A small rectangular mirror stands on the stool next to my bed. Stained. Ordinary. Cheap, it must have cost no more than 100 shillings. There is nothing extra-ordinary about it. There is nothing extra-ordinary about my morning ritual that is tied to it either. Every morning, I place it against the wall, struggling to find the right angle so it won’t slip and fall. Every morning I stare at my reflection, face slightly puffy, looking like it sucked in the air I breathed as I slept. I wonder why people sing ‘I woke up like this’ with so much pride, why movies make morning faces look like they are bathed in morning dew and massaged with airy freshness, lips looking full, not slightly swollen, eyes looking droopy (with a sexy allure), not puffy and stained with that slight gooey matter we all struggle to remove from the corner of our eyes. Hair looking ruffled, like an ocean breeze blew a few well placed strands conveniently, not out of place and tangled like it was in an eight-hour long fight with the pillow. Faces glowing, not oily and shiny. I look at myself in my small ordinary mirror every morning and I swear I can almost see my reflection on my oily nose.
The makeup fixes all that in a matter of minutes (or in an hour if I am in a particularly glamorous mood). The products are spread out on my shelf-tens of products, tens of shades of colours. I cleanse, I moisturize, I highlight, I contour, ‘three shades of brown, mind your skin’s undertone, make sure you contour, the right colours in the right quantity will make your cheekbones more pronounced, your nose seem more narrow, your eye lashes seem longer, eyes larger, eyebrows shaped…’ the make-up tutorials flood into my head as I work to ‘accentuate my positive features’.
The effect is as they say. My nose seems longer. My cheekbones seem higher. My face looks slimmer. I can see myself somewhere in there. Somewhere behind the cakes of highlighter and foundation and the setting spray. The effect is the beautiful they want to see, the beauty I have been socialized to accept that now defines the standards I have placed for myself. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy my ordinary morning routine, the alone time with my ordinary mirror. But every morning I stare at my ‘woke up like this’ reflection, I cannot help but wonder why it is never beautiful enough.
My features are strong. My eyes are piercing and ordinarily puffier than the recommended make-up industry size. I have my grandmother’s eyes. I stare at her photo in our living room every time I sit down to have dinner. She must have been no more than twenty five years old when that photo was taken. She is staring into the camera with a stern face. That typical ‘stare ahead, stand stiff and don’t show your teeth’ studio pose from the 60’s. My grandfather is standing next to her. I have his facial structure.
They say I have my great grandmother’s hips. Those that made our sleepy village shut down every time she walked to the river and back. Those that curved out further in protest against her thickening waist after she gave birth to nine children. I have her sharp mouth, and her strong resolve. That sharp mouth that kept my great grandfather on limbo, not knowing whether to stay at bay or inch closer. Her sharp mind, that which budgeted the few coins, (or were they cowrie shells) to feed her children.
I have my paternal grandmother’s legs. My ‘kukhu’, whose legs they wrote songs about. Not because they were endless like those they sing about in Hollywood, but because they were strong and well rounded. Those legs would walk for miles bearing the weight of a child in her womb, a bundle of firewood on her back and a pot full of water on head. Her creativity, with which she would mix the dung and plaster it on the walls of her hut, make beautiful patterns and do just a good a job as today’s interior designers do with wall paper.
I have my mother’s passion and heart. That which drove her to give more than she could ever receive. I have her charm and her strong personality, a delicate balance that ensured she got her way and broke the glass ceilings her mother and the women that came before her worked their entire lives to crack. My father’s charisma, that which made him friends across invisible socio-economic lines. His way with words, that which allowed him to speak painful truths in the most relatable manner.
Every evening when I get home, when I wipe off the cake of make up that gives me that beauty modern society insists I should have, I am reminded that I am a beautiful cocktail of the strengths and flaws of those that came before me. When in the comfort of my bedroom, I take out my stained, ordinary, plain, rectangular cheap mirror, and I peel off the mask that allows me to face modern day society with as little judgement as I can muster, I am reminded of who I truly am. The daughter of an endless generation of strong willed, beautiful people. Whose DNA came together to make me, this woman, with a nose that is not as narrow, eyes that are a tad bit too puffy, legs that are not long and endless, a sharp tongue, hips curvy protesting against a thick waist, strong resolve, passion , heart and charisma. It is a constant lesson in authenticity and self-love. A reminder that in a world that profits heavily in my self-loathing and self doubt, an act of self love and appreciation of authenticity is a strong act of protest. I switch off my lights and get into bed with a smile. Knowing full well that while the doubt will probably still creep in when I wake up in the morning, moments like these give me the will power to shut out the negative lens and truly embrace me. Goodnight mirror, goodnight world.