Last month I had the pleasure of attending an African Women’s Development Fund and Femrite creative non-fiction writing workshop for African women writers in Entebbe, Uganda.
The women I met there were amazing for two main reasons.
Their passion, intelligence and drive made me question mine (apparently watching Come Dine With Me is not a life goal). These women run organisations, are ground-breaking journalists and quote Keats for kicks.
But they were also hot.
I’m talking gorgeous, sexy in that “thank God the anti-homosexuality bill has been annulled by a competent court” sort of way.
There is no getting around it, these women in their jeans, T-shirts, African print dresses, colourful maxi skirts, jewellery, boots, slippers and heels were stunning. They lit up my existence with their dreadlocks, braids, twists and Afros.
And much as I love them they are not the anomaly, this continent is full of these women.
So the question is why is it always such a shock when an African woman is declared beautiful? Why is it such a coup? The women I attended the workshop with exhibited their exquisiteness without the international “exotic beauty” caveat the world loves to slap onto certain types of beauty.
In that space their beauty was the norm, the majority and an indication of the magnificence there is within our borders.
A beauty that is often side-lined.
I always say that if aliens come down to earth and their expectations are based purely on what is shown in the media they will think the world is Caucasian with very straight blonde hair. I refuse to lie to ET’s cousins anymore.
I once saw a gif meme where a Chinese woman, addressing a white man, says “there are one billion of us and a few million of you, so tell me, who is really the exotic one here?”
There are 1.3 billion (not counting the millions in the diaspora) Africans living in sub-Saharan Africa compared to the 1 billion in the western world (US and Europe combined). By sheer numbers alone we should be setting the beauty standards.
Unfortunately there’s one image that everyone sees and we all strive to mimic it and think that’s beauty. What results is an industry whose cash cow is based on making women feel bad about themselves and black women feel even worse.
In Africa, skin lightening is a multibillion-dollar industry (Nigeria comes in the highest with 77% of women using skin-bleaching products), weaves can go for R1 000 a pop and be bought on layaway. And in the spirit of being sexy women are avoiding anything on the menu with food in it.
Yes, a weave is easier to handle but one cannot escape the historical and social connotations of making your Afro-kinky hair smooth and luscious, or making yourself a few shades lighter.
We need only look at the blackface incident to see that we have a problem. If being a black woman is a costume or a gimmick we are in a dark place.
Although other types of beauty are embraced it’s in a “look what we have here … this woman is so out-of-the-box because she has curves/short hair/dark skin but is somehow beautiful” kind of way.
She is then paraded around as if she’s one of a kind. Even in SA looking at magazine covers such as Cosmo you’d think that 95% of the population is white women with toned thighs.
I personally don’t have toned thighs or blonde hair for that matter.
For our own sanity it’s probably best to reconceptualise what beauty is and when better than Women’s Month?
We want to avoid another Lupita speech for the next generation where a young woman from the continent goes to bed wishing she wakes up shades lighter and that her hair will grow. Wishing tomorrow she will be beautiful. She needs to know that if someone says she’s beautiful she is not the exception, she’s the rule.
She must know that saying “yes to squats” does not mean losing her curves because her “butt is big”. That her wild unmanageable hair is that way because it is full of life. That her dark skin is the colour of chocolate and everyone loves chocolate (and sunscreen, black people we must wear sunscreen).
African women are hot in their own right, not because we’re the offspring of the “exotic, erotic native” from the colonialists’ dreams. We are not “motherland beautiful”, we are not mysterious, we are not “bizarre in our beauty”.
We are just hot.