Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Obsession with Beauty

(This was cross-posted in Nigerians Talk)

There’s something about a suit that irks me.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a well-dressed man as much as the next girl, but there’s something about a perpetually well-dressed person that puts me ill at ease. I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s that you have a knot around your neck that looks as though you’re bound to boring strictures that indicate your worth according to your adherence to decorum. It could be the ‘uptightedness’ of showing the whole world where iron meets cotton, cufflinks meet sun, belt meets buckle. Why spend so much time on the preparing for your meeting with the outside world? No, that’s not the real question. Here’s a better one: Why spend so much time showing me that you’ve prepared for your meeting with the outside world? The older I get, the more I appreciate the occasional wrinkle, the slightly-skewed tie, the glasses that show you left the house too quickly to get your contacts on. There’s a charm to this, a humanness that is as appreciable as a well-cut suit. When you look good without trying, you look better, I think, when you did try, and shifts focus from the effort to merely its outcome.

The beauty of art, after all, is in its seeming effortlessness. I swear, Monet and Picasso are geniuses because we don’t know how hard they worked on each canvass, how many trials it took to get that perfect shade of blue, how many times they must have broken their paintbrushes in sheer frustration. Beauty is outcome, not the work behind it.

A lot of Nigerians pride ourselves on the way we look. So many of us love the image of the party people who color-code our gele to shoes and jewelry, who snigger when someone clearly isn’t doing it right. Everyone from Banky W to P-Square to D’Banj has music videos that show that we have “arrived” and, in a lot of ways, we have. We have the buildings, the American singers/rappers coming to perform our country, the whole world giving a damn when our president is M.I.A (Yes, yes, people only cared because of a certain undie bomber, but still), Abuja becoming our shining carved-out city on the hill, China investing heavily, all that (debatable) good stuff.

We did, however, seem to have gotten here with very little work. We can argue about this from today until tomorrow, and quibble about how the Lagos governor has done a good job and how Kwara state is on the up-and-up, but really, how much work has really been done? Really? How much focus has been aimed at dealing with our very real problems? Can anyone actually think of any of the big issues that we have done away with? Corruption? Oil money actually benefiting people they should benefit? What? EFCC does its work, but has it actually gotten rid of the actual problem of rampant corruption? Yes? No? Think about it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

So many people were up in arms about poverty in Lagos shown during that BBC documentary, but to all those folks, sit and think about it: Are you really surprised? How much, besides lip service, has been paid to dealing with poverty? The ridiculous rate of urban migration to 2 or 3 big cities that are already bursting at their seams? To the people who get turned away in form of being reduced to poverty, like unwanted children in a family not being given enough to eat? How much infrastructure building has been done in comparison to how much we need? What initiatives have actually achieved something groundbreaking to change the lives of ordinary Nigerians, not the people who eat fancy dinners at fundraisers that achieve nothing? Nothing. Nothing. The Answer is nothing. The fiercely patriotic who would not hear a word wrong about the beloved Nigeria see all this beauty. More pragmatic Nigerians want to see the work.

Work is an uninteresting hum of logistics and planning. Work requires stripping away of the gele, taking off of those Gucci sunglasses that cost way more than you hoped to spend, taking off of that Burberry handbag that took you six months of saving and hours of debating in front of the shop window. Work requires a long look in the mirror understanding that work indeed needs to be done, and you need to set forth at dawn to do it. Work requires getting your hands dirty. There is nothing beautiful about the grit between your nails. But maybe beauty should not be our goal.

There is no sanctimony here. I am not going to end this with “Go Out and Vote” naivete. I am not sure it will take any more than a bag of rice to get a truly poor Nigerian with suffrage rights to vote for someone who (s)he knows is a tyrant. I am not sure a lot of us truly care one way or another about what goes on in this country as long as our own generator-powered lives are uninterrupted. I don’t know what it will take to change anything. But I do know we have no right to angry when a mirror is held up in front of us and it doesn’t look pretty.

(Not everybody is complaining about the documentary, of course. Here’s Loomnie’s reasonable take).

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