of everything–braids, weaves, wigs, extensions.” She noted that after any briefing for an event, she’d have to have an additional briefing about what to wear and how to do her hair.
Work ethic and talent and ambition aside, the expectations on women (and especially on black women) in entertainment, politics, and the professional world seem to start at full hair and makeup and work their way up. Part of Beyoncé’s widespread appeal is (in addition to her prodigious talent) her breathtaking showmanship. Michelle Obama, too, became a style icon. But imagine what women could accomplish if the barrier to entry was, as it is for men, simply based on the work itself.