Peach coloured cover of India Arie's Acoustic Soul. Back shot of India Arie on the left, looking to her right. She wears a light orange headscarf with tassels, large hoop earrings and orange off the shoulder top or dress. A bunch of peacock feathers overlays her right shoulder and arm.

Sometimes I shave my legs and sometimes I don’t

Sometimes I comb my hair and sometimes I won’t

Depend on how the wind blows I might even paint my toes

It really just depends on whatever feels good in my soul

This refusal to be pinned down and defined according to conformity or non-conformity to traditional ‘feminine’ beauty regimes is, in my view, an important part of what makes India Arie‘s ‘Video‘ so liberating.

The song was released as a single in 2001 and is widely described as the first single from her debut album (though AllMusic listsBrown Skin‘ and Discogs highlightsSimple‘). It makes its feminism clear in a variety of ways. One example would be in its rejection of the materialism so inextricably bound up with female stereotypes:

“Keep your fancy drink, and your expensive minks

I don’t need that to have a good time

Keep your expensive cars and your caviar

All’s I need is my guitar”

Along with this, ‘Video’ has been described as an inspiration for a diverse range of women:

In this song India Arie served as an advocate for the average woman during a time where self-image was becoming extremely distorted by unrealistic standards set by the media. She let it be known that it is possible to be happy and content with who you are.” (Madame Noire website)

Chloe at Feministing has flagged ‘Video’ as a “Bad body image day song” and its positive message of self acceptance is obviously very feminist-friendly. However, I’d say it is the song’s engagement with the rather more slippery issue of choice that is perhaps most challenging; as with ‘I Am Not my Hair‘, Arie moves beyond the definitions imposed on us for the choices we make and, perhaps controversially, reminds us that we are far greater than they are. (The fact I feel compelled here to add an overly obvious disclaimer saying “choices do not occur in a vacuum” and are always constrained by norms and social pressures is perhaps significant!) In an academic paper about black feminist creative expression, Tunisia L. Riley looks at ‘I Am Not My Hair‘ in the context of bell hooks’ comment that the “assumption that straight hair is good hair, and Black hair is both problematic and in need of being conquered”. By stating that Arie is “challenging the accountability that comes with processed hair, locked hair, or no hair at all” she indicates Arie’s ability to acknowledge and challenge the restrictions of narrow beauty standards, while also resisting being patronised for sometimes adopting those practices with a basis in them. This seems to tie in with the flexible approach to body hair removal expressed in ‘Video’.

Another song that explicitly shares part of the spirit of ‘Video’ is ‘I Choose‘. Far from being the anti-feminist discussion-ender the title perhaps implies, the song mainly seems to be about refusing to be defined by painful past experiences. I’d say that, like ‘Video’, it acts as a wider and much-needed reminder of the existence of autonomy and agency in the face of very real structural inequalities.

It’s probably true to say that we can only go so far with choice narratives before they are swallowed up by the kyriarchal systems they fail to adequately challenge. Bringing the notion of choice into a debate is always risky but that doesn’t mean letting it become a dirty word is somehow a viable strategy for change. For me, these three songs by India Arie indicate that believing in one’s ability to make choices and resist other people’s categorisation of them is an important part of self care.

YouTube description: India Arie hangs out on her porch and then goes for a bicycle ride into town, ending up at an audition. She also visits an orange grove. Click here for a more detailed description: India Arie – ‘Video’ YouTube clip description.docx

Comments From You

MarinaS // Posted 12 September 2012 at 11:10 am

Is it mean to point out to that India Arie is gorgeous? I just get a little tired with this trend for women who are basically hot preaching (or being used to preach) self-acceptance. America Ferrara is not ugly; Christina Hendricks or Crystal Renn are not fat. It would be easy for us all to love ourselves unconditionally if we only departed from patriarchal beauty standards as much as India Arie does.

I prefer to think that there’s no law that says I’ve got to love my body at all – no demand that ANYONE find me beautiful, including myself. At best, self-acceptance through choice just makes it easier to live with patriarchal demands, without actively challenging them, no?

Louise McCudden // Posted 12 September 2012 at 11:39 am

MarinaS’s comment above is so true, it’s similar with that TLC song ‘Unpretty’ ; the message is great but you feel slightly aware of how gorgeous the women singing about how what’s inside is more important than looks. I still really do like the song and the message of the video though!

It’s an interesting point, at what point does the obsession with loving our bodies as they are become problematic, after all we’re still fixated on looks in a way that I don’t think you see with men. I don’t think this song particularly does this, but I think there’s a danger of this type of thing descending into “real women have curves” type of shit.

The hair issue is very interesting though and in the context of that perhaps this makes it slightly different?

On a side issue, I remember hearing this song on Radio 1, cannot remember who the DJ was but I think it was Chris Moyles or Scott Mills, someone like that… I remember being really taken with the first line “sometimes I have shave my legs some days I don’t” (I was about fifteen or something, and really liked hearing someone sing those words!) and when the DJ came on to talk after the record he made a crack about the woman singing having a deep manly voice and singing about not always shaving her legs, implying she was trans and that this was worthy of mockery. Perhaps that reaction shows that if we take the song in the context it existed/exists, it really did challenge people’s ideas – if it made transphobic body-shaming sexist bigots feel THAT uncomfortable and threatened that they had to take the piss, then it must have been doing something right.

Holly Combe // Posted 12 September 2012 at 12:14 pm

[@Marina S] I agree that a conventionally attractive woman singing about self acceptance is making a somewhat limited gesture. Then again, I would also say there is a pressure on us all to fulfil very narrow criteria in terms of how we look. Just as one woman will face oppressions in one area, another will be receiving negative messages connected to a different one. Being seen as conventionally attractive is not an adequate shield. It’s rare to find a woman who doesn’t have something about her body that the beauty myth doesn’t hold up as being in need of correction and, if she momentarily doesn’t, there’s always the ageing process to contend with.

Still, I do think the real sign we’re getting somewhere will be seeing women who are most certainly “not pretty” in more visible positions on television etc and, indeed, not giving a shit about how fragrant and lovely they may or may not be. (And, yes, having to put “not pretty” in quotes is a sure sign of how mired in this crap we are! I’d love to be in a position where I can be ugly or acknowledge another woman’s lack of good looks without it being seen as a declaration of low worth but we’re just not there yet.)

I prefer to think that there’s no law that says I’ve got to love my body at all – no demand that ANYONE find me beautiful, including myself.

I very much agree. Wouldn’t it be great to see huge numbers of women under no pressure at all to value their own or each other’s “beauty” or proclaim it to be polite or signify apparent self-esteem?

At best, self-acceptance through choice just makes it easier to live with patriarchal demands, without actively challenging them, no?

I personally tend to see self-acceptance and questions of choice as separate but related issues. (The thought of the former somehow being achieved through the latter is indeed ridiculous!) Self acceptance is surely about feeling comfortable in your own skin or, more ideally, valuing other aspects of yourself to the extent that you don’t really think about it. I’d say choosing or not choosing things and the constraints/pressures that lead us to those decisions feed more specifically into the issue of resistance to labels.

Having said that, I do think there’s something to be said for accepting each other’s choices (including those that may be unchallenging). We need to find ways of continuing the critique of these practices that don’t just become yet another patronising voice telling women that somebody else knows best.

Holly Combe // Posted 12 September 2012 at 12:33 pm

Hey Louise, hadn’t yet seen your comment when I wrote mine! Thanks for sharing the story about the Radio 1 DJ’s stupid comments. [EDIT: I agree it was probably Moyles, on reflection!] I think you’re right that they suggest India was onto something positive.

I definitely also agree about the danger of “love yourself” rhetoric descending into “real women have curves” shit though. Patriarchy and consumerism make it all too easy for efforts to break free to turn into yet another way of telling us we must fulfil certain criteria in order to be “real” or worthy.

Louise McCudden // Posted 12 September 2012 at 12:51 pm

Great comment Holly :)

I’d just like to say re the “pretty in inverted commas” thing, surely this is a subjective term anyway? I think people find different things pretty/beautiful/etc. I have definitely dated women where I am told they are “not pretty” but I find them pretty. Yes there are some people who are what society has decided to consider “pretty” and some who are not, but as this is so subjective and changes all the time – big women, smaller women, white women, black women, pure skin, tattoos, makeup, dark makeup, natural makeup, short hair, long hair, sun tan, pale skin, black skin, brown skin, big bums, small bums, muscles, delicate frames, disabled women, older women, childlike women, underage women, trans women, transvestites, masculine women, women with body hair – these have all been deemed officially “pretty” or not at different times in history/through different cultures.

Using it as if you can acknowledge someone’s lack of good looks seems to imply there is an official definition of “pretty” and “not pretty.” It’s enormously determined by culture and that’s why I tend to place it in speech marks or whatever if I use a term like that. ]

I think I am perceived by some to be pretty by some and not by others. If you or someone else looks at me and thinks I ‘lack good looks’ because they don’t like big eyes or whatever that’s their opinion, not an objective statement of fact.

Sorry that turned out to be a really long post!

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