African women, both at home and in the diaspora, use beauty, fashion and other aesthetics to simultaneously celebrate, navigate and challenge social and cultural norms.
Every year, the African-style clothes of female scholars of African descent paint the vibe and air of the annual meeting of the US-based African Studies Association (ASA), from the boubou, a traditional West African women’s robe, to the tobe, the Sudanese traditional dress. Women plan outfits weeks or months ahead. Many have the garments made in their respective countries, either traveling across the Atlantic with the attire themselves, or having visiting relatives or even neighbors, from back “home,” carry the clothing or fabric to them. “Your aunt sent this for you,” a neighbor from childhood might say, presenting a package, wrapped in familiar plastic.
Ablaze with colorful fabric, such as Akwete, Kanga, Kente and Shweshwe, the vibrant dynamics of women’s clothing practices also unfold in more intimate spaces within the conference, in moments of exchange. Here, women—as friends, colleagues, mentors—knit small gatherings, admiring one another’s latest attire. Friends ask permission to touch the material they find attractive, delicately feeling the fabric, inquiring about its origins. Stories unfold about visits back “home”—gifts of cloth, latest styles observed at social gatherings. Discreetly, some exchange gifts—fabric, adornments.
Friends pose for photographs to show to the architects of their ensembles, seamstresses (most are women) who may live in the United States or on the African continent, to show their gratitude, solidarity, and pride. The seamstresses will show the photos on their own cellphones to (potential) clients. Similar dynamics take place at parties, burials, church services, meetings of local US-based African cultural associations, and important public events. Women play key roles in facilitating and preserving cultural traditions and norms in many of these spaces, affirming cultural linkages to the African continent through visual bodily aesthetics, drawing from local and global ideas about African fashion trends, cosmetic rituals, and other bodily performances. Women’s bodily practices matter in potent and tangible ways, in hidden unconscious ways that continually shape the lives of women of African descent in the diaspora and on the continent.
Women on the continent, like their diasporic counterparts, frequently (re)negotiate bodily practices in diverse spaces, expressing various forms of agency and ideas about aesthetic rituals that navigate cultural and national boundaries. They play a key role as “authentic voices,” or “true representatives” of their respective cultures, communities, and nations. Consequently, women’s daily actions carry weight for the preservation of “true” African cultural ideals, the concerns resonating on a larger scale, socially, politically and economically. Thus, women’s bodily practices, such as clothing choice, often prompt surveillance in largely patriarchal communities and societies. Previous AIAC contributors have examined how African women’s varied body rituals, and beauty ideals, have stirred anxiety and provoked intense scrutiny: from how (black) African women’s hair is policed from a young age in homes and schools in South Africa, to public surveillance of women’s clothing practices in Morocco and Kenya.
Yet, as a recent issue of African Studies Review (which happens to be the official journal of the ASA) illustrates, women of African descent continue to express agency and pleasure in shaping their own ideas about varied bodily practices, and thus modeling varied identities in diverse spaces.
For example, and going back in time, newspaper advice columns by and for women in English-speaking regions of Cameroon from the 1960s exemplified women’s attention to and pleasure in what was called in the local colloquial term nyanga—beauty and stylishness. As I discuss in an article in the African Studies Review, in their advice columns female journalists documented how women exercised agency through bodily and clothing practices. However, the journalists also sought to regulate such bodily practices in their columns by striving to define the parameters of “natural,” or “authentic,” black/African beauty ideals.
In contemporary Nigeria, as Oluwakemi Balogun outlines, beauty pageant contestants and other stakeholders in Nigerian beauty pageants undertake similar negotiations between “varied ideas of Nigerian nationalism and contesting cultural ideas,” particularly around the question of bikini-wearing (ASR introduction). “[P]ersonal, domestic, and international frames about women’s bodies” determine these discussions of embodied respectability at two modern-day national beauty contests in Nigeria (ASR introduction).
Meanwhile, online, Sudanese women and girls discuss cosmetic and bodily practices in female-only Facebook groups, sharing advice to sculpt their bodies and even their voices to conform to aesthetic ideals. In Niger, women bring their understanding of childbirth to constructions of their postpartum bodies and the significance of the placenta and umbilical cord. Hausa, Zerma, Tuareg and Fulani women in Niger engage in ritualized practices that “reflect their understanding of childbirth, the shaping of birthing practices in urban and ethnic interaction, and their understanding and experiences of medical practices” (ASR introduction). And in Mauritania, women have long worn the malaḥfa, a veil that creates certain everyday constraints and possibilities.
These examples are only snapshots of the numerous ways in which African women all over the continent and the diaspora have reimagined bodily practices in aesthetic rituals in vibrant and imaginative ways.