Imagine walking down Moi Avenue at 1:45pm on a sunny Tuesday. You just came from a meeting with your Odhiambo- your tailor who recommended that your favourite little black dress might need a little give. What- did you add a few kilos since the last time you wore it? Must be those mandazis that your future mother in law insists you eat every weekend when she visits. Dammit!
Before Odhiambo you met Mary near Jevanjee Gardens, one of your hangout joints. She's your best friend from primary school who you last saw twelve years ago. The first words from her mouth were "Gosh! Haki imagine you've added weight!! It must be the kids. Otherwise?" not knowing that you still have to raise 1.2 million for the wedding you still don't want, and now you think- kids?
And before Mary you sat in a three-hour meeting with your demeaning boss who doesn't lift a finger and takes all the credit for the work that you do. Not to mention that you've got less than 15 minutes left in your lunch break. Your tummy grumbles, and you remember Mary's words. The office water dispenser will have to do this time.
And then something happens. A man wearing a faded striped shirt that barely covers his pot belly walks towards you, suspicious. His trousers sing of glories gone past, with a tattered belt that can barely hold them up. He stinks of ripe sweat and kuku sama as he picks his water-stained teeth with a brown, well-used toothpick.
You try to remember where you ever met this man and then it hits you- you never did. He points his finger accusingly at you and shouts..
"Shetani ashindwe!!! I must take you swimming on the first date!" he yells, drawing a crowd.
A woman with two kids in tow also locks gazes with you, and all you can see is laughing expression.
"Men beware! You cannot marry this one- this is demonic- RETURN TO SENDER!!"
As people start to surround you, and those across the street start wondering what's happening, a third person approaches. He's younger than you, sporting a book bag and a haircut. You notice the small things- a stud, a fresh shave, Old Spice deodorant and a new sweater.
"Prankster!! Ebu jaribu kuitisha double shot ya double black. Naona kwanza uende uoshe uso. NKT! Ukirudi hata gin itakuja single," he says.
The crowd tightens around you. "Liar!" "Demon!" "You will never get married with that face!!"
Earlier this week, I found out that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an award-winning author and noted feminist, was just named as the beauty ambassador for UK-based beauty brand Boots No7- thanks Chidi. Her appointment has come with celebration Chimamanda's mantra that women should wear makeup in the same manner that we wear accessories- in a personal, subjective, no-strings-attached way. Makeup as an accessory is meant to make women feel comfortable, confident and self-assured.
But recently, makeup has been used increasingly as a weapon that demeans the women who love to wear it. From my own personal experience as a makeup artist, the transformations that I create using makeup have led social media to engage in cyber bullying, in the form of makeup shaming.
A few weeks ago I shared a short video showing how I achieve a specific look, and it was received with some of the worst responses I've ever gotten for my work. I know none of these individuals, and this experience was not so far off from the one I started this post with.
Shockingly enough, most of the vilest comments were from women.
And of course men had their field day too.
At first I was confused. I struggled to understand why anyone would make a conscious choice to demean and bring down someone they hardly knew. Further, this felt like an unprovoked attack, and try as I might I found it difficult to ignore the rising feeling of fear and intimidation that I felt, as more and more people watched and shared the video, and proceeded to throw insults at me.
This one instance of cyber bullying in the form of makeup shaming stirred something deep within me that I had to address. To be honest, I never really knew what it meant to be a woman who had to stand up for what was right, and to also stand up for myself in public. I had to make a conscious choice about how I would respond.
Should I fight back? Should I troll them?
Makeup shaming in the simplest sense is the intentional act of making others feel guilty for wearing or even enjoying makeup. Having been a makeup artist for years, I didn't have to associate makeup shaming with what I do. Maybe I ignored it, or maybe I didn't do enough to share images of what women looked like before their makeup was applied. However, these last few incidents triggered within me a fury and frustration that I simply could not ignore. And this one instance of makeup shaming made me question and somehow reaffirm the idea I had about the feminist in me.
I was furious at the fact that most of the negativity came from women, most of whom thought that we exist for the pleasure of men. One even warned men to "take notice" in case they were interested in me, and this reminded me about Chimamanda's speech in a wildly popular TED Talk where she said the following about girls and women-
A translator must select equivalents for mere auxiliaries where these serve the essential purpose better than the precise original. In what I mentally refer to as the “enthusiastic” passages of his writing, the essence of Fagunwa is the fusion of sound and action. To preserve the movement and fluidity of this association seems to be the best approach for keeping faith with the author’s style and sensibility.
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.”
- We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
These comments made it clear to me that indeed women are trained up to behave in a certain way, all with the aim of attracting a man, and embracing the security of marriage. Just look at this bride who was allegedly divorced during her honeymoon as she wasn't as pretty without makeup.
I was also quite shocked as to the boldness of the comments that were shared online. I wonder whether the non-personal, facelessness of the internet has made us so oblivious of the fact that behind every screen lies a living breathing person lies on the other side of that very screen. Further, I also had to wonder whether these individuals believe that their physical and digital identities are separate- is this who they really are? Well, yes, I suppose.
Thirdly, I also had to wonder at the audacity of men believing that they had a say in whether or not I would (1) want to find a husband and (2) that they were the #1 choice for me- patriarchy at its best. Broadening this narrative, the fact that men feel the need to assert their opinions on what they think is acceptable feminine behaviour has been one of the topics at the forefront of the feminist movement for decades.
Feminism is many things to many people and for me, it also means standing up for what is right as a woman or women, and that includes standing up for fellow women as you struggle to fight against a number of male defined stereotypes.
A good (male) friend put this in perspective for me, and helped me understand why I was confused. Our generation (those in their 20s and 30s) are caught in the middle of two generations. Our mothers generally were submissive, and our fathers ruled the home. Our mothers, after a long days work would come home to find children who needed dinner and help with homework, while their husbands would sit on the couch with a newspaper waiting for dinner to appear before them.
Our children on the other hand will grow up without knowing what it meant not to have access to the internet, smart gadgets, and playing games outside.
Our generation is one where men still want to be respected for innately being men only, with nothing else backing up that claim. They don't really understand that their women do not exist to serve them, and that their verbalised directives detailing whether or not they would accept us based on what they want to see, is increasingly being ignored by women who have found that their self-sustainability has given them the choice whether or not to have a man in their lives.
What I still don't understand is the ignorance that some of the men and women in my generation still have, especially when voiced through comments such as those I have read over the past few weeks.
So I must ask- if women will not stand up for each other, who will stand up for us?