The politics of the black body have long been contentious. Its placement in a society that, to quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, “plunders it,” is a discussion that not only acknowledges this contention but confronts it. Its largest organ is its most visible identifier, one that has been the subject and object of both prejudice and desire. For The Matte Project (TMP), the brainchild of Mathahle Stofile, black skin is the raison d’être. Stofile believes in etching a space for black skin in the beauty industry, where for a long time it has been ignored. I had an interesting WhatsApp chat with her on what TMP is about, what inspired it’s creation and the far reaching extent of its work.
Larry Khumalo (LK): I consider The Matte Project (TMP) a political establishment. Is that right? How did you come about the idea?
Mathahle Stofile (MS): Yes! I now call myself a beauty activist, not just beauty editor. I became aware of how invisible people of colour (PoC) are in spaces that have to do with grooming/ beauty/ being attractive. It’s like there’s one idea of our beauty and that’s the monopoly, which is obviously rubbish. So I decided to create a platform where we can be more visible, where our voices are heard and our looks are normalised, not fetishized. I called it The Matte Project because as black people all over the world, shiny skin tends to be a common concern and that matte effect is the never ending quest.
LK: TMP is a tall order, and it comes after your years in the health and beauty space; in sales, in the glossy magazines space. Talk to me about that trajectory?
MS: It’s a very tall order indeed but I am not alone in it. It’s happening all over the world, these spaces black women are creating for themselves. Locally I can think of The Feminist Stokvel where the main theme is our hair and how to take care of it. I’m more about our skin. But yes, coming from magazine sales and then going editorial in glossy titles was eye opening. They showed me just how truly invisible we are. Someone puts it so well, I think she’s the ex-Beauty Director at Essence magazine, she said we, black women, are not sitting at the table making decisions but we are always on the menu being discussed. It’s time we made our own decisions and addressed our own unique concerns.
LK: I love that you frame and place The Matte Project in this global centering of blackness driven by us in spaces created by us. The movement has also driven the idea of self care as key element of asserting the presence of black bodies. One of my favourite quotes by activist Audre Lorde is, “Caring for myself is not self indulgence. It is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.” I think skin care sits comfortably in a bag of self-care tricks.
MS: Oh my God that quote is everything! As a black woman, a working mother, it is exactly the force behind TMP. Caring for ourselves, our bodies – including skin; and taking the time to listen to our bodies and learn what they need is essential. As little girls we are told we are vain if they catch us looking in the mirror. So we grow up acting like we don’t care about our looks. The point is, looks are important. This is why it’s important for all of us to be able to see ourselves or people who look like us in more than one light. “The danger of the single story” as Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie puts it…
LK: So what was your road to self understanding and self acceptance like? Having worked in spaces where the black body was discussed but never consulted?
MS: Oh man! I think because I was never one for conventional wisdom and my true nature is to question everything, I saw straight through the nonsense almost straight away. It became tough at times. I know how to choose my battles but there were moments where I couldn’t just shut up. So I was called ‘argumentative’ and ‘militant’ amongst other names. I took them all as compliments in this context because being the opposite would have been the true betrayal of who I am. So I decided to go off on my own and drive uncomfortable conversations within the demographic that I care most about and feel responsible to: black people, especially women. I also think I got to understand that being uncomfortable and unpopular in this industry amongst potential clients is a small price to pay compared to being quiet and becoming part of the problem. So that put things into perspective for me and encouraged me to start TMP but the result has been the opposite. Not much hate so far.
LK: I think your work comes from a sincere place, a place of honesty and it is not possible to hate on that. Not if you are human and have your faculties in order. I can imagine though, that going against the tide took a helluva lot of bravery and a strong sense of self
MS: That’s kind of exactly how I feel. If you hate it, you clearly don’t get it and that’s cool. For now, hahaha! I’m lucky to have a partner who still pushes me to my limits so that’s been a huge drive for me.
LK: Right! Like Bey says, if you have a problem with this project, then you had a problem all along!
MS: Hahaha! Love that you quoted Bey.
LK: She is queen!
MS: Yes she is! A complete force.
LK: So you call your process an intervention and I understand that framing clearly now. An intervention to get black people, women mostly, to a place of self assuredness, and self love. How does it play out? You have mentioned before that you hold workshops and master-classes. Talk to me about those, the other means and processes of intervention.
MS: Of affirmation – you get it! We do bespoke events usually in partnership with clients. Intimate events where it could be twelve ladies over lunch and bubbly talking about how colourism has affected us as black women, for example. As women we heal through talking. Maybe men too but I wouldn’t know, lol. So a lot of what we do is conversation driven. We also do focus groups for beauty clients that don’t know much about us but want to. Master-classes on makeup trends and translating them on our skin tones. Caring for skin in different seasons, that sort of thing. We also do private consultations with anyone who has skin or makeup concerns – if you are looking for advice or product recommendations. We hope to go into seminars with panel discussions, a podcast, and lots more planned a few years from now.
LK: That’s a very boutique approach. Amongst other things, I find it speaks to your respect of the individuality of the black body. So you are not about to throw a big conference and talk at people. You prefer to engage and give them attention they have not be afforded by, well, society. The same kind of attention we need to be giving our skin
MS: You should become a partner here, Larry, you are so with me!
LK: I love the sincerity on which the platform is built. It’s inspiring. You have built a community of black people, mostly women, with whom your engage regularly, including your Friday discussion on your Facebook page. What kind of issues do you find people have with their skin?
MS: So I’ve stopped the chats on Facebook simply because as we were getting new followers daily, the questions started becoming repetitive. So at first everyone was asking about makeup because as soon as you say ‘beauty,’ women usually think makeup. All my answers would direct them back to the basics of skincare, like taking care of your skin and you won’t need so much makeup. Makeup should be fun instead of a necessity! So now it’s always issues around uneven skin tone and surprisingly for me, dry sensitive skin. So many people have sensitive skin.
LK: Many of us black men have always assumed that we have ‘tough’ skin that doesn’t need TLC…
MS: Hahaha! Y’al need to stop with that ‘tough’ nonsense. All skin needs care. Black men do have thicker skin, literally. It’s a great thing but can also have its own issues…
LK: Ha ha ha! #MasculinitySoFragile, we seem to aim at anything and everything that will make us seem physically strong. Even if it’s a fallacy
MS: Especially when it’s fallacy!
LK: So where can people find you? For one-on-one consulting? For group talks? For companies that want you to give talks or run master-classes? I am keen on a master-class for black men actually, on skin care regimens, product recommendations, etc.
MS: All quotes can be requested from email@example.com. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter is all The Matte Project or @thematteproject. I would love to give a men’s skin master-class. So many myths to bust! Should we plan it?
LK: Absolutely. Let’s plan one.
MS: I’m in!
Featured image from: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com, Other images adapted from AfternoonExpress.co.za and TMP’s Instagram Page