When you can’t write what you need to write, you write what you can. I want to write about…
That new Dove ad is absurdly symbolic. Women in five cities around the world are made to choose one of two doors in order to enter a space. The entries are labelled ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Average’. There seems to be no other way to gain access to the building. Your physical appearance is your only admission. Choose beautiful Dove says. F**K that.
My sister looked radiant tonight. I don’t know if I have ever seen her glow like this. When she made her entrance into the hall, mischief captured her and she threw her hennaed hands up in the air, her intricately brown laced hands swirling through the air as she danced. Little dried flecks sprinkled off her hands like black confetti. Later my father, handsome in his turquoise blue sherwani interrupted the proceedings to give a delicately whiskey laced speech in honour of the bride. And my grandfather wept. He has been weeping for weeks. ‘It’s not like I am dying’, she keeps telling us. I am just getting married. We still weep. We will miss her.
These women going about their lives, doing ordinary and extraordinary things were interrupted, forced to pick a box. Am I beautiful? Am I average? Those are your only two options. Select carefully. If I pick beautiful, does it mean I have good self-esteem or a healthy dose of self-delusion and a dash of conceit. If I pick average, does it mean I have a low sense of worth, or just that I have a grasp of reality with a sprinkling of humility. Pick carefully. This defines you as a woman.
It is 5:02 am. We tumble into the house, all a little tipsy and absolutely ravenous. I climb up the stairs, removing my heavy jewellery along the way and leaving a trail of my unravelling brushed gold lace sari. I gaze into the mirror at my glazed kohl lined eyes, and tell myself I must get my henna done tomorrow. Who ever heard of the bride’s sister having bare hands at her sister’s wedding. I play that game, where you look deeply into the reflection of your eyes, and try to see yourself as a stranger would. I kick off my heels, and check my phone for the first time that day. I scroll down the timeline on twitter. In horror. Feverishly.
What’s with all this focus on beauty anyways? Why is beauty the penultimate quality that every woman should aspire to, that every woman is judged by, that every woman works towards. Am I beautiful? Sometimes I am. Today I was not. My aching body pulled down my shoulders into a defiant droop. My eyes were heavy, lined, sad. My hair looked like a nest, the curls spectacularly pulling off both frizz and limp in one deft move. My cheeks were puffy from two weeks of over-indulgence and too little sleep. Yesterday I was beautiful, my eyes sparkled. My thighs filled out my jeans lusciously. My hair was a dust filled mess of curls that made me look like I had emerged from a fabulous horizontal adventure. Am I beautiful? Who the F**K cares anyways?
We make cheese sandwiches and ginger chai. To feed our hunger. To fill the gaping pit in our stomachs that has spread its tentacles into our throats. We murmur. Garissa. We stand around the kitchen table, our hands nestling hot cups of comfort. I choke down a sob with a mouthful of melted cheese. We eat in silence. My sister is asleep. We don’t want to spoil her wedding. Outside, the dogs howl as the sun threatens to rise.
I imagine having a conversation about beauty with my unborn daughter. Perhaps I will write her a letter, from me at my 33 year old self. Dear daughter, I will write. They brought booty back. Well, it started with Jennifer Lopez, then Beyonce seconded it and Kim Kardashian confirmed it with her attempt to break the internet with butt. And if you have my genes, dear daughter, your booty will be one thing. Flat. You see, in 2014 it was all about that bass, and I was all treble. And tremble. I will tell her that they keep changing the goalposts, and you can never keep up. So ignore the rules and create your own instead. Refuse to be judged by your beauty. Refuse to be judged at all. I wonder which door I would have walked through. Beautiful or average? I think I would have kicked a hole in that wall instead, and entered the space on my own terms, who the F**K says I have to be one or the other?
It feels wrong to be getting henna on my hands. But I sit there obediently, arms resting on a cushion as the woman squeezes the silver foil cone which hovers above my hand, while she moves her wrist to draw swirling flowers on my palm. The paste tickles as it lands. The patterns form in the air before they settle onto my skin. It is cool and fragrant. I feel the henna sucking the heat from my blood as it dries, drawing out the warmth to deepen in colour. I want to cry. I feel numb. The henna lady bites her lip in concentration. I bite my lip in anguish. I check the news. I don’t know what else to do. Numbers. All I see is numbers. Where are the faces, the stories, the dreams?
It’s about inner beauty. It’s about feeling beautiful. It’s about choosing to feel beautiful, silly. I don’t care. I am tired of society bombarding me with messages that a woman’s worth is valued by her beauty. There is so much more to me. Don’t you see? I am kind. I am goofy. I am sensitive. I am intelligent. I am funny. I am (insert whatever random characteristic I feel like at this precise moment in time.) So would it have made me feel better if you put those terms instead of average and beautiful? No! Stop putting me in boxes. Stop defining me by one thing or another. I am more than a damn label. I am what I do. Sometimes I feel beautiful, and sometimes I don’t. What’s the big deal? Why the F**K does it even matter!?
Day three of the wedding. I stare at the blinking cursor. I am trying to write a speech for my sister’s wedding reception. Nothing comes out. I think this is because it is too difficult to sum up an entire relationship in a few hundred words. Or maybe it is because I can’t remember anything from when we were growing up. My memory is notoriously bad. I joke that maybe I have a brain tumour. Secretly I am scared that I do. My sister has always been my repository for our childhood memories. I think about all those sisters who lost their sisters. Whose sisters were murdered. Who will never, ever, ever see their sisters again. The grief clasps my throat again. The speech loses meaning. A friend tells me that if I have something to celebrate at this time, that I must do it. The speech becomes the most important thing in the world.
I am born with the looks that I have. I don’t have much control over that. What I do have control over is the things that I choose to do with my time. When we place so much currency on looks, so much energy, focus and time is spent trying to change these looks to fit whatever flitting definition of beauty there may be at that time. Because subliminally we are made to believe that we don’t deserve to enjoy life fully, unless we look beautiful. So that girl who stands on stage singing her soul out holds back a little. Because maybe if she sings too big, they will notice her acne. And it won’t matter how much beauty her singing filled the air with, because her face is not beautiful. So maybe you aren’t beautiful. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Because your gifts to the world are so much deeper than just the way you look. Imagine if we spent all that time and energy we spend on looking beautiful, on trying to feel beautiful, on showing the world just how beautiful we are, and instead focused on the things that actually mattered. On making the world a better place. Stop shoving the message down my face that I can look beautiful or that I should feel beautiful. Instead leave me the F**K alone, so I can do beautiful things.
So many of our Kenyan brothers and sisters have been robbed of their chance to do beautiful things. Beauty has been stolen. The henna is fading. The numbness has not. My sister has left for the next part of her life, a chapter full of promise and hope. #147NotJustANumber they will not be forgotten. We will say their names out loud. We will remember them. Every single one. We have to find a way to make sure that this never happens again. We pray for strength for their families. There can never be enough words. But we must try. We must not let silence steal them away from us.
I pray for the day when beauty doesn’t seem so trivial.
When it ceases to be a luxury in Kenya to have a life uninterrupted by tragedy.
When the people who have the power to actually do something actually gave a shit.
Sometimes grief hides. It disguises itself as anger and lashes out at enemies of its own making.
Sometimes you have to write the thing you can, to write the thing you need to.
(If you like it over here in the shade, do vote for Chanyado for Best New Blog at the Blog Awards Kenya – to vote, go here: http://www.blogawards.co.ke/vote/)