Emma Dabiri: ‘Growing up in Ireland I aspired to be very thin, as did everyone I knew’

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Academic writes new book exploring society’s unrealistic, often contradictory, expectations of women

In Emma Dabiri’s new book, Disobedient Bodies, an essay on beauty and on society’s unrealistic, often contradictory, expectations of women, she ponders her own unapologetic love of glamour. She writes of the lotions and potions that line her shelves, her commitment to the drama of a red lip. We’re talking, on Zoom, during London Fashion Week. She hasn’t had time to change out of the outfit she wore to the show she was attending and is looking fabulous in a frothy pink and black confection. In the essay she explains how she tries to incorporate as much glamour and “magical fairy-tale energy” into the everyday as possible, and she’s exuding plenty of it this afternoon.

The Dublin-raised, England-based author of Don’t Touch My Hair and What White People Can Do Next will be familiar to readers for her thought-provoking reflections on social history, black feminism, racism, colonialism and African history and traditions. Disobedient Bodies, commissioned by The Wellcome Collection as a companion text to their exhibition on the Cult of Beauty, is a thoughtful read on western society’s beauty ideals and how we might challenge them. These demands, she writes, are “reductive, tyrannical and commercially entangled, imposed upon us by oppressive systems and further strengthened by our conditioned self-loathing”.

There is joy there too, it should be noted. “I was writing the book very much from the perspective of somebody that loves beautiful clothes and make-up and glamour,” she explains. “I’ve been obsessed with glamour, for as long as I can remember, from when I was a small child, but I still don’t necessarily know that the way I look is particularly conventional. I’m often dressed up in a way that looks theatrical. So, it’s not necessarily conforming to the conventions of the world around me.”

I tell her that parts of her essay reminded me of the much-quoted monologue in Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, which draws attention to the many contradictions of being a woman as delivered by America Ferrera’s character Gloria: “You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time.”


Dabiri, a mother of two boys, hasn’t seen Barbie yet but she’s reflected a lot on the unwinnable, futile aspects of a certain kind of womanhood. In her essay she harks back to her childhood and teenage years growing up in Rialto in Dublin – when you had to be “hot” but “hot without notions” – getting ready for nights out with her friends, all Heather Shimmer lipstick and fake tan. “Yes, I wore it too,” she laughs. She points out that on average, women spend up to “four and half hours a week, 10 days a year, or around two years over a lifetime, in front of a mirror.” She cites one report that shows the global cosmetic surgery market size was valued at $55.68 billion in 2022 and is projected to grow from $57.67 billion in 2023 to $75.20 billion by 2030. But at the same time she revels in those teenage Friday night gatherings, paying what author Zadie Smith called “the beauty tax”, where there was “magic, transformation, ritual and a sorority”.

Dabiri is asking a huge question: “How might we possibly reconcile the reality of the joys and pleasures we can find in our bodies, and in rituals of beautification – as well as the whole sphere of female knowledge bound up in it – with the age-old and sometimes fraught feminist discourses, and the justified pushback against an overemphasis on our looks as not only a drag on our time, but a form of control? Especially now, at a time when it feels like these pressures are accelerating, not falling away?”

We’re living in a hyper-visual culture when young women (and young men) are under more surveillance than ever and women, in particular, are pitted against each other. Dabiri loves fashion, and has been glad to see in recent years how there is much more diversity on the catwalks, not just ethnicities, but sexuality and body shape. “However, as I make very clear in the book, I don’t think diversity is the solution to the transformation of our understanding of beauty,” she says. “Because I feel it is diversity of the same system that we have, when what I’m calling for is more of an interrogation of that very system itself rather than an expansion of it. I’m not saying more traditional forms of beauty are immaterial. I’m just saying the emphasis that we place on them is excessive, and we could prioritise other things, as well.”

She continues: “Even with all the diversity and inclusion, it’s not like people seem to feel any better ... actually, people seem under more pressure. We can credit social media with bringing in that revolution of representation, where more people see themselves reflected ... but social media is also responsible for that visual culture which previously has never existed to this extent.” We’ve never been as aware of our faces and how we look than at this moment in history, she points out. “Like with this Zoom call, I’m trying not to look at myself, but I keep doing it.”

The normalisation of women eating very little, and being painfully thin, was very entrenched in Ireland, more so than anywhere else I’ve ever lived

—  Emma Dabiri

Her view is that “ocularcentrism”, a Eurocentric bias that ranks vision over other senses in western culture, has helped to inform the shallowness of the beauty regime “as well as contributing to the overemphasis given to visually racialised characteristics such as the colour of our skin, our facial features and hair texture. Sight has been held since classical times as the ‘noblest of the senses’. I just assumed this was the universal norm but from studying other cultures I found there are other ways of thinking about this ... I discovered that even the idea of beauty as this physical kind of singular entity is culturally situated ... the global western idea of what constitutes beauty is dominant.”

The daughter of a Nigerian father and Irish mother, Dabiri was 19 when she left Dublin for London to study for a degree in African studies and postcolonial theory. It was through these studies that she first encountered the Ifa tradition and mythology from her African Yoruba ancestry, which subverts some of those western notions of beauty. In Yoruba cosmology, Oshun is the goddess of beauty, divinity and femininity. There’s a line from one of the Yoruba orikis (praise songs) describing her, in glowing terms, as “a corpulent woman who cannot be embraced around the waist”.

“I can’t think of a beauty ideal further from the purge-and-punishment food culture that I grew up with in Ireland,” Dabiri writes. Growing up in a far less culturally diverse Ireland, she experienced racism from a young age which was instrumental to her pursuing an academic path. But racism wasn’t the only oppression. There’s a striking moment in the essay when she recalls being 18 and returning to Ireland having lived away for a couple of years in Atlanta where, enjoying the southern food in that city, she had gained some weight.

She was at a pub in Dublin when a man her own age pushed past on the way to to the bar, muttering “get out of my way, you fat f*****g n****r”. She writes that by that stage she was largely immune to the N-word, but it being combined with “fat” made her disgusted with herself: “Well, I can’t control anybody calling me the N-word, but nobody is going to call me fat again!”

“A large part of it was being from Ireland,” she says, although she adds that she thinks it might be different here now. “The normalisation of women eating very little, and being painfully thin, was very entrenched there, more so than anywhere else I’ve ever lived.” (Dabiri, who now lives in Kent, has also lived in the United States and Japan among other places). “So, I think I was just very conditioned by that. I aspired to be very thin, as did everyone I knew. And then I feel like that incident gave me the quote-unquote, ‘incentive’ to keep going”.

In the book Dabiri asks us to consider the notion of “pretty privilege”, where women are advantaged because of their looks, and quotes a recent, depressing, Economist article “The Economics of Thinness”: “It is economically rational for ambitious women to try as hard as possible to be thin ... The penalty for an obese woman is significant, costing her about 10 per cent of her income.”

The blurb for Dabiri’s book asks, “What part of your beautiful self were you taught to hate?” For her, the incident in the pub sparked a decade of restricting her food intake and “disordered eating”, although she was careful to never let her weight go below a certain number on the scale.

In African culture there is definitely not the same imperative to shrink your body

—  Emma Dabiri

“I’m quite a petite person naturally ... but my body shape is definitely different from the body shape of most white Irish people. I have a bum and I have thighs.” She laughs and says these days, when there are people who have surgical procedures to achieve bigger bottoms, having a larger arse “sounds like a boast, but that’s not the context I grew up in. In the book I write about my thighs, they were the issue. The aspiration was to have a thigh gap ... the thing is I could be six stone and not have a thigh gap – I’ve never been six stone for the record – I could never have that because my body is not that shape. Different ethnicities have different body shapes, but I didn’t know that and I was really perturbed by that aspect of my physicality.

“In African culture, there is definitely not the same imperative to shrink your body ... I’ve even had older Nigerian people just be quite pitying towards me for being little. ‘Oh, it’s not your fault,’ that kind of thing,” she laughs.

How can women be more disobedient in the face of this pervasive pressure to conform to certain standards? “There’s not necessarily a one size fits all approach to this,” she says. “I think people have to work things out for themselves.” Dabiri’s disobedience comes in different forms. She threw away her weighing scales on her 30th birthday, for example. As the author of Don’t Touch My Hair, the decision to leave her hair in its “natural” state was a big part of working things out for herself.

At first, not straightening or otherwise styling her hair was “deeply, deeply uncomfortable”, but when she pushed through that discomfort, “I actually made a lot of discoveries about myself and my appearance. When I first went natural with my hair, I was very militant ... I wouldn’t do anything that was in any way like straightening it or making it like flat or making it go down.” Now, after years of having “natural” hair, she is more relaxed, straightening her hair if she feels like it. She found a similar thing happened when she stopped shaving her armpit and leg hair. Eventually, she discovered she didn’t really like having hairy legs and started shaving them again, but she also realised that she was fine with armpit hair which, on women, can be a provocation.

“Like, loads of people are fine with it, but there’s still a notable amount of people who are vocally opposed, people go crazy,” she says with the air of someone who does not care what people think about her underarm situation. “The other day I decided to trim my armpit hair and started to shave but I got bored, so the armpit hair is a little bit shorter but still there. I was doing a very glamorous photo shoot, and it was quite apparent. I wouldn’t necessarily feel self-conscious, but I’d be aware I was one of a small handful of people rocking armpit hair.”

She prefers not being “super polished”. She’s fine with chipped nails and sloppy lip liner. She clearly does not want to be prescriptive about how women can become more “unruly”, but who does she think lives or lived in a disobediently beautiful way? “One of the first pieces I ever wrote starting out was about beauty. It was called My Body is Not An Apology. I quoted Sinéad O’Connor in that piece, because she was saying something about how she loved her beautiful body. It was so authentic and genuine, and I was really struck by it. There are so few celebrities I can think of that would have said that in the way that she did, where it just seemed she was genuinely comfortable with her appearance.”

Ultimately, she wants women to reclaim beauty for themselves in whatever form they like, “as a source of nourishment, not just a snack”. Beauty, she says, is something you do, not just something you are. For Dabiri the pursuit of beauty means spending time in nature, walking in the woods or on the beach near her home. She practices transcendental meditation and swims regularly. “I’m untidy and disorganised and that needs to be dealt with, but my workspace is painted a particular colour which is dramatic and yet soothing. I’m super sensitive to smells so I burn a lot of incense, but I’m very intentional about it. My focus going forward is deepening my spiritual practice, and spending more time trying to connect with and understand the environment around me.”

When I ask about her latest projects, she tells me she has a novel on the go. What’s it about? “I haven’t told anybody yet,” she says. “I had actually started a novel when I got this commission, and I was trying to do both simultaneously, but I couldn’t. Now that this [Disobedient Bodies] has finished, I want to focus on the novel and try to get that in shape. It’s currently satire, because the world is f***ing ludicrous, so writing in that genre allows you to really go with the ridiculousness of the world.”

There are lots of exciting “very big” things about to happen, none of which she says she can talk about. (Honestly, I try my best to persuade her, but she remains charmingly tight-lipped. But earlier this week, a few days after the interview, she announced on Instagram that she is to join the Guardian as a columnist focusing on Ireland. “We have an incredible story to tell and I’m super honoured to have this opportunity to craft my version of it,” she wrote.) She does say the one-woman play based on her life, Throwing Shapes, might possibly be staged next year. She’ll continue to travel back to Ireland occasionally, and does not rule out making it her base at some point. “The idea of never living in Ireland again makes me feel very sad. So I hope that I live there again, at some point in my life.”

Earlier when I asked her age, I was surprised that she didn’t want to answer. (You can google it, if you are desperate to know.) She explains she hates people often tell her she looks younger than she actually is, or say “oh you look so good for your age”, which she finds irritating. Isn’t it a compliment? “It actually makes me feel really insecure,” she says, because it implies there is something wrong with ageing. “I’m going to age, you’re going to age, we’re all going to age and [by complimenting people for looking younger] you’re further entrenching the idea that there is a stigma attached to that. My motivation in writing the book and talking about ageing and talking about beauty is that I don’t like it when people over emphasise physical appearance, and looking youthful, because what about when that changes? Are you worthless then? Do you have no further contribution to make?”

I can’t envisage a time when Dabiri is not making a contribution. She’s quite the powerhouse I tell her, listing a few of her other achievements. She has presented a number of television and radio documentaries, including BBC Radio 4′s Journeys into Afrofuturism and BBC Four’s Britain’s Lost Masterpieces. She is on the board of the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, and was recently appointed a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Is she ambitious? “It’s interesting because people’s perception of you is often so different from how you feel about yourself,” she laughs. “I have quite a singular sense of purpose. I have things that I feel compelled to say and to write about, and that’s really my guiding force. I want to honour that and be true to that and push that as far as it can go.”

Disobedient Bodies by Emma Dabiri is published by Profile Books x The Wellcome Collection. The Cult of Beauty exhibition runs from October 26th to April 28th, 2024; see wellcomecollection.org

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle

Róisín Ingle is an Irish Times columnist, feature writer and coproducer of the Irish Times Women's Podcast