Disclaimer: Whatever I write in these series is nothing more that my experience and my interpretation of the world as I see it.
So in the second part of the Identity series I hope to examine beauty, self-esteem and alienation. I’m going to talk more about my experience as a woman with ‘African’ features who has a fascination (bordering on obsession) to learn about other cultures.
Firstly, we have to acknowledge that beauty is something that is very important in the world we live in. We’re under constant pressure as women to make sure we look beautiful, feminine and presentable through the big bad media. Also women face a constant stream of images on what is (or isn’t) beautiful. Usually the media’s definition of beauty is limited to certain types of women and most of the time African women do not fit the criteria. And if one thinks that these subliminal messages are not powerful one only needs to look at themselves and ask serious questions. Muslimah Media Watch had a post recently on eating disorder in the United Arab Emirates. I also strongly encourage everyone to watch Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly to get a clearer idea of why I believe in the power of the media in sending messages to us about beauty. In fact my first degree is in Marketing.
As for my own personal experience, I never considered myself pretty, cute, attractive etc. I’ve been called many things in my life and I have an elephant’s memory, I usually remember them. In secondary school, I was teased a lot because of my large nose. I remember a classmate informed me that I looked like a typical Negroid. My first reaction was ‘So what?’ but then I got teased even more and I’m not denying that this affected me. My classmate didn’t say those words as a compliment, she said it to hurt me. Now that I look back, I wonder what was so bad about my African features that I had to be teased about them. My classmate is also Nigerian, if the comments had come from someone else would it have been offensive? I don’t know to be honest.
I have heard of people being teased for their so-called African features* while growing up in school in America or UK. So here again, I do not understand while I was teased for my African features while going to school in Nigeria. I was 12 years old when this incident happened and I didn’t realise I was that young to be honest, just did the math now. Anyway the teasing did serious damage to my self-esteem that even the compliments I was to get later on in life didn’t mean anything to me.
I grew up thinking I was ugly because of my nose and I seriously considered doing plastic surgery to make it smaller. While my face was constantly ridiculed, my body was praised. I developed really early and I was always referred to as ‘the hot girl’. This just made things worse because I was valued for my body below the neck and to me it was better not to be acknowledged for that.
I have mentioned that I’m not entirely happy with the prevalent use of white girls in African music videos. This doesn’t send out a good message at all. When I was in secondary school, these images were not there and I still got teased for looking ‘too African’. I really wonder where this sort of mentality comes from but I’m going to blame the media and lack of self-esteem in Africans. Can we really call ourselves proud when bleaching is a serious problem? Or even when we still consider natural hair as dirty and unclean?
There is also the issue of colourism in some African communities. Perhaps biracial people are looked at as ‘exotic’ in the African situation but I do not agree with placing other people over yourself. It is okay to appreciate beauty but it starts becoming a problem when only light skin, hair and eyes are considered beautiful at the detriment of us more ‘African-looking’ ones. My first experience with bleaching was in primary school where a teacher used to bleach. She was light and had green spots on her arms and legs and some mothers would gossip saying what she was doing was wrong. I also had a brief encounter with a bleaching cream, I was 8 or 9 and had been using this ‘cocoa butter’ body lotion I loved until I started getting comments; ‘You’re looking fairer’ then I panicked because I was scared I’d never get my original colour back. Subsequently I’d get comments once in a while that I was getting darker or fairer and I reacted as expected. I panicked because I didn’t want to get dark. Last year when I started using shea butter as my lotion of choice, my friend told me ‘I would like to use shea butter but I’m scared it’ll darken me’ and I replied ‘No it doesn’t. It’s purely natural’ then she informed me that I’d gotten darker since I started using it. However my reaction was different then because by last year I had attained enlightenment so I didn’t immediately stop using shea butter scared I’d never get my original colour back. This friend also told me I had issues for deciding to go natural. I didn’t bother explaining in detail my decision to cut my relaxed hair. I also have family members with this ‘light is right’ mentality, I was shocked when my cousin told me the only reason I liked a particular woman’s locs was because she was ‘light-skinned and beautiful’ and if she were dark-skinned I’d find her hair ugly. I was very offended and disturbed and made sure to point out that her reasoning was wrong and even if the woman was dark-skinned it didn’t matter.
I have also talked about self-hate. Honestly when I hear a Nigerian say something like the most beautiful women in the world are from India, the Middle East or any other non-black country, I get upset. I heard such comments growing up and this coupled with my large nose didn’t help matters. Now when I hear such comments I ask ‘What about black women?’ and I usually hear much ignorance in replies such as ‘Eh, they are just there, but you have to admit that most are ugly’. Or when they are good comments, it is only when the woman is biracial or mixed-race. If this is not self-hate, I don’t know what is. Why do people make comments such as these? I get teased a lot by Nigerian men for my dating choices and I usually make jokes out of such situations because I’ve become a joker myself. And the same people who I joke with may have issues of their own. I introduced one of them to my Indian friend and the first thing he said when he saw her was ‘You’re so beautiful’ and I was a bit worried as to how my friend would react. She took it gracefully. Afterwards he constantly asked about her and I made excuses because I never play matchmaker unless my girlfriends show interest. I just found out a few months ago that this guy has a girlfriend in Nigeria. Imagine my shock, I was not pleased at all.
Now onto my self-imposed exile from the Nigerian Society, I realised a few days ago that I’m a more active member of my university’s Anglo-Japanese Society (AJS). I speak Japanese* and attend a lot of the AJS’s events. I got to make a lot of friends and since it’s quite a small society I made friends with the executives. They wanted me to become an executive as well but I declined because I’m a post-grad and I’m supposed to be busy. The executives are mostly under-grads. Most of my friends are under-grads because of my age (some of them are even older than me ^___^) so I’m more comfortable around them. So to cut a long story short, the AJS executives liked me so much they made the publicity officer. It was then that I realised that I wasn’t even a member of my college’s Nigerian Society and I know the executives there as well.
The executives include the guy who was asking after my Indian friend. And I remember when he tried persuading me to join the Nigerian Society, I had just bought tickets for an AJS dinner and he remarked asking why I joined the AJS and not the Nigerian Society. I didn’t answer and we talked for a while, before he left, he ridiculed my headwrap but said he liked it and I just smiled and said ‘Thank you’. I like the idea of a Nigerian Society except I don’t really like the Nigerians at my college. We don’t get along at all and what I imagined when asked to join was the men repeatedly calling me ‘baby’ to set me off, saying they’ve got white men for me and then asking to come to my house so I can cook pounded yam and egusi for them. I’m sure it’s not like this but I have my reservations. Furthermore most of them recently came from Nigeria and I’ve been here for 4 years now and am more used to not being around Nigerians. Also I fell out with the execs and I don’t associate with them any longer.
Another revelation just occurred! I’ve never actually being a member of any Nigerian Societies. In my under-grad years I joined the Islamic Society and was a very active member, now I’m a member of the AJS. I suppose I’m someone who cannot multi-task when it comes to societies, it’s either one or the other. On the other hand I’m part of an African choir. I’m currently learning how to play African drums and can sing in Swahili. Again, some folks think I’m crazy for joining this choir and that’s okay too.
I stay away from the Nigerian Society because I do not think I’ll be appreciated there and I know it is unhealthy for me to be in an environment where I am constantly ridiculed and told I have issues. At the AJS I am appreciated and I’ve met other weirdos like me for example J.L who is Chinese but went through exactly what I went through in secondary school except in China. She has told me that in China, people told her she was from another planet and I told her the same thing happened to me whereupon she said ‘Hmm, maybe that’s why we are friends’. Not to mention J.L fuels my shounen-ai madness**.
Above, I’ve written about my experiences growing up in Nigeria and my Nigerian Society. I need to resolve the issue with my large nose…the truth is, now there is no issue at all. I love the way I look, if my nose were smaller I’ll not be as beautiful as I am ^__~. I’ll just look weird. And I suppose I do not have to say that I’m not a self-hater. It’s a bit silly when people who tell me that I have a problem with being Nigerian are the ones who have more deep seated issues. I’m completely comfortable with my Africanness. I like the way I look, I love my natural hair and I like singing African songs and tying gele. I know I’m only just now learning how to speak Yoruba (I actually understand the language but am shy when I speak because I speak Yoruba with an English accent apparently) when I already know French and Japanese but it’s never too late.
I have also noticed that I can say I’m proudly Yoruba or African but I do not have that confidence in Nigeria…watch out for Part 3!
I must also mention that I’m so happy with the comments at the first Identity post, I knew other Nigerians like me were out there I just hadn’t met them yet. So God bless the internet. Also I’ve noticed that I know some people on my blogroll in real life! I don’t know if they have realised that they know me but I’ll feel guilty if they didn’t. So I’ll be putting up some pictures of me so those of you can identify me and go ‘Oh my God, I cannot believe it is her!’ but I’ll probably delete the pictures after a while. Oh and those of you who don’t know me can see how African I look ^___^
*I’m not sure about speaking Japanese but a Japanese guy told me I speak Japanese so I accept. I’m learning Japanese and I’m not good at all.
**shounen-ai means boy’s love…don’t ask…
***The painting of the girl in the yellow scarf is from here