In Oprah's South African School, Girls Will Get a Beautiful Education

"These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire," said Oprah Winfrey of including a beauty salon in her South African school, which opened on Tuesday. (Denis Farrell -- Associated Press)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 5, 2007

Talk show mogul Oprah Winfrey opened her girls' school in South Africa on Tuesday and details about the lavishness of the 28-building campus have poured in from various media reports.

The $40 million Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls is spread over 52 acres outside Johannesburg. In addition to computer-filled classrooms and residence halls, there are indoor and outdoor theaters, original works of art, a yoga studio and a . . . beauty salon. The goal of the school is not to train the 152 seventh- and eighth-grade students as yoga masters or cosmetologists, but rather as future leaders of their country.

For Winfrey, making sure that the girls look pretty -- or more accurately, feel pretty -- is an important part of that mission.

It's easy to dismiss the inclusion of a beauty salon in a girls' school in South Africa as little more than a wasteful perk in a country with a dysfunctional education system. In interviews, Winfrey has been asked repeatedly: Why so much? Wouldn't it be better to build 10 modest schools rather than a single luxurious one? In an interview in Newsweek magazine, Winfrey said, "These girls deserve to be surrounded by beauty, and beauty does inspire. . . . I wanted this to be a place of honor for them."

While a beauty salon may be an unorthodox addition to the traditional educational experience, it is in keeping with the Oprah gospel of empowerment through self-love.

These girls have "never been told they are pretty or have wonderful dimples," Winfrey said in Newsweek. "I wanted to hear those things as a child."

On her talk show, Winfrey does not shy away from segments about the fashion industry or about beauty products. After all, such topics can be good for ratings, as everyone loves the visual drama of a makeover. But even when Winfrey gushes about attending Valentino's haute couture show in Paris or having the best eyebrow arching in her life, she treats both experiences as being as vital to one's mental health and self-confidence as a good book or an hour of meditation.

There is a fine line between using fashion and beauty products to bolster one's confidence and allowing them to become evidence of narcissistic obsession. One need only sit through a few makeover shows or spend a few minutes scanning for examples of what can happen when that line is crossed.

But the way in which women -- and men -- feel about themselves when they're standing in front of a mirror has a direct impact on the way they perceive themselves in every aspect of their life. It's that recognition, for instance, that has inspired numerous organizations to help women deal with the aesthetic assault of chemotherapy. The philosophy is simple. Feel better about yourself and you're in a stronger position to take on the challenges of illness.

Feeling comfortable in one's skin is not necessarily tied to fancy clothes or expensive haircuts (although those can help). It's as fundamental as mindful grooming, character and pride. And pride should not be confused with shallowness or boastfulness.

When Winfrey celebrated the opening of the academy, which will ultimately have a student body of 450, she wore a bright pink gown and impressive diamond drop earrings -- the sort that can be seen twinkling several yards away. In an interview on "Good Morning America," Winfrey said she wore them in part to let the students know that she considered the event significant, even momentous.

Winfrey was there not merely as her glamorous television self, but also as her successful, billionaire philanthropist self. She didn't dress to blend into her surroundings. She dressed to dazzle, to commemorate and to inspire.

Her decision calls to mind a quote from the dowager philanthropist Brooke Astor, who was once asked why she wore fancy suits, a hat and jewels to visit the poor. "People expect to see Mrs. Astor, not some dowdy old lady, and I don't intend to disappoint them," she said.

Feeling beautiful can build confidence. Being surrounded by beauty can be inspiring. And willfully refusing to acknowledge its value can be a form of ugliness in itself.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company