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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: 

Portrait - UshieSuzanne 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.


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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

7 Responses to “Lipstick, Eyeliner & Everything in Between | By Suzanne Ushie | An African Fashion Essay” Subscribe

  1. vivian akp January 28, 2015 at 3:17 am #

    short and interesting…i like

  2. olu ola January 28, 2015 at 5:30 am #

    Its a lovely piece… I regard it as a deep subject that is simply and craftily expressed. You can get lost in the words, reading over and over in other to learn the deep message.
    More grease Suzanne.

  3. Fatima January 29, 2015 at 3:27 am #

    Lovely write-up.

    It evokes memories of my childhood- the soft pad of my Mum’s Fragrant Avon powder and the perfume bottle shaped like a woman (which everyone’s Mum seemed to keep on their dressing table).

    Thanks for the memories.

    • Ainehi Edoro January 30, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

      @Fatima. I feel you. Same with me. I can still see my mom’s Cymba lotion lying there on the dresser. I also like how the writer suggests that experience with make up marks a major coming-of-age moment in a woman’s life. Nothing could make me forget the first time I applied eye-pencil and lipstick. The feeling of transformation I felt was pretty epic. It’s important to know that there is nothing trivial about these feminine experiences.

  4. Queenie January 29, 2015 at 8:32 am #

    I agree with @Olu Ola, it communicates deep feelings and the journey of self discovery.

    And of course, memories of wearing heels a million sizes too big and wanting to be grown up so much it hurt.

    Beautiful piece, Suzanne

  5. mariam sule February 2, 2015 at 1:21 pm #

    I love this piece, its so deep. The gentle path to self discovery.

  6. White Rabbit February 4, 2015 at 3:36 am #

    Lovely piece. It made me grateful, that I can express my individuality in my chosen profession. #teamredlipstick
    You are a star mor mor keep shining.

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