No Longer Beautiful

At the end of an evening with friends, my husband and I showed a bioscope of pictures to our guests. Pictures of places unrecognizable that at some point in the series became recognizable as outer and inner parts of the township where all in the room currently lived appeared.
At the end of the series of pictures, we asked our friends to share their thoughts. The responses around the room were hesitant at first as we moved from one guests’ thoughts to the other.
One particular guest, a lady of loud opinions, puckered her entire face and blurted how ugly they were. She didn’t see anything beautiful about these pictures except for the fact that at some point she started to recognize some of the sights in the pictures as her own neighbourhood. Scowling and insistent with conviction; she said it again that she didn’t see anything beautiful about them. They were ugly.
Exasperated, respectful, patient (all at the same time) my husband probed her conviction. Perhaps she could frame her perspective differently and see beauty in some of it, and see herself and smile. But no, she would not look at it.
Her voluptuous body averted even from the screen. An air of dissociation emanating from her folded arms and her face frowned in utter refusal to look at it fully.
Askance she could only look at it as if to argue, “believe me this has nothing to do with me, please don’t associate me with it!”
But it did have something to do with her. She walked the streets of these pictures. Breathed the air, woke to the sunrises and closed curtains to the sunsets of these pictures. She still lived here! Yet she could not even say, it is ugly but I am beautiful. She didn’t even make a distinction. It was all ugly. I wondered what her conviction implied about her view of herself. Could it imply that she believed she was ugly too?

When I was a little girl, there was a show called Lingisa. Little children entered this singing competition reciting anything from Brenda to Yvonne to Whitney Houston.
But one little girl kept on winning. She was a very fair tone of brown, light skinned as it‘s called these days.
As a child I read the message. There was something special about being a light shade of brown black girl.  The eyes of teachers and adults softened and brightened and lit up when she walked into any room. Unlike when darker brown skinned girls walked into the room.
She’s be dressed better too. Her white dress, poofier, her perforated socks in patent pink mary-janes more admirable to the eyes of the adults and children I watched.  An enamoured haze or drunkenness would come over them/us as they admired even the pig-tails they had not thought to tie of their darker brown skinned daughters that, articulated, would say; she’s so pretty, why doesn’t my daughter look like that?  We, the other little girls were left to admire her pigtails, since our hair had been cut short against our will when all we wanted was long flowy hair that we could flip at intervals throughout the day. She was special the light skinned girl, I concluded. She was allowed to relax her hair so young, while mine was cut short. She won competitions even when she wasn’t necessarily the best competitor.
A queenly aura exuded from her. She was special and she had come to know it, just like I had come to know it that I didn’t matter all that much even though I really did like myself and had no wish to be like her. But years of reading this message got some thing begin to seep into my wholeness and eat at my lustre. It’s whisper was, you’re not good enough unless you look like that.
So I tried. Sitting in the shade, trying to figure out how to be admirable? How to make the boys and adult’s eyes soften, their lips smile and their kindness release like a fluttering dove towards me every time I appeared? This went on for a long time until at 19, looking at myself in the mirror, afro hair plaited into four braids, a voice whispered, “you’re pretty and you’ve always been good enough…”
I believed and never looked back. I hope you do too. §

By Nobuntu Mqulwana-Mhlambi

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