I’m a feminist. For some people that could mean I hate men, I can’t cook (or worse I won’t), I’ll be upset if a man opens the door for me, pays for dinner or offers his jacket while out on a cold evening stroll. Not the case. I’ve been a feminist for a long time and for most of that time I didn’t know that I was one. As a girl I just knew to balk if I was asked to spend time in the kitchen without my brothers joining me or taking turns. Luckily my parents were feminists too. But I knew, without having to ask anyone, that the security guard at my mother’s office – telling me I couldn’t whistle because I was a girl – was foolish. And then later I knew to wonder about the Barbie doll, with impossible (but apparently desirable) dimensions. I had dolls as a girl (along with the hardback omnibus of ‘The Hulk’ my dad thought I might enjoy) and my favourite I called Yinka with black shiny cheeks and hair as kinky as mine. I learnt to make cornrows on Yinka’s head. For many years my mother made it clear to me that she would not permit any chemicals in my hair. But despite her good intentions I think my nagging eventually worked. I recall the hot comb, taken off the stove and pulled through my hair, smoke, and then the limp effect that I wanted and had begged for. And then much later as a teenager more begging until my mother again relented and a hairdresser pasted lye (or no-lye as some of the products are called) on my hair. A lot of women with tight curly hair ‘straighten’ it to make it ‘more manageable’ is one of the arguments. But where did I get the idea from, how did I know that my own natural hair was not good enough, needed to be fixed, made better? How did I know to act ashamed when, at twelve, I swam in the school pool and my hair did what it was clearly designed to – shrink?

Somehow, perhaps because of the books I read, the people I spoke to, politics, I worked out that I actually didn’t want to do anything to what my hair already was, that it didn’t need straightening, and that being able to ‘manage’ something was a lie. If management was the argument (the most sought after factor) then surely the option of no hair at all would be the most manageable. Since this trend of bald women was not really taking the world by storm the excuse of manageability was only that – an excuse. For several years (late teens, early twenties) I grew back my kinky hair and plaited it as Yinka had taught me to. And then one day in April, 2002, I made little sections on my head and twisted and twisted and twisted. They call these dreadlocks and they come with the added bonus of being very manageable.

But every day there are new things, insidious prescriptions for beauty and being a woman. There’s make-up (innocuous I guess) and the hairs one must have off if you’d rather people didn’t stare or smirk. If your physique is hour-glass like then, at least the cultures with the most media-clout say that is preferable and if you don’t have that physique then you could pay someone, qualified hopefully, to cut you up to look as close to that as possible. You could add bits and take bits away. And somewhere along the way, a bunch of society got beauty mixed up with the lighter complexioned so to help there are skin lightening creams at the ready. I’ve seen six year old black girls with weaves add to this the nightmare of the child beauty pageants of America and Australia and I think we have a monster that only keeps growing. The practices of adornment and grooming are wonderful rituals. I’d rather go around with earrings in my ears than not, I’d die happy getting a manicure and I usually have appropriate and enthusiastic concern for looking my best version of great. But I think we have taken preening to the extreme. You can now pay someone to take some of your lower ribs out and some abdominal fat resulting in a thinner waist; you can engage in something called vajazzling, simply remove all your pubic hair and then glue on shiny studs. Why not do some anal and vaginal bleaching while you’re at it. Interestingly all the advert selling the bleach had to do was suggest that a failing marriage (measured by the bored and sexually unsatisfied husband) could be rescued by a bleached vagina. You can even do design-a-vagina aka labiaplasty. There are two indications that call for this 1) medical reasons that require surgery in this region of the body; 2) “cosmetic refinement of the vulva”. It’s the second indication that fascinates, who has the time to wonder as to whether her vulva, her labia majora and labia minora, are aesthetically pleasing? Could she not have missed the point?

Each time we cut and add, preen extreme, it’s like another dose of some narcotic, the craving abates but soon returns even more ravenous. Is there stuff about myself I would change, like in some imaginary world? Sure. I could do with one or two cup sizes bigger and longer eyelashes. And isn’t that in itself fascinating, it’s so programmed in me that these enhanced attributes would make me more of a woman. Why for heaven’s sake would I want larger breasts? So I could be more attractive to the opposite sex and thus feel better about myself? Is that train of thought frightening to only me? The only thing that saves me is some reserves of common sense and, while not unimpeachable, a strong enough sense of myself as a whole and complete human being exactly the way I am. One or two cup sizes bigger and longer eyelashes aren’t really going to make life sweeter for me or even have me feel more complete, they don’t really solve the problem; they answer a question that’s not really the question. Well what is the question? We live in a world with increasingly fragile egos, a young girl’s sense of herself hangs in the balance based on whether she’s skinny or not. I want to scream that we’ve got it all wrong, we’ve put certain things up on a pedestal and we’ve buried others, while we ourselves are mired in wars and inequality and guileless leaders. Where do we ingest our aesthetic values from? Who’s pulling the strings? Being a feminist doesn’t mean being a no-fun having hairy hag although every moment cannot be for fun and what’s wrong with a bit of hair. For me, though, being a feminist does mean I ask questions. And for the last while it means I get sad and angry and busy and active and protective all at once. I get mad at myself, how co-opted I am into a patriarchal world, how demure I can be, how bought. I get mad at men who think being a feminist requires ovaries, I get mad at women who say ‘she deserved it’ because mini-skirt + drunk = rape me. I get mad at the people who want to use culture as an excuse for stupidity and gluttony. I get mad at our leaders. I get angry with the way women’s bodies are consumed, how easy that is, how normal. There are many organisations, individuals and groups doing great work. Marching. Writing. Changing. Arguing. Self-examining. Studying. Litigating. Raising strong girls and boys for a better future. Praying. Painting. Acting. Mobilising. The list continues as does the mission. We must not get weary.

This article has also been published on the African Womens’ Development Fund blog. View it here 

  1. ay
    November 17, 2013 at 9:35 pm

    The lengths to which people go to look beautiful..
    This is a thought provoking article.

    • November 17, 2013 at 9:45 pm

      Thanks for visiting the blog and reading.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: