Back to the Motherland: Beauty Standards

Audrey Sebatindira 17 September 2014

The phrase 'culture shock' usually describes an overwhelming and unpleasant experience in a foreign country, but in my case the 'shock' has been more of a pleasant surprise. Unsurprisingly, Abidjan is in many ways very different from Maryland, and a lot of those differences are welcome. 

For one thing, I’ll never tire of the immense level of hospitality people show each other here. A good example would be a trip to the tailor that I took one night here with my mother. The moment we arrived, the tailor ushered us into her living room (her house was behind her shop), offering us drinks and lively conversation. Before we could even broach the subject of clothing, she had her daughters bring out pot after pot of Senegalese food that she had just prepared, and proceeded to pile it on our plates, refusing to take no for an answer.

By the time she finally began to take our measurements, we already felt at home in her house. I couldn’t help but think how strange this would be back in Maryland, but I definitely love that I was able to find a new tailor and a new friend in one evening – while still getting a killer, custom-made jumpsuit out of it.

On top of that, and completely unrelated, are the refreshingly realistic beauty standards for women here. Beauty standards are in general undesirable, so I can’t help but feel a little giddy whenever I watch a music video on TV or drive past a billboard because all the women look exactly like those I encounter in my day to day life. Some are like the women at the till in the local supermarket, others are like the women my mum works with every day. This is in complete contrast to ads in the States which leave you feeling wholly inadequate to say the least.

That being said, not all of the surprises I’ve had in Abidjan have been good ones. With regard to beauty standards, there's a lot of advertising for skin-lightening creams for women, which is horrifying. This is a problem I know to be pervasive across the continent – some of my earliest childhood memories involve watching commercials for these creams on TV back in Kenya – but there was always the hope that it was a passing fad.

And of course, as is the case with every developing country, there's the issue of the inequality gap between the rich and the poor, which is unnerving regardless of whether you're a tourist or a resident. Guilt doesn't feed anybody, but it's a difficult problem to ignore and makes me feel that, as a member of the African diaspora, I shouldn't contribute to the 'brain drain' and should instead contribute what I can to the development of the continent. 

So I guess it's been a mixed bag so far, which is inevitable; every culture has its share of good and bad. But I know I've only just scratched the surface. Who knows what else I'll learn.