She is self-affirmed, walking to nobody’s tune but her own. She rejects conformity and seeks only her own truth. She is ungovernable, and just the kind of woman we love. In the first of a series of interviews with these remarkable women, we start at home, with noted.man grooming contributor, MS. MATHAHLE STOFILE.
Noted Man (NM): In a paragraph, please introduce yourself.
Mathahle Stofile (MS): My name is Mathahle Stofile. I come from Alice, a small village/town in the Eastern Cape and currently live in Jhb with my husband and two children. I’m a beauty editor, consultant and founder of The Matte Project (TMP). I like grooming stuff – from a good toothpaste to a great lipstick. I am a big admirer of any one who is not afraid to speak up and women in general. I also love long conversations, hot, balmy days, reading long novels and sleeping… amongst many other things.
NM: What is your earliest recollection of ‘being a girl’, in other words, when you first realised what it meant to be female in this world?
MS: The very blatant difference in the way certain rules applied to my brother, myself and my sister very early in our lives. For example, our brother would get away with things (like not making his bed or help clean up in the kitchen) and the sole reason given would be: “He is a boy.” It’s just how things were and one of the first wake up calls.
NM: I know that you will agree that the work/life balance thing is a misnomer, what is your approach?
MS: I take comfort in believing that every other parent I know is going through the same thing. I’m not in this alone. Other than that, I just try to get on with both good and bad days.
NM: How difficult is it to have strong political views in the beauty industry?
It is very difficult but I feel also necessary. The beauty industry for me is quite political for several reasons: black people are huge consumers of this industry but the proportion of it that we get a say over or own is minuscule – we’re just consuming. The lack of representation or the misrepresentation of black people in the industry is disturbing; the lack of options when it comes to products that address unique black beauty needs is disturbing; the notion that black people should be grateful that big international brands are now catering to them is disturbing; the fact that black supermodels still get asked to bring their own foundation at international fashion weeks is disturbing; the fact that I can’t think of a single shampoo ad featuring Black hair when we spend the most on our hair is disturbing. The list goes on and on and I can pretty much nail every reason for the above back to black oppression and white privilege – directly or indirectly. These things have to be pointed out, addressed and more importantly, changed. It is a very white, untransformed industry (just like many others) and being a black woman with what is perceived to be “wild” and “militant” views is annoying and a challenge but I think the bigger picture is obviously more important than that discomfort.
NM: Was there a moment where you felt, officially, like a woman and why?
MS: I don’t know. Maybe. But I think it’s too personal to share here.
NM: If you had to create the perfect male feminist, what would be his makeup?
MS: He would be more of a listener and feel less compelled to speak for women when it comes to our issues. What I mean by this is that as much as he truly believes that men and women are equal, he can never fully understand the female experience. Because of this, it is important for him to let women voice and express their experiences without him interfering or trying to tell them what kind of feminists they should be. I also think he’s responsible for schooling his male peers who may not get the “feminist” concept or maybe have it completely twisted. You know, basic things like “feminist” doesn’t mean “anti-male” just like “pro-black” doesn’t mean “anti-white.”
NM: Black Feminists often speak about how sexist ‘conscious brothers’ can be. Is this your experience and how does one change that in a community that really should know better?
MS: My view is that most men can be sexist, usually without even realising it. It’s like how your white friend “who truly gets it” will have her slip ups now and then, further letting you know how powerful and potentially blinding white privilege is. It is the same with male privilege, or any kind of privilege for that matter. My experience hasn’t been that “conscious brothers” are more sexist than the brothers who aren’t. It’s probably more glaring when the “conscious brother” is sexist because you’d think he gets oppression and therefore can easily identify it. It is sad that a black man can feel very strongly about the dignity of black people being restored and not think twice about how he treats his female partner at home – usually not regarding her as an equal, therefore slowly chipping away at her dignity. I’m not sure what can be done about it.
NM: Why must ‘the revolution’ be intersectional in nature?
MS: All manifestations of oppression must be fought because ultimately, they are all linked. So we can’t just fight patriarchy and ignore racism, for example, and vice versa. You can’t be all black conscious but act like a mysoginistic prick when you’re around your male friends – there’s nothing revolutionary or progressive about that. You can’t be a white woman fighting patriarchy but turn around and talk racist smack when there are no people of colour around. That’s why we must fight all of them, not exclusively, otherwise we won’t get very far.
NM: As a woman working and raising children in Johannesburg do you like many, live a life of constant worry for your safety or have you found ways to cope? When do you feel most vulnerable/annoyed/disrespected/in danger?
MS: I don’t live in constant worry but it certainly happens too often. It is a very disempowering feeling, the fear for your children’s safety. I cope by not thinking about it too much since I have very little control over it. I take precautions and try to be vigilant but I also know it is not really under my control. It’s tough. I think I feel most vulnerable when I am alone with my children at night. I think of all the horror house break-in stories and drive myself crazy in the process. The paranoia has definitely risen now that I have more than just myself to worry about.
NM: What traits must an ‘ungovernable’ woman necessarily exhibit?
MS: Hahaha, She must speak her truth and never burn herself to keep others warm. Unless it’s really, really worth it.
NM: Who is your iconic ungovernable woman?
MS: Nina Simone.
NM: What was your favourite literary discovery this year?
MS: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma.
NM: When you assess how your looks have affected your social or intellectual capital over the years, have they been a blessing or a curse and why?
MS: I feel like I should say “curse” but if I’m going to be honest, my looks have just as much worked in my favour both as social and intellectual capital. You say something mildly challenging and someone gets shocked and starts taking you seriously because they expected you to be daft based on how you look or the fact that you love lipstick. Blessing and curse. Blessing because they now probably take you more seriously than they would have because they don’t know what else you have up your sleeve and curse because they dared judge you prematurely and incorrectly in the first place. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
NM: You have worked in magazines as a beauty editor as well as sales executive, what is the single most disappointing thing about the South African magazine/media industry?
MS: That little page we call “the masthead” will tell you all you need to know about the content of the magazine. It’s the page that lists the names of all the editorial staff working to produce the title. In South Africa, it is pretty much always the same story. No diversity in the people producing the content. Pretty much everyone is white. A simple example: most glossy print titles “employ” interns straight from varsity. The catch is that you don’t really get paid and you need to have your own car to use daily (they’ll reimburse you for the fuel). This means you need to come from a family that can maintain your living expenses as well as sponsor you with a car for at least six months. In the SA context, you are essentially then telling most black kids to forget about ever working in magazines. It’s hugely unfair and short sighted. This is partly why we have no diversity in these offices and why the content can start to sound dreadful after a while – same voices telling the same old story. Thank goodness for the internet and independent content producers.
Image by Afternoon Express