– by Dorothy Lennon with Contributions from Antonia Opiah
We often lament that there are not enough images of Black people in the media and that the lack of diversity in how we’re represented and a narrow definition of beauty negatively impacts our self-esteem, for women especially. But have you ever wondered what more diversity in the media would actually look like? What would it do for what we consider beautiful? Would it ease pressure to meet a standard of beauty? We actually don’t have to rely on daydreams to answer those questions. We can simply look across the Atlantic to the third largest movie industry in the world: Nollywood.
I recently became interested in watching Nigerian films after watching a documentary on Netflix called Nollywood Babylon. Since then I’ve been searching for movies coming out of the Nigerian entertainment industry (a remarkable industry because it has little to no formal financial backing, nor are movies screened in theaters; they’re released straight to DVD, which actually makes it somewhat easy to find films online). I’ve watched Pretty Liars, Love and Likeness, and Love My Way, but not in its entirety. To be completely honest, the story lines didn’t move me. But I was interested in the women in the films and how they were portrayed. While watching clips of certain films, I wondered if the Nigerian idea of beauty was similar to that of Western culture—what is the Nigerian standard of beauty and, in a country where most people are black, how is it different and similar to the American standard of beauty, where “white traits” dominate?
fatter is better
An academic paper by playwright and poet Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju explains that Nigerian beauty was largely determined by the gracefulness of the eyeballs, whiteness of the teeth, the straightness of the neck and the plumpness of the butt (Oloruntoba-Oju 2007; Creed 1995; 87). Plumpness among Nigerian actresses seems to transcend the derriere and apply to one’s entire physique. No one in the Nollywood films I watched would be considered thin by Western or Nigerian standards. But being thin is not what’s desired in Nigeria. Being thin in some Nigerian tribes might be seen as you’re not eating enough. I found it refreshing to see “larger” women celebrated in Nollywood while Hollywood usually shames weight. As an African American I could relate to this, considering the Black American community and Hip Hop community embrace curves and plump behinds, even to the point where I felt pressure to be “thick” (not fat and definitely not too skinny), as I was told repeatedly to put some meat on my bones.
In an African Music Law article, Nollywood actress Eniola Badmus talks about how she was told growing up she wasn’t fat enough and that she must be fat to be beautiful. She states:
I was continually told I was beautiful BUT had this big flaw i.e. I was “not fat.” I needed to be “fat to be beautiful.” Nigerians don’t say “curvy.” They call it what it is “fat.” So, I grew saying and thinking that “I want to be fat.” LOL!
While watching Nigerian films, I did in fact notice that the ideal body type was thick. Eniola Badmus, however, goes on to say that Nigerian society “mocks and insults fat women.” She expresses how they have adopted Western culture in terms of definitions of beauty.
Westernization, the spread and adoption of Western culture, is a global phenomenon that has been taking place all over the world for centuries and Nigeria, even with its praise of plumpness, hasn’t been immune to it. For Nigeria it began with colonization and persists as a result of the country’s colonial history as well as globalization. Nigeria’s language, religion, manner of dressing, architecture and music has been impacted by Western influence, so it’s unsurprising that the country’s beauty standards are being affected as well.
Before reading the article in African Music Law on Eniola Badmus, I was under the impression that wanting to be a certain size only happened where one race dominated the other races in the population. I assumed Nigeria was a body image utopia where all women that were thick, or as Badmus puts it “fat,” were embraced. I’m not sure where I got that idea from; perhaps I assumed the grass was greener on the other side. However, it seems as if weight in Nollywood is just as much an issue as it is in Hollywood, and so is showing more diverse representations of women. In an article on African Movies News, Actress Adaora Ukoh shares:
It’s harder for a plus size [actress] to really gain your stand in Nollywood than in Hollywood and the reason is because in Hollywood they see beyond your looks. What they look out for is the talent. In Nigeria, if you’re not careful, you will die with your talent especially in this our industry where all that thrive are other things beyond talent. You come to a movie set where there are four to five girls and then a particular brand is not represented.
Most Americans would wholeheartedly disagree with Ukoh’s words. Perhaps, like me, she has a grass-is-greener view of Hollywood. My assumptions on weight made me look more into other aspects of Nollywood beauty standards, such as complexion.
but fairer is better too
With some knowledge about skin bleaching in Nigeria, I began to explore skin tone in Nollywood and stumbled across a website called Naira Land. Nairaland.com published a list of actors with before and after photos of them being dark skinned and then fair skinned. Actress Oge Okoye is one I recognized from the film End of Facebook Love who seemed to undergo the transformation from dark to light. I noticed in the comment section under the before and after photos on Nairaland.com how curious people were about what bleaching techniques were being used, suggesting an interest in lightening their skin. One Nollywood actor, Yvonne Nelson from Ghana, blames the skin tone transformation on “photo tricks” and claims to be fair in complexion but looks darker on film. Meanwhile, Genviveng.com interviewed actress Tonto Dikeh who speaks openly about bleaching her skin to enhance her already fair complexion.
Author Cristine Edusi of the article “Is Skin Bleaching Apart of Nollywood Now?” writes:
The presence of darker skinned actresses like Genevive Nnaji, Mercy Johnson and Stephanie Okereke suggest that Nollywood is not biased towards lighter skin complexions as it is being suggested, however, this does not take away from the fact that bleaching within the Nigerian entertainment industry is a major concern.
Although Cristine Edusi disagrees with skin bleaching, she is thankful for Tonto Dikeh’s honesty and opening up the discussion on what she calls “Nollywood’s worst kept secret.” If Edusi claims the presence of darker skinned actresses suggests that Nollywood is not biased towards lighter skin complexions, then it is evident that the problem with light versus dark skin tone does not begin with Nollywood but it may be making its way into the industry.
In a country where, according to a World Health Organization Report, 77% of women use skin bleaching products, it would be hard for the phenomenon to not permeate media. In a 2011 interview published on This Day Live actress Stephanie Okereke discussed colorism in Nigeria:
There is really no way of psychoanalysing the situation without blaming the colonisers in part for such indelible mark left on our soil, namely white supremacy. It begins with the way the colonisers view the black skin colour. For them, the skin colour was abominable, evil, contemptuous and everything thing else that translates to evil.
Because fair skin as beautiful was heavily influenced by white supremacy, the desire to become lighter grew. Okereke continues to say:
Turn your eyes around local video stores and see a Nigerian film poster. Heavily made-up faces of fair-skinned women assail your vision. The industry apparently favours fair-skinned women. Perhaps, it is the closest they can get to whiteness. The effect is quite appalling. Dark-skinned actresses struggle to lighten up the skin. They cannot afford to be too dark since our producers make little investment in good lighting equipment. Or the reasons are not just technical, maybe sensual?
Interestingly, even though I was aware of skin bleaching in Nigeria, the film posters and billboards shown in the documentary Nollywood Babylon provided some relief to me. There were more black and brown faces in those posters than I had ever seen in movie posters in America. But more importantly, I started to suspect that my definition of fair skinned seems to be different from Stephanie Okereke’s. Perhaps what Nigeria considers fair skin is what African Americans consider brown skin. So for me, coming from a country where brown skin (let alone dark skin) barely has a presence in the media, seeing it in abundance in Nigeria was satisfying even though the country has a lot of work to do to solve its issues surrounding colorism.
Skin tone and body size have not been the only aspects of physical beauty in Nigeria that have been influenced by the West. Western culture also has had an impact on how Nigerian women wear their hair.
layers of influence
I noticed a variety of hair types and styles in the Nigerian films I watched. The majority of the hair types and styles were wigs and weaves. Wigs and weaves, especially in entertainment, have been popular in many cultures for decades. There is no one way to style a black woman’s hair and I am not a believer of one trying to achieve a level of whiteness when it comes to hair. However, though I have not seen every Nollywood film, I have yet to see an actress with natural hair. I have seen them without a weave and/or wig but it was straightened. In Nigeria, natural hair isn’t considered fashion forward according to a 2011 Guardian article on hair in Nigeria. The article explains that hair extensions is considered to be the one “social status symbol of choice that cuts across Nigeria’s vast class and culture groups and the longer and straighter the better.” In an article on Happenings9ja.com writer Nneka Agbanusi explains that hair extensions are also considered an indicator of economic status. “For most of these actresses, their looks were incomplete without sewing bundles of Brazilian, Peruvian or Indian hair to their heads. For some of them it was a class statement, considering the average cost of a bundle of any of the weaves mentioned.” Meanwhile, the article on the Guardian recounts that natural hair is called village hair unless you’re Black American. Then natural hair is forgiven because Black Americans are seen as exotic creatures.
There are varying thoughts about the way Nigerians view African Americans and vice versa. To discuss those views would be to write another article. But there is something to note here about what role African Americans play in the Westernization of Nigeria. In her research paper “Crossing Over: The Influence of Black American Female Representation on Nigerian Films and Music Videos,” Adoara O. Arachie assesses how Black American portrayals of women influence Nigerian portrayals. She ultimately concludes that some of the archetypal characters that offer negative depictions of Black American women have been carried over to Nigerian media, namely the “gold digger,” the trophy “light skinned video girl,” the seductress, the use of women as props dressing a music video set and so on. Although it’s not safe to conclude that some of the ideals and themes in Nollywood are solely the influence of Hollywood representations of Black women, Nigerian movies like Beyonce & Rihanna, where the film’s title is a direct rip of Black American pop icons and the women starring in the films are made to resemble (albeit slightly) their respective namesakes, indicate a strong influence of Black American culture on Nigerian culture, as does the fact that hip hop, rap and R&B, music genres originating in the US, are the most popular forms of music in Nigeria, according to Arachie.
One starts to realize that the influence of the West is extremely layered when you consider that the images of African Americans have largely been molded by white people who, at the outset, only depicted Black women as coons, mulattoes and mammies and not a lot has changed since those early depictions. Now the byproducts of those stereotypes are being exported to a country with a deep history of white conquest and colonization. With all that layered underneath the images of women in Nollywood films, it’s sometimes hard to decipher what elements of these characters are really native to Nigeria’s culture.
the lesser of two evils
Nollywood is not an idyllic entertainment industry that represents and includes everyone. It has its own beauty standards that its actresses at times struggle to meet. But as an African American looking in, I see a better variety and representation of Black women when it comes to body image, skin tone and hair than I would in Hollywood. Every actor and actress in the films I viewed is black, while a film with an all black cast is rare in Hollywood. The women of Nollywood represent what my family looks like. I can watch a Nollywood film and see a familiar face, which is something we need in Hollywood, especially for the next generation to come so they don’t value beauty in the limited form of the size of their waist, the lightness of their skin and the straightness of their hair. Nollywood is beautifully flawed with room to grow. And perhaps some of the positive steps we’re taking here in the US—as we accept our natural hair textures, heal our scars of colorism and challenge male hegemony—perhaps these changes, that in time will occur here, will make their way to Nigeria, a country who’s poised to have a bigger population than the US and is increasingly influencing the rest of the African continent.