A short story on beauty and bleaching by Sheba Anyanwu

Aunty Ifeoma usually sits on a tall brown wooden stool in her bedroom. It is a creaky one, this stool. Every time she bends down to moisturize her legs, it squeals like an animal dying under the weight of a heavy object. Her vanity mirror is wide, and her table is a wasteland of opened and new bleaching creams and skin concealers. She spends the first few minutes staring at herself, her eyes widening as if seeing her own reflection for the first time. It is from her that I learn the pain of loving someone who does not love themselves. She starts her routine at the altar by clawing and tapping at her own skin, as if threatening to peel it off. There is always a disconnect here, a small space between the first glimpse of her reflection, where she almost recognizes that she is a beautiful woman, and then the latter, one where a darkness consumes her perception of self. I will spend a large part of my childhood wishing I could freeze her in the first half of this process. It is here, at this altar of beauty, that I am introduced to the rhythmic pantomime of hate she has curated over the years, a hate so intoxicating that even I am enticed by it. I am seduced by her ability to pick creams, lotions, powders, like an artist with a canvas, dipping well-manicured nails into containers and dabbing it on her skin, swirling concoctions in deep circular motions.

She was alive in front of that mirror, and she was dying inside as her spirit decayed from the swallowing hate she had for her own skin. She had spent her adult life crouched or kneeling before mirrors and unfulfilled liquid promises. It is here, at the altar of Saudi goat milk, blue bottles of Fair and White, traditional bleaching creams, which she acquires after hopping on buses and motorcycles into some of the most dangerous parts on the outskirts of Lagos, that I have become her servant, a thirteen-year-old child poised in wonder on her bed, perched on miniskirts, ripped jeans, and giant-sized teddy bears with hands sewn on to hearts, watching her fixate on her complexion.

It is here in her bedroom where I learn that men did not like women who could not cook and that women like her would have to give up their overwhelming thirst for life in order to secure a husband. It is here where I learn that I am to know my intelligence, but I am to keep it trapped inside myself like a butterfly in a glass jar, in my own person, lest a man see it and be threatened that I know more than him. It is here where I learn that sex cannot keep a Nigerian man, but closing my eyes will. I learn that I am to cover my eyes and pin my nose together when he comes back home with the smell of another woman on his shirt, and her lipstick branding him behind his ears and in between his thighs, because it is better to be with one, than to be without one.

It is here where I learn that Jesus does not free Nigerian women from their sins. He blesses them in marriages before hundreds of guests, smiling under heavily caked faces, while bridegrooms snicker in hotel rooms about the university girls they will be bringing over, and wives settle into contractual arrangements where they are in some ways destined to lose. It is here where I learn that Nigerian women are not multi-dimensional, they do not exist in grey areas with tiered identities where it also seemed that no other women had the privilege to be. We were archetypal: whore, mother, sinner, and saint, a one-stop-shop madness for any who wanted their pick, all of us chained to a gas stove with aprons smelling like pounded yam and egusi soup, while our children ran around our legs clutching onto our skirts.

At night, sleeping beside her I lose my breath, and night sweats cloak me as I dream about which one of them I will become. It is here that I, too, begin to decay, little by little, my young heart crumbling in pieces when I see the future which she presents in front of me. A future I am not sure I want to be a part of. One I am happy to observe rather than participate in. If she, who I thought to be the most beautiful, could be filled with such unhappiness, what would happen to me? I am eager to be a woman, but I want to hold it back, too. I had always known then, that there was a consuming fire burning holes in my chest which I was sure would never die, and now I was becoming even more sure that it would be hard for anyone to love me.

“Nne look, with skin like yours once you’re my age you’ll have nothing to worry about, you just have to make sure you keep your weight down, and your hair and makeup are done,”she says smiling, turning away from her mirror to look at me, and then turning around, slowly dabbing a white paste on her face, and swirling it around in slow circular motions. She stops midway and looks at her reflection again. From her gaze in the mirror her eyes connect with mine. Her smiles are always empty, and before I can tell her anything else, she continues.

“You will not have the same problems I am having now. I am tired of having to turn down these expatriate men; I want to marry one of our own. Your mother keeps telling me Nigerian men like dark skinned women, but every time I go out with Onyeka, it is her they always pick, these half-caste women in Nigeria are taking all the men.”

“Come here for a second,”she beckons. So I get up from my position on her bed, and walk towards her to the mirror, dragging my feet.

“Don’t drag your feet like that, men don’t like sluggish women,” she whispered. “Your footsteps have to be light, it’s more womanly that way.” So I adjust my weight from the balls of my feet to my toes, and hope to God that whoever marries me will be comfortable with me walking sideways like an animal just learning how to walk.

Standing beside her, I see the similarities between us. It is this physical resemblance which binds us together. Narrow noses, wide eyes, and high cheekbones, little pieces of a small family puzzle, sprinkled with the only differing factor between us, her deep dark skin. In the night time when the power ceased itself from us, and all the generators on our street groaned into a small death, sleeping beside her I watch her dark silhouette as she moves on the covers. It hurt then, to want to reach out and touch her, hearing the sound of her breathing beside me, still knowing that even she hated herself. In the morning, when the sunlight filters through the thinning blinds in her bedroom, the lights flicker on her skin revealing the parts of her which are lighter than the rest. Like a creature confused about its own metamorphosis, her skin reveals a harsh lightness on her neck and around her face. A patch-like stitch work of what is and what cannot be. To wake up beside her every morning is to die along with her in the suffering she takes with her to sleep.

From my position on the sidelines, I watched as men come to her, with gaping abyss of hearts in their chests, swallowing her up and spitting her out. Like a child born, each time she went into a relationship, and each time that relationship failed, the longer she’d gaze at herself on the altar, searching for the god she knew was within herself.