Pretty ugly

2015-02-18 10:00

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What kind of messages do we send our girl children about their looks, and how does that impact on their lives, wonders Milisuthando Bongela

I recently witnessed a particular moment in a girl’s life. At my usual hair salon in Yeoville, a girl of about seven was shaving off her big Afro for reasons unknown to the rest of us.

Her mother and another female relative were on either side of her, speaking in melodic isiXhosa.

At stage two of the girl’s transformation – the part where the hair isn’t cleanly shaven but the head is covered in uneven tufts – the mother and relative stopped their conversation to proclaim: “Yhu, awumbi!” (Gosh, you are so ugly!)

I searched for a reaction on the girl’s face and it seemed that, like me, she was stunned into silence. I noticed the mother and relative had nonchalantly moved past the moment and were facing each other above the child’s head, talking about something else, as if they had just said “pass the salt”.


I remember the same words being spoken to me by my mother and the domestic worker in our kitchen after a haircut when I was about 10.

“Yhu, awumbi!”

I would become used to this statement after visits to my affable grandmother in a village called Gqobonco in the Eastern Cape.

She would remind me I “used to be the prettiest little girl, but with each passing year, I was losing my good looks”, a sentence she would deliver with a perplexed but loving smile.

While the anglicised side of me – aware of billboard standards of beauty – twisted and turned in shame, the Xhosa side pursed its lips, looked forward and continued picking corn from the cob, unconcerned with self-indulgent things like looks.


This conviction saved me from a lachrymose childhood – but I did, for many years, truly believe I was ugly.

All those times I won Miss Personality at beauty pageants; beneath the convivial disposition at school; behind the dismissive scoff on Valentine’s Day and at school dances where I never got asked; underpinning the row of badges on my school dress; during the time I broke my virginity with a boy I had known for a few days; when I chose to send a picture of my naked chest instead of my make-up-free face to a guy; when I thought I had to be drunk to be attractive; vocal and funny to be visible; every time I forced myself to smile more at a club, pretending to enjoy myself so that I did not come off as unapproachable; every time I woke up to messages from the bank instead of a catalogue of I love yous; and definitely every time I got a compliment from someone about the way I looked.


I wonder what will become of that little girl.

Perhaps she will realise she is not on the planet to be pretty for anyone. Perhaps moments like these will one day be the reason she picks up a Toni Morrison or Alice Walker book. Perhaps she might use those words as weapons against the war on women.

Maybe she will use them to study humanity and soothe their sting by learning that indoctrination is a series of repeated suggestions that are far too lazy to flirt with fact. She might use them to learn to confront mirrors fearlessly. They might be the catapults to self-love.

Or these moments might see her grow up obsessing about her looks. She might end up discarding herself in extreme religion. She might spend the little money she earns on tight-fitting clothing, because at least she has a nice body.

She might end up in a job where part of the requirement is a certain aesthetic look. She might end up sleeping with an old pink man from Europe because he thinks she is sexy. She might end up buying the wrong shade of lipstick because she wasn’t “born with it”.

She might make her looks the centre of her universe or try to detach her dignity from her skin and hair, and attach it to a bigger idea or greater cause.

She might try to create another world where, as a mother, she will lie so gently about the haircut that doesn’t suit her daughter that her daughter won’t spare a thought about it – in a world where looking pretty is not the coping solace for bigger, uglier problems.

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