In one of my clearest childhood memories, it is a humid Saturday afternoon in Calabar, Southern Nigeria. I am eight years old, getting dressed for a birthday party, thrilled that I can wear light makeup.
My sister is standing before me in our bedroom, lining my eyes with black kohl, her face frowning each time I blink.
“Stop shaking,” she says. “Why are you afraid?” I cannot reply, still startled at the realization that looking good is no painless, effortless thing.
Long before that day, I adored makeup and beauty. I would try on my mother’s lipstick—muted reds and bright pinks— when she wasn’t in her room. I would spread my fingers apart, alive with delight, as my mother applied nail hardener on my bitten nails. The high-pitched song I sang whenever she squirted perfume on my neck became a family joke.
I began to experiment with makeup in my teens. It was the season of lips lined with pitch black eyeliner. I painted my lips a frosted beige to complement the harsh line at the border of my mouth. I bought eyebrow pencil two shades lighter than my eyebrows.
In university, I wore eyeshadow—jungle green on my lid, royal blue on my crease—but never wore eyeliner. If anything I regarded it, rather melodramatically, as a symbol of pain.
After graduation, I moved to Lagos and got a job in advertising. In those early months, I watched my new world, dazed by the color, the glamour. Here was a clutch of people unwilling to be anyone other than who they were. My boss, a woman I admired, wore bold red lipstick to work. She inspired me.
For the first time, I wore red lipstick—the kind described in fashion magazines as intense, blue-based red. And was stunned when it made me feel like the truest version of myself. My friends in banking and consulting told me I was fortunate to have a career where I could express myself through my appearance.
In search of a style aesthetic of my own, I turned to makeup blogs, vintage websites, beauty articles. My attachment to winged eyeliner, midway through my twenties, came as a surprise. After all I loathed eyeliner. Still, I tried everything—gels and liquids and pencils.
Somewhere, in some deep magical part of each stroke, I discovered again the wonder of grace, of courage, of listening to my rhythm. Only then did I realize that as a child, my love for makeup and beauty was truly a longing for the experience of being fully grown.
Now I am 30 years old. I wear eyeliner in a jet black wing every other day. I line my eyes without blinking. My hands are not quite steady, my strokes are far from flawless, but I can live with that.
I am no longer afraid.
Image by Katherine Kenny via Flickr.
About the Author:
Suzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in several publications including Fiction Fix, Overtime, Conte Online, The Writing Disorder and Gambit: Newer African Writing. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.