According to one study undertaken by Dove, 72% of daughters learn about beauty from their mothers.
I keep a picture of my mother as an 18-year-old natural haired
beauty. My mum’s skin was flawless, and she looked confident in this
picture. This picture was taken during her first year in teacher’s
training college in Agogo Teachers training College in the Ashanti
I could see distress over my mother’s face each time I broached the
subject of cutting all my chemically treated hair off and growing my
hair natural. ‘It won’t be pretty’ she would say. People will not
respect you was another comment. When I eventually cut my hair, I didn’t
tell her for a long time. One day we met for lunch at the mall. I had
arrived with my new mini afro. She tried to be enthusiastic, but deep
down I knew she didn’t approve.
Deep down she believed that this was just a phase. I would soon
return to my weave-wearing, chemically treated hair days, she thought. I
explained to her that it would never happen. She would laugh with the
“I know you more than you do” laugh mothers often have.
18 months later, I still have my natural hair, which has grown considerably and allows me to try versatile hairstyles.
I grew up with my brother and father. Because of this, I have never
really had any hang ups about my self-image. They have never commented
on my weight or looks unless it was to compliment me...I have never had a
negative body image.
I have moved in with my mother temporarily to help care for my
grandmother who is undergoing medical treatment. These past few weeks
have helped me understand my mother better. At 54, she is very beautiful
and her spirit and generosity leave me in awe.
On Saturday morning, she asked me to remove her weave and wash her
hair for her. After towel drying her hair, we lay on the bed together
facing the mirror. Whilst staring at the mirror we began a very poignant
conversation about self-image.
I have never considered myself to be too dark or too light skinned as
a black woman. My mother has told me before that I have become too
dark, and at times she has commented in twi that ‘me colour na ba’ (my
colour has returned) when my natural skin tone returns.
Another comment I usually get from my mother when she thinks I have
lost too much weight, which she will say in twi, is “Maame didi didi”
(Maame eat, eat), and when I have gained enough weight to her
satisfaction, she will remark that my hips have returned. When I lived
in South Africa, a friend had recently returned from her visit to Ghana.
She shared with us the latest beauty trends. One story that shocked me
was how young girls were taking veterinary pills used to fatten pigs so
that they could put on extra weight.
Body image and the ideas of beauty in Africa are very different to
western notions of beauty. As a woman, you are expected to be
voluptuous, light skinned, tall and have beautiful sprawling Brazilian
weave to command any respect in our society.
I am thin; I have chocolate coloured skin, and wear my hair natural.
People have referred to me as ‘small girl’ and ‘p3nii akola’ (half adult
half child) in Ghana. My lighter skinned more voluptuous friends have
been called ‘Madam’ and are treated with more respect than me when we
are together. I never really understood these dynamics until I connected
my mother’s remarks to my experiences with other Ghanaians.
On Saturday however, she finally understood why I decided to return
to natural hair, why I choose to be thin and why I use so many natural
products for my body and hair.
My mother’s hair has been damaged from the glue and sewing, which is
required to complete the weave. What I noticed was severe balding around
the edges of her hair. My grandmother at 82 years old wears her hair
natural. She still has all her hair. Though it is grey, her hair is
My mother’s severe balding is known as traction alopecia which,
according to Wikipedia, is a gradual hair loss caused primarily by a
pulling force being applied to the hair. Naomi Campbell is a celebrity
super model who also suffers from traction alopecia.
My mother also has dark blemishes on her cheeks due to the use of
creams that ‘tone’ (according to the label) the skin. She had been using
these creams for the past four years because her colleagues kept
telling her that she had become dark.
I had advised her about the dangers of these creams, which contain
harsh chemicals, but she didn’t believe that they were bleaching creams.
Four years later, the hot Ghanaian sun has burned dark blemishes on her
cheeks as it interacts with these harsh creams she used on her skin.
After staring at each other in the mirror, I asked her if she
understood why I chose to go natural. She affirmed with a nod. I
suggested that she stop wearing the weave for some time, to allow her
hair to recover from the traction alopecia. I helped her search online
for new hairstyles that would be less harmful to her hairline. It was
difficult for her to agree to a hairstyle that didn’t include the
Brazilian type tresses she has been wearing for the past 10 years. “I
can never reveal my real hair”, she said. “How can I attend my business
meetings with my natural hair? I will be ugly. Who will take me
How did we as a society go from the 18 year old natural haired
blemish free skinned women to the 54-year-old woman who can no longer
accept her natural look?
In a short documentary titled ‘Selfie,’ sponsored by Dove, one of the
young girls said in the interview: “It’s really difficult for me to
see my mom uncomfortable about herself – because I think she is my
biggest role model and the most beautiful person I know and it’s just
such a compliment when people tell me I look like her. For her to
criticize herself – it’s almost indirectly criticizing me because I came
My mother’s intense discomfort with her natural look disturbed me. I
hope that in time she is able to embrace her real self just like I have
done. I use calamine lotion as a natural way to remove blemishes and
dark spots on my skin. It is also a good sunscreen. Calamine lotion also
serves as a primer for foundation before you apply your make up. I use
lime each evening to wash off my makeup on my face after returning home
from work. Lime tones my skin naturally, reduces the dark rings under my
eyes and contributes to a glowing skin complexion. I spend $1 a month
to maintain my skin.
This morning I woke up, and my mother had smeared my calamine lotion
on her skin. The night before, she was applying lime juice on her skin
like I had suggested. She asked me which hair salon she could go to, to
get a protective hairstyle so that her hair could recover from the
I hope that when I have a daughter I remember that having a positive
self-image will help my daughter accept her natural hair, skin and size.
The acceptance of who we are as black women, whether big, small, light
or dark skinned, chemically treated or natural hair, is significantly
dependent on our relationships with our mothers and what their idea of
beauty is. We build our lives on these foundations. If we hate who we
see in the mirror, we cause permanent harm to our bodies in the hope of
altering our natural appearance. Luckily for my mother, it’s not too
Mothers, be kinder to yourselves. Your thoughts and your words shape
your daughters’. Their self-image is a direct reflection on how you see
yourself. A positive self-image helps to create a balanced society of
young women who are healthy and fulfilled.