‘Are You Just a Plaything of Nature?’ Amina Ross on the Politics of Beauty
A self-proclaimed “undisciplined” artist, Amina Ross’ generous making practice includes curating a vibrant workshop series called Beauty Breaks — a series that saved me from isolation as a friendless transplant bumbling around Chicago only a year before. The irregularly scheduled workshop, hosted in F4F’s attic and performance space, brought together an earnest and dynamic group of young Black queerdos intent on building community in a notoriously challenging city. I learned how to use tarot as a tool to cultivate my intuition. I built small sculptures from recycled goods. I meditated, wrote poetry, co-created impromptu group performances, and refreshed my spirit in ways I could not have imagined. It was diametrically opposed to any of my former interactions with “beauty,” and I wanted to talk about why.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kemi Alabi: You’ve had workshops that deal with the aesthetics of the body, workshops that are more theoretical about joy, hands-on food making. What’s the through-line?
Amina Ross: It started with beauty, health, and wellness as a magazine category. It’s amorphous, really — but a “lifestyle magazine.” If I say that to you, you can imagine what it is. It’s about what a proposed lifestyle is, what a lifestyle should be, quote-unquote, by this magazine industry that’s selling ideals that are oftentimes aspiring toward whiteness and class ascension. Then they label it beauty, health, and wellness. I think about [Beauty Breaks] in the way I imagine editors think of what goes into a lifestyle magazine, which can really be anything. But I think about beauty, really interrogating that as a concept.
What catalyzed your fascination with beauty, wellness, and the lifestyle magazine concept?
I had this residency, and I had to utilize one of their collections. The collection I chose to focus on was the Johnson Publishing library because I’ve always been interested in Jet magazine — for mainly aesthetic reasons, seeing all these beautiful Black people on these covers. They would have this Beauty of the Week photo of a really beautiful femme person in cute clothes on a hot, electric background. I was obsessed with feminine figures. I’m really queer. [laughs]
I went to school in the middle of all these modeling agencies in New York City — great place to be in fucking middle school. Going out to lunch and seeing these famous models who don’t eat, you know. Just tiny, tiny, tiny — and majestic. Small gods to me.
[The magazines] presented an opportunity for me to examine similar materials that were from a Black-owned publishing house with a more critical lens. Advertisements are oftentimes the most visually compelling and have some of the strongest use of typeface. Even when the magazine got more radical in terms of the articles they were publishing — they published the first natural hair article, and not in a derogatory way — the advertisements always stayed the same because that’s where they got their funding to print. Skin-lightening advertising even went alongside articles that were about reclaiming Blackness.
There is one advertisement for a relaxer [with] my favorite tagline. It was, “Are you just a plaything of nature?” It was this sad-looking person. “Are you just letting nature toss you around and be the boss of you? Adopt this technology to be able to tame your body, to tame your savage ways, to civilize yourself.”
There were a lot of things around saving yourself and being a powerful woman but becoming powerful through products. You can see the ideals around femininity, around what people believe would get them free in that time.
I was gonna take all this information, these taglines or slogans, mash them up and make something new.
“[Beauty is] already accessible where everyone is right now. It’s just embracing what already exists.”
You saw a formulation in the advertisements: beauty is freedom. I’m wondering if you have your own personal idea of how beauty and freedom are connected and how you hope it’s connected for others.
Maybe pleasure? The advertisements say you access beauty through changing yourself. Shaping yourself in the images they provide you. [Beauty is] already accessible where everyone is right now. It’s just embracing what already exists. We have so many things, from school to internalized messages — from media, friends, family — that don’t allow space for our goodness to be, to expand, to grow, to play. So just giving it space to be. To witness it.
What are some of the ways that you play with beauty and locate pleasure there?
I have such a complicated relationship with my own appearance. I don’t love fashion. I love clothes. It’s diﬀerent. I love the colors, the form, the questions, the textures, the shapes. But I don’t love the industry.
With myself and my own presentation, I’ve just allowed myself a freedom: wearing what feels good, playing with color, texture, and shape. Then beyond my own presentation, in my work, I think about trance and the hypnotism of video — which is a similar propaganda machine to magazine, just selling you ideals and lifestyle through movies and all this stuﬀ — wanting to use some hypnotic elements of that medium to open up space for imagination and playfulness.
You don’t separate beauty and pleasure from the political space?
No, not at all. They’re completely together.
Could you tell me about some of the ways in which they’ve been forcibly separated?
For utility. This idea that in order to work, you do away with the frilly stuﬀ. Even thinking about budgets, the first budgets that are cut oftentimes in schools are art class. Like it’s not needed, not necessary, not practical. But it is.
If you live somewhere where you have trash all over your street, buildings are falling down all around you, you still see how in those places people will still — to survive — make beautiful things. Because it is a part of living, even in the most dire circumstances. Even in the middle of wars, you see people carving out space for themselves, putting up their hair. It’s a part of living in this world that not only makes it bearable but possible.
Imagine everything from your life that brings you pleasure removed. If you didn’t have it, I promise you, your life would be a shell of a life.
It makes me think — who has ownership of what beauty and pleasure are supposed to be? These lifestyle magazines?
Yes, yes! That’s why it’s seen as luxury!
And very gendered, targeted to a particular class, and completely bound to capitalism.
Completely bound. Then you have people who are trying to undo [capitalism] who also want to get rid of [beauty and pleasure]. I’m telling you, it’s a shell of a life.
I like how you move through the world and hold yourself. You’re very beautiful, like astoundingly so. In that way people think people are . . . this is complicated.
Say why it’s complicated.
I don’t know. I look at certain things like, “There is beauty there.” But some things are not particularly moving. Just as I can look at certain people, and they could be not particularly moving. But it isn’t a formula.
I have a complicated relationship with beauty, too. What is that?
Well for me, it’s tough because this is when I get to my interest in form. In shape, color, texture, size. I don’t find myself to be particularly beautiful in a conventional sense by any means. So what I do find to be beautiful is cultivated.
What do you mean “is cultivated?”
Is taught. Or I train myself to see myself in a certain way.
But you compliment me and say that I’m beautiful. You’re someone who vocalizes appreciation for other people’s aesthetics.
I’ve responded in that way. “That’s not enough.” And you’ve laughed at me. [Laughs]
Beauty is something you say is definitely real. Something observable, and something necessary. Something that requires cultivation and appreciation by humans for us to move through life. Then there’s the complicated addition of that being mapped onto bodies —
And gendered, racialized, and contorted to a particular shape and size.
So I understand where the complication is coming from. I’m just asking you to say more about what informs the way you move through the world as someone who cares about aesthetics and is very visible.
I need to let go of the look of things.
“I have put a lot of energy into destroying myself. ”
It’s really tough because I have a constant desire to control my body, specifically around my weight. It’s very hard work to be like, “I am going to be this way because this is how I am.” I have put a lot of energy into destroying myself. What I have to do is resist impulses to control my body and instead enjoy it.
In that way, I sense that connection between beauty and wellness a lot more. Then to zoom out in a more political sense, what it is to construct our human lives around pleasure. Because pleasure and play exist in a lot of really empty, gutting contexts.
Yeah, in ways that empty you out. That’s why it’s pleasure and wellness. Beauty and wellness. It has to be together because if you separate both of them, it goes too far.
Talk to me about what freedom within desire, beauty, and pleasure feel like to you when it’s all uncoupled from harm.
The best answer is soft focus. It reminds me of mindfulness because you’re not saying “I like this tree” while you’re meditating.
You’re experiencing it as color, shape, and just its essence. You’re not pinning it down as a thing.
It’s best to do that also with people. Not “I like this nose, and this, and this,” which is also how video has treated specifically the female body in advertisements: tits, belly, ass, head, like you’re only in parts. We learn to have gazes that objectify people. It makes you want to possess, own, and control. You can begin to look at the world as “I want that,” and “I had that. I got that; I smashed that; I fucked that.”
Parts to be possessed instead of a whole to be maintained and connected.
You talk about connection as one of the central pieces of successes in Beauty Breaks. Bringing wellness and wholeness in. So that soft focus, it seems it’s…
To see it all, not just the segments of. You’re not pinning anything down, you’re taking it in, and it doesn’t have to be any one thing. It’s just all being, you know?