When I was a pre scholar my family moved from Harare to Gweru. I was enrolled at a Lutheran Church Pre School. I don’t know whether it was my very first day or was it sometime during the first week my Mother, or was it our housemaid dressed me in pants to go to school. My peers taunted me and made me the joke of the day for wearing pants because according to them pants were meant for boys. Being a small town by most standards, the people in Gweru at that time were not so up to date with the latest fashion trends, they could not fathom why a girl could be dressed in “boys’ clothing”. I cried all the way home that day. I felt out-of-place and ashamed and after that incident I refused to wear pants for quite a while. As I grew older I began to care less and less about what people thought of me or my choices but that is not the experience for everyone nor does that stop people from trying to exert influence on a person’s choices. What I felt that day is what many people are made to feel because of their beauty and fashion choices.
Many people, especially women struggle a lot with their image. I believe many would be inclined to embrace their natural looks if it were not for external influences which put them under so much pressure to conform to what society deems as the standard of beauty. Society tells women to buy expensive products in order to “enhance” their beauty. Some even undergo “corrective surgery” to fix what is “wrong” with them. In my opinion black women have it worse than everyone else. Through magazine articles and pictures, the media perpetuates the idea that all women should aspire to have long flowing hair and long artificial nails and that the lighter the colour of your skin the more closer you become to achieving the epitome of beauty and elegance.
Recently, Lupita Nyongó appeared on the cover of the Grazia UK magazine. The photographer edited her picture and changed her hair in order to give it according to Lupita “a more Eurocentric notion of what beautiful hair looks like”. She went on to say she wished she had been consulted before this decision was taken, upon which she would have explained;
“I cannot support or condone the omission of what is my native heritage, with the intention that they appreciate that there is still a very long way to go to combat the unconscious prejudice against black women’s complexion and hair style and texture”
This reminds me of an experience I once had a few years ago when I met and befriended a guy who lived in my home country Zimbabwe but often travelled to Polokwane, South Arica where I lived and worked at that time on business. His name was Donald. One day during one such trip he came to visit me at my workplace whereupon he found out that during the time he was in Zimbabwe I had removed my hair extensions and cut my hair. In fact my hair was in it’s curly and coily natural state. I often had it and still have it that way from time to time, but it was the first time Donald had seen me sporting that hairstyle. He went on to exclaim that I looked ugly now that my hair was neither straightened nor bonded in a weave. My response to him was if I looked ugly with no enhancements to my face and hair then that meant according to his standards of beauty I was in fact ugly because that right there, was a true reflection of the real me. Needless to say I had toyed with the idea of whether or not to consider his suggestion that we date but that remark made the decision for me. I could never a date a guy who saw my natural hair and looks as ugly. Ironically he missed two upper front teeth but that didn’t stop him from dissecting my beauty or lack thereof.
My second experience was when a boyfriend said he wished I would be more inclined to wear my hair long preferably with extensions as well as have my nails manicured regularly because that was the standard he had expected and received from his exes. It didn’t faze me, I merely laughed it off but those are some of the pressures black women face. These kinds of words have the power to shatter a person’s confidence and self-esteem. You are directly or indirectly told that you are not good enough in your natural form and you should constantly find ways to artificially enhance your looks.
In Africa in general and particularly in Francophone Africa many women and even men spend their hard-earned money buying skin lightening creams in order to look “more attractive.” Some of these products are very harmful and may lead to long-term health problems. According to British Dermatologist Justine Kluker:
“Most creams sold in the market are a dangerous cocktail of compounds like steroids, hydroquinone, and tretinoin; the long-term use of which can lead to lethal health concerns like permanent pigmentation, skin cancer, liver damage, mercury poisoning and others.”
Most people who use these creams know about these health risks but perhaps they still feel that the short-term benefits outweigh the long-term risks. This goes to show the degree to which Africans have been socialized to believing that they are literllay not good enough in their own skin. Even on the dating scene and the marriage market in both Africa and India lighter skinned people are seen to be more desirable than darker skinned ones.
TLC which was acronym for T Boz, Left Eye and Chilli was one of my favourite music groups during my teenage years. Apart from their tomboyish style of dressing I think their appeal to me was that they did not just sing about love and sex like the rest of their contemporaries at that time. In their music they tackled real life issues like drug trafficking/abuse, HIV/AIDS and of course self-esteem issues. The song that made the most impact on me was “Unpretty”. The lyrics are as follows:
I wish could tie you up in my shoes
Make you feel unpretty too
I was told I was beautiful
But what does that mean to you
Look into the mirror who’s inside there
The one with the long hair
Same old me again today (yeah)
My outsides look cool
My insides are blue
Every time I think I’m through
It’s because of you
I’ve tried different ways
But it’s all the same
At the end of the day
I have myself to blame
I’m just trippin’
You can buy your hair if it won’t grow
You can fix your nose if he says so
You can buy all the make-up that M.A.C. can make
But if you can’t look inside you
Find out who am I to
Be in the position to make me feel so
(Yeah) I’ll make you feel unpretty too
Never insecure until I met you
Now I’m bein’ stupid
I used to be so cute to me
Just a little bit skinny
Why do I look to all these things
To keep you happy
Maybe get rid of you and then I’ll get back to me (hey)
*Then repeat bridge and chorus*
The song is about the pressures a young woman faces in order to fit into societal standards of beauty. No matter how confident or secure you are with your sense of self there will always be outside influences to tell you what you need to change about yourself in order to achieve beauty. According to the song no matter how many cosmetic enhancements you use and no matter how much you spend or how many times you undergo corrective surgery in a bid to look and feel more attractive, if you don’t feel beautiful on the inside all that money and time is spent in vain.
When I was a kid, my Mother used to have a Mills& Boon novel entitled “Autumn in April”. This title confused me a lot and I took a long time pondering about it because at school we had learnt that it was a natural occurrence for autumn to fall in April in our savanna climate. In fact that is the norm so why would one give a book such an obviously boring title? Then I realised the novel must have been written by an English author and in England autumn starts in September. April is actually the middle of spring so it would be unnatural to have an April autumn. I also learnt of a song by Lucy Schwartz entitled “June” the punchline is “And it feels like winter in June” my first thought was duh! Winter falls in June so what’s your point then I realised she was an American musician and in America June is a summer month. The point I am trying to put cross is that when it is winter in the Southern Hemisphere, it is normally summer in the Northern Hemisphere and vice versa therefore so should the standards of beauty be defined. There shouldn’t be one universal standard measure of beauty, beauty can manifest in many different forms and no one should be shunned or made to feel less desirable merely because they choose to embrace their natural looks.