I grew up with parents who were obsessed with keeping up appearances. Their negative feedback was relentless, so I withdrew into myself. My mind was my only safe space, and my imagination grew rich during all the years I hid from them. True, I don’t have a close relationship with my folks, but I’d like to think I’ve made lemonade with the lemons life gave me.
As a result, I entered adulthood curiously deficient in real world skills. While other girls were experimenting with make-up and fashion, I was a slob. When everything you do is mocked by your dad or condemned by your mom, it’s only natural to stop trying. I attempted to pass under the radar, to not be noticed.
Somehow, I got a boyfriend in university who could see the beauty inside of me. He and I fell madly in love, but he did have questions: Why don’t you shave your legs and get dressed up like other girls I’ve dated? Who told you that slipping on an ill-fitting blazer makes you look polished? Why does your entire wardrobe look like pyjamas?
Knowing I needed help, my boyfriend decided to take me shopping for clothes. Unfortunately, he was a man, so he just told me to buy whatever he bought for himself and wear that.
His mother—who is now my mother-in-law—tried to give me discreet tips on being feminine. When her son and I got dressed up for an evening out in our matching plaid shirts, baggy jeans and Timberland boots—remember, it was the 90s—she looked alarmed. “You’re going to a restaurant like that?” she asked.
I nodded, uncertain of what she meant.
“Don’t you want to…” she said, pointing at her mouth.
“Don’t I want to what?” I asked, stumped.
“Maybe a little lipstick or something?”
“I don’t own a lipstick,” I said, shrugging.
My boyfriend and I left for dinner, and I expect she got on her knees on her kitchen floor as she’s wont to do, praying for me. I looked like the undersized, Indian version of her son, which is odd in retrospect, so I don’t blame her.
When I became a mother, I dressed my children pretty well, although I made a lot of rookie mistakes because I barely knew how to dress myself. I saved their nicest clothes for special occasions, not realising how fast babies grew. Other times, I dressed them in all white, not realising how much babies poo. I ended up having to buy new outfits for them at the beach when they couldn’t resist getting drenched, in random airports or outside of train stations after exploding diapers, just doing my best.
When we moved to Nigeria, I decided I needed a makeover. I had no friends, so I thought with the right clothes, I could trick people into wanting to know me.
My first step was copying how the other moms at my kids’ school dressed. I had no idea what styles suited me, so I relied on the tailors I found to experiment. And then around 2014, I settled on a look. With fabric from Balogun Market, I began wearing fitted, little dresses that fell to above my knee. After a lifetime of dressing haphazardly, I started dressing like a normal person, and I did not enjoy it. Tight dresses didn’t allow me to binge-eat pounded yam or sit on the floor with my legs at a crazy angle or play football in the house with my son. I had to mince everywhere like a lady.
Eventually all the pounded yam caught up with me, and the dresses stopped fitting, so one by one, I gave them away.
Now I’ve come full circle. I’m back to wearing clothes that could double as pyjamas. Maybe after a tough childhood and a rough pandemic, I deserve a bit of comfort. I’m telling that critical voice inside me to quiet down.
It’s okay to dress in a way that makes you feel happy and authentic. Not everyone is meant to be a fashionista.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She just wrote her final dissertation for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Read more at www.monazutshiopubor.com
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