Monday, February 3, 2014

A Very Short Story: The Tyranny That Is Beauty

I’m Amaka, a 26 year old Nigerian woman. I’m smart, confident, intelligent and witty, but of course that’s not what people notice at first sight. What most people are attracted to at first glance are: my face, my 5'10'' statuesque frame, and my body à la Kim Kardashian (far be it from me to brag, but I’m compelled to present a visual picture of myself so you can better understand what I’m about to say, and thus my dilemma.) For as long as I care to recall, men have reminded me about how "beautiful" and "sexy" I am ad nauseam. Now, I’m not averse to compliments, but when there's a perceived ulterior motive, or if it’s given in a professional setting, or it’s said in a sexually suggestive fashion, I get turned off.

“What’s your gripe?” you might ask. My gripe is that people generally put a premium on beauty, and that irks me beyond words. Yes, it is true that beautiful people on a whole are treated more favorably than the average Joe or Jane, and can easily charm their way into getting what they want, but what if you don’t want to be ogled at, or spoken to, or treated in a certain way solely because of your looks? What if you prefer to be recognized as a human being with feelings and emotions, considered for your personality and intelligence rather than as a sex object to be looked at and probably shown off like a newly acquired trophy?

As a teenager, the mirror was never my best friend, and this wasn't as a result of having an acne-ridden face like most teenagers did. On the contrary, my face was as smooth as a bottle. I simply didn't care about my looks. Don’t get me wrong, I washed my face twice a day, and applied barely-there makeup in the form of mascara and lip-gloss when I was in the mood, but I never spent a substantial amount of time preening and admiring myself in the mirror. What’s more, I developed a hatred of sorts for the mirror when my body began transitioning from that of a child to that of woman. I couldn't bear the stares from the boys in class or the obscene comments from random men in street corners.

While most of my friends reveled in their newly acquired curves and encouraged the ogling and comments from the opposite sex, I worked feverishly to conceal mine in a bid to avoid unsolicited compliments and stares. Unfortunately though, there were always mirrors to remind me the transformation was inevitable, and it wasn't until my 18th birthday that I realized I was fighting a losing battle; at that point I decided it was healthier to my curves. In spite of my nonchalance, teen-aged boys and men couldn't shake off their morbid fascination with them, which in turn fueled my decision not to date in my teens.
Do you see me? I am more than my reflection
Fast forward to my twenties and my time in University, and I still grappled with the "beauty burden", albeit in tolerable, tiny doses. Although I had finally made peace with the mirror and embraced my curves, I still didn't put a premium on my outward appearance. University was a place I loved because intellectuality was valued more than one’s bra size or facial features. It was an environment I genuinely enjoyed and didn't dream of leaving because I was valued as a being with thoughts and not something to be admired; but alas the reverie had to come to an end. I graduated in 4 short years, and was thrown into the real world where beauty meant everything most of the time.

Nearly a year after I graduated from University, I grudgingly accepted a marketing job from one the largest banks in Nigeria since jobs were hard to come by in the depressed economy. The Marketing Department could easily pass for a modelling agency as all marketers were physically beautiful women in their 20s with nice figures. In fact, academic qualifications were of little importance in the recruitment process; if spoke proper English and fit the bank’s "beauty criteria", you were hired. Consequentially, it was a job I grew to hate because in my eyes marketers were glorified prostitutes used to solicit potential investors – who were men for the most part.

The bank’s modus operandi was to set incredulously unrealistic "targets" that marketers had to either meet or risk getting fired. My target was for 80 million naira which I was expected to deliver within 3 months. On hearing the amount, I almost fainted. "How on earth was I to convince potential investors to invest vast sums of money in the bank?" I thought to myself.

As I struggled to walk back to my seat, a colleague invited me to go with her one of her marketing rounds so I could get the hang of it. Unbeknownst to me, this was the beginning of my six months in hell.

My colleague had a rendezvous in an upscale restaurant with a potential investor, and as we waited for his arrival, I picked her brain about marketing and meeting targets. By the time she was done narrating her experience and those of the other marketers, I felt more and more like a tool - like an object to be used for the economic benefit of the bank. It was this moment I resolved to start job-hunting in earnest.

After six months of unproductive and enervating work that included inappropriate comments from potential male investors, unwanted touching, lewd glances and outrageous flirting from married men, I decided for the sake of my sanity and dignity it was time to sever ties with the bank. In a strange way, working as a marketer was reminiscent of my days in secondary school, where all that seemed to matter, for the most part, was one’s physical appearance.

As a child, I never quite understood what my grandma meant when she said: ''Physical beauty is to women what wealth is to men; and just like wealth attracts all sorts of women, so does beauty attract all sorts of men. You’d do well to choose wisely.'' Now I do.

Everyone has a cross or several crosses to bear, and one of mine is my looks. I have been saddled with the "beauty-burden" of having to fish out men who are genuinely interested in me as a living, thinking being from those who only see me as an accompaniment or a sex object. Hence, as a rule of thumb, I only date men who are genuinely interested in my personality and my grey matter, and I eschew those that are obsessed with how "hot" or "sexy" I am.

And as for my current job, I'm a programmer for an IT firm; a place where brains are valued more than looks. Go figure.