By Fred Mbogo
Published February 19, 2009
Skimpily dressed girls are arguably the most exciting feature in Kenyan universities but no one will publicly admit this. Fashion, to these girls, must disrespect the weather. Spaghetti tops, micro-mini skirts, cleavage-exposing and figure-hugging clothes are the temperature-raising norm. If these were banned there would be a revolution in the universities, following mass failures. The eyes must feast on partially-opened books and boobs! FRED MBOGO reports.
There is an excruciating amount of pain that some of the girls undergo to look the part. For practical reasons they must have a small body size so as to fit into these tiny clothes. This means that most of the girls must eat sparingly and be sure to drink only those beverages that aren’t calorie-loaded. The battle to get the small body size turns into a psychological war as the mind has to be shut from a visualisation of delicious roast meat, or an innocent flirtation with chocolates and sweets.
Going by the trends being set, body-piercing seems to be the next big item on the agenda for the fashion-conscious girls. From the traditional ear-lobe to the nose, tongue and the unbelievable parts of the eye, this style is getting in vogue by the day. It is at the navel, however, that a lot of trials are found. For the ring at the navel to be shown to the world, the wearer must, following the unwritten fashion law, have a flat stomach. Again, this points many a girl to the path of tricking her diet in order to fit in.
But nowadays, there is nothing that beats the tattoo. This comes in all weird forms, from initials and logos, even portraits, to interesting figures drawn from popular comic books. Heroes of the girls may be initialed on their shoulders, thighs, navels, backs, arms, and other ‘invisible’ parts. It is fashionable, for instance, to see a part of a lovely, angel-like dragon almost setting off from the inside of a cleverly ‘arranged’ cleavage. Body artists and their clients are getting courageous and are setting up a language through which these tattoos can communicate in lovelier or sexier tones.
Still, the basic law in these fashion attempts provides the bigger headache. For many of the girls, they fight a losing war according to the school of thought that subscribes to the idea that our bodies are governed by the genes we carry. What does one say to a girl who is battling to trim her stomach in order to get a ring on her navel? When the girl looks at her female relatives her emotions fly between giving up and looking like some two of her classmates whose tattooed and ‘ringed’ navels are blinging! She is in a state of confusion. Yet she is at the university where she should concentrate on her studies.
But some may say that this confusion is necessary. After all it is part of her ‘growing up’. Without this confusion her future, either as a career person or as a parent might be blighted. According to this argument, this is an unavoidable phase. It is natural and should not be fought or stopped. Parents, counselors or such authority shouldn’t worry about such girls. They should turn their eyes the other way or do nothing since the girl will come back to normalcy at some point.
In the meantime, male students cannot help but rush to navel-gaze and cleavage-inspect the fashionably dressed girls. This leaves the ‘fat’ and ‘baggy’-dressed girls in lonely little corners. When they try to fit in they find the going difficult and can only wish to be like their friends who are attracting all the good boys in the class. They curse the lineage that bears their kind of genes and sometimes may get into bouts of depression. But why must they feel that they are not good enough? Who told them that the slim girls are more beautiful and better?
Blame the negative imaging on popular culture. The wheels of this animal are driven by the education peddled in glossy magazines and television programmes and films. Kenyan magazines that have become richer in colour and that always bear the images of serious personalities on their covers have rushed to portray the successful as being light-skinned. The models that make it to the popular ‘ethnic curves’ segment of Adam magazine, for instance, are almost always of a lighter shade. Where lightness is not the criterion for beauty in these magazines, then a figure that suggests slimness is the preferred. The cover of many a Kenyan True Love magazine invite their audiences to sample the light nature of the posing individuals who are almost always ‘successful’ as the features stories on their lives reveal.
When young impressionable girls watch the ‘youth’ programmes on television such as NTV’s ‘The Beat’ in which popular musicians are the main focus, they see a Beyonce, a Rihanna, Shakira or Jennifer Lopez whose light complexion is replayed as the tickets to their success. In order to remain relevant and on the same footing, KTN’s ‘H 2 O’, also a music programme, enlists as many light-skinned stars as possible in their list of ‘best performing’ artists. Success and light skin are yoked together and are inseparable. Few dark-skinned stars are featured, and where they are featured, sophisticated lighting techniques bring more of the ‘little’ lightness in them than the darkness.
The overly hammered message screams that beauty is packaged in the lightness of skin and slimness of body. Young girls buy into this idea and cannot stop themselves from shopping for skin-lightening creams and chemicals. They bleach themselves in hydroquinine-laced products and surely gain lighter skins and become happier, livelier and a testimony to other ‘darker’ girls that it is possible to be beautiful! But only for a short moment, as some of the products have adverse effects on the skin. Reportedly, such products with traces of hydroquinine are banned in some countries, including the member states of the European Union. But when the girls are in search of beauty, they pay no attention to any concerns over the use of these products.
When bleached and starved, these girls eventually become psychologically disturbed. In the words of Nancy Kamau, a practising Counseling Psychologist in Nairobi, they can develop ‘anorexia nervosa’, a disorder described as the intense fear of being fat! They bear marks that remind them, sometimes for the rest of their lives, of their desperation to be beautiful and how it has turned them ugly! Hydroquinine-laced products provide a layer of ‘yellowing’ that is ‘scarred’ by emerging dark spots that turn one’s skin into a patched field of unevenly matched dark and light spots. This problem is clear among girls across the continent of Africa.
How come that this affects girls at university where, expectedly, the learning that takes place should liberate the mind? Is the power of myth as circulated through television and glossy magazines greater than the learning inspired by world re-known researchers in these universities? Or is the system of education so dignity-lowering that it makes one seek a better, higher self through desperate means?
A possible solution lies in enforcing courses that are Bob Marley-inspired ala ‘emancipating’ selves from ‘mental slavery’, so minds can be freed. It seems the education system cheats students into imagining that they can walk out of university as packaged professionals ready to go into engineering, or medicine, law or accounting fields without self evaluation and self knowledge. The system seems to enjoy creating masochistic individuals who will knife themselves pleasurably after graduating from school.
Fred Mbogo, PhD, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.