In the early 2000s, I gave birth to several children within a few years. I was a stay-at-home mom outnumbered by small people in diapers. My uniform consisted of maternity clothes stained with various baby fluids, bras with snaps in odd places, and pants stretchy enough to accommodate a third-trimester pregnancy. Unfortunately, I still dressed like this when my youngest started school at age three. My look told the world, “This woman has given up.”
I moved from New Jersey to Nigeria dressing shabbily and was horrified by what I encountered. Lagosians were fashionable. Women had perfect manicures and pedicures. Their hair was stylish and tidy. Clothes fit well. They could look great in work attire and in native dress. In my old life, a friend would put on lipstick or change her earrings and I was impressed she had made such an effort. But fashion in Lagos was like moving from simple arithmetic to calculus and I was unequipped.
I hired a tailor but didn’t know how to instruct him. I gave him 18 yards of garish fabric, some vague directions and he returned with long dresses that made me look like a sack of yams. Each time we left the house and I saw women in flawless makeup whose taut bottoms bounced appealingly in booty enhancing styles, I wanted to cry.
I became inspired by the beautiful and stylish women of Lagos and decided to do better. Over the years I’ve changed. I look less horrible now. When I visit my parents, my mother stares at me with tears in her eyes, saying “I always wanted my daughter to be presentable.”
I wonder whether I’ve gone too far in the other direction, though. Taking pride in one’s appearance is great but I now take it for granted and have even come to expect it from others. Living in Lagos normalizes female perfection. Everyone makes the effort to dress like a million bucks so you only notice someone’s appearance when they’re bedraggled.
I caught myself doing this while watching the World Cup on TV this summer. The SuperSport commentators were broadcasting the halftime show from the mainland. A few male reporters analyzed the game and I didn’t pay much attention. Then a female reporter began to wander through the crowd, interviewing fans. I found myself carefully examining her eyebrows, checking her armpits for sweat stains and studying her lipstick. I was so busy scrutinizing her appearance that I didn’t listen to what came out of her mouth.
How could this happen to me? I—a champion of women’s rights and a graduate of a single-sex school—have come to hold double standards for men and women. I don’t want to be this way. I want to treat my children exactly the same. However, when my daughter recently decided to travel on an airplane in pajamas with her hair stuffed into a knit cap, I was appalled. “You look like you just wandered out a mental asylum,” I told her. It shames me to admit that when my son runs to Ebeano with me in his pajamas, I think it’s adorable.
I went to a popular Lagos hairdresser this year for a haircut. I don’t color my hair and this infuriated him. He told me I looked awful, old and ugly with the 12 grey hairs that I now possess. He said my daughters would be far more beautiful than me and I was bewildered. Aren’t daughters meant to surpass their mothers? He insulted me again and again as he trimmed my hair.
A woman walked in with a bag of old wigs. The staff lovingly washed and tended to these hairpieces with more kindness than I received. But I understand the stylist’s anger and frustration. A customer who colors her hair every few weeks is a much more lucrative proposition than someone who comes in for only one haircut a year. I don’t want to color my hair, though. I am growing old and I don’t mind. I feel fine about my looks. I didn’t like being abused for my choices at the hair salon yet I am no better. I silently judge other women whose style doesn’t suit me.
Can we all try to be more tolerant of those around us, those whose choices differ from our own? I vow to improve. As in many aspects of life, all I can do is try. Have some compassion for us Lagosians who aren’t perfect, who are sloppy or worn out or just plain old. Everyone deserves acceptance and love.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Follow her on Instagram @mopals5
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