The second stereotype of an African woman is the wild and erotic “Josephine Baker”.* Her whole being is mystical and sexual, and since sexuality is scary it must be contained. One of the first things the colonising Europeans did in the 19th century in many parts of this continent was to impose western, puritan dresscode on semi-naked tribeswomen. Nowadays this seems so ridiculous. The Himba women, for example, in their traditional outfits are beautiful, but not particularly erotic. Most modern Europeans (the same can’t be said for Americans … the nation of the “boobgate”) can tell the difference between nudity and sexuality.
I began to get an idea of the power and scariness of the Josephine Baker, though, when I spent just over a month frequenting a Windhoek gym. Again, this is not “Africa”, it is just Windhoek, but there were women from different tribes, of different ages, shapes and sizes there. They all appeared to have one thing in common, though: they were admirably at ease with themselves. The whole atmosphere in the changing room was just very different to what I have seen and experienced in any part of Europe. The self-consciousness that a white woman does not seem to be able to escape was almost entirely lacking. So I began to think that the power of Josephine Baker has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with self-confidence.
I wondered why that was. We are supposed to be more emancipated and aware of our rights in the North. Yet the bombardment of images of how we should look like – and do not look like – is so relentless that it it nearly impossible not to be self-aware, and consequently ashamed of our imperfect bodies.
The tabloid press is a lot less developed in the parts of Africa I’ve been to. The images of perfect women that ARE portrayed are likely to come from Hollywood, where the pictures are either those of white women or of black women whose beauty adheres very closely to white standards (think Beyoncé or Halle Berry). Maybe this has less of an impact on the self-confidence of a woman who just looks very different. Recently the standards of beauty have been ever so slightly relaxing, when women like Lupita Nyong’o have entered the common consciousness. Ms Nyong’o is strikingly beautiful. However, her beauty is of such different kind to what I could ever be that I can just admire it, without her images on some sub-conscious level chipping away at my confidence.
So maybe that is partly it. While women in many African cultures are traditionally supposed to be less assertive, and subject to male authority, once they can break away from that and enter the public sphere, they do so with confidence in themselves that is not constantly being undermined by a bombardment of insidious messages of how inadequate they are physically, and how important it is to be physically more adequate. Hence they are less held back, less apologetic of who they are and what they are capable of.
I therefore have come to think, tentatively, that Josephine Baker is in fact Mama Africa. They are the two sides of the same confident coin. I have also come to appreciate my time at the gym changing room. Comments about time spent looking at other people at the gym changing room can come out the wrong way, but even at the risk of that I must conclude that I hope some of the chuzpah those ladies had rubbed off on me!
*Yes, I know Ms Baker was not from any part of Africa, but French-American. Her “brand” is fitting for this post, though.