የኔ ቆንጆYene konjo!

We hear it every day, used to grasp our attention, to complement our exquisite aesthetics, to validate our sense of belongingness and so forth. This phrase has been echoing in the streets of Addis and in the private households of so many women that it has carved a dent in the perception of beauty to women. But once we unpack this term, we might be able to uncover a web of misconceptions and control. So, what is beauty for Ethiopian women? How does it define our everyday lives?

When it comes to beauty there is a mutual consensus within a community to identify and categorize a variety of aesthetics considered most appealing. For Ethiopian women, there is a dominant culture which identifies fair skin, big expressive eyes, and long wavy hair as the essence of beauty. Additionally, a heavy burden weighs on women to keep a clean and polished appearance.  This burden is further reinforced by a silent decree which dictates how women are supposed to carry themselves, appear as they’ve made an effort to look feminine and secure the validation of others. This effort can be interpreted in various manners.  It might be an effort to comply with the dominant culture of looking proper in shared spaces, which will create a harmony and belongingness amongst women who look happy and pretty.  The mere act of styling one’s hair in a fashionable and controlled manner, putting a thin layer of eyeliner and so forthcan be interpreted as an active embodiment or accentuation of femininity, validating and reinforcing the prevailing perception of women’s outer appearance.

The feminine edge is stereotypically categorized as vulnerability—a form of weakness in contrast to the strength and vigour of masculinity. Notwithstanding, femininity is a double-edged sword: it has the allure of power, sexuality, seduction, attraction, cajolery, counter to the unthreatenedspace where men can assert their mastery and dominance by contrast. The softness, passivity, physical dependency,commonly attributed with femininity in contrast to the daintiness of masculinity is an unchallenged ground enforcingstereotypes for gender distinction. What is so threatening about this space is the control it harbours, morphing into a coercive culture where women have the perception of being an active participant while the reality is more controlling.

The control is better understood by the polarized sentiment women feel if they partake in the culture of looking good or if they opt out. The bells automatically ring when a woman walks the streets of Addis not caring about the opinions of passers-by regarding her appearance. Two scenarios unfold. Either she disappears in the vacuum created purposely for the unnoticed or she gets the “wrong” kind of attention that creates ripple effects.  The reaction for the lack of acknowledgment which is “generously” given by men (through various forms of harassment and heckling) strips her of the sense of belonging replaced by a feeling of inferiority. The other might be the unending comments from peers, colleagues, friends and family, tarnishing her femininity with comments like, “Aren’t you a woman?  You should take care of yourself!  What happened?”

Which begs the question, why are we obsessed with looking good? Is it for our self-image that is built by the compliments and criticisms of others, or the perception others have about who we are? When we make an effort to look effortlessly clean and polished, there is an expectation of appreciation from others. We imagine the flood of compliments from friends and peers, the stares of envy and admiration from female passers-by, and the spark of interest from men, as incentive validating our femininity. “Women want to be you and men want to be with you,” as you have retained the status quo set for women’s external appearance or might have even surpassed the set pedigree. Surprisingly, the policing of women’s physical appearance is incessant.  The hungry looks initiated by both men and women devour women, making it the most resilient self-sustaining control mechanismreinforced from within.  This affects women’s mannerisms and behaviour!

But how can women strike the right balance to appease the societal pressure imposed on them and stay true to themselves? Well, there’s no simple answer. Many women have accepted and embraced the imposed roles. This takessagacity to knowingly embrace a diminutive role and redefine it at will.  Some women have participated in assimilating in“manly” and “macho” behaviours, which entails normalizing toxic masculinity by incorporating derogatory comments towards other women.  This can come in a form of “friendly”comments or confrontations that diminish women’s purpose and existence.

It is a minefield, but women manage to navigate within this terrain of dangerous stereotypes. Every day they make an effort to quieten the noise of the societal pressure and listen intently to their desires and aspirations. There is this wholesome feeling that exists within each and every woman that reminds her of her absolute essence, and how the parameters set are not worthy of measuring it. She knows deep inside that she doesn’t have to justify her words and nonaction. It is a sign of resilience that was harnessed from various episodes of misinterpretation, confusion and categorization.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and yet women prevail at every corner finding their essence within. They behave the way that will encourage others to find peace within by skilfully managing the world outside. They are responsible to themselves as they remain true and aspire authenticity, which might entail analysing the temporary impression that arises when you have the perfect black jeans, and it fits perfectly everywhere. Some days that perfect jeans, shrivels around the knees and just doesn’t go well with the loose t-shirt that you love. It’s this sentiment that the standards set for us to behave and feel in a certain way are not worth it. They diminish us and our worth. But we embrace and own it, positioning ourselves in the role of leadership by stretching the boundaries set and imprinting our footsteps in every space of the territory. This is the safe space where women can deliberate what looks good to them, what they see adequate and feel free to feel good.

Written by: Zula Afawork