Table of Contents
2. Table of Contents
4.1 Media's impact on the self-concept of black females
4.2 Black females associate wealth with a white skin color only
4.3 Being white offers more advantages than being black and rich does
4.4 Black females refuse to accept black women in their circle of friends
4.5 Westernized black women are othering non-westernized Blacks
4.6 Black and white men seek westernized beauty in searching for a partner
4.7 The eternalized Other as a current subject in post-Apartheid
6. Works Cited
“Be sure that whatever you are is you”. This quote from American poet Theodore Roethke underlines the uniqueness of identity and individuality which also involves the appearance of a person. It should be in no case influenced by the beauty concept of another ethnicity. Since people often assimilate the features of their society and especially the ones of their close surroundings, Roethke advises to remain true to oneself. Similarly, the main characters of the novel Coconut demonstrate that it is difficult for young people to remain unaffected by the western beauty concept.
Kopano Matlwa's novel Coconut which was firstly published in 2007 is about two black girls, Fikile and Ofilwe, who want to be “white, rich and happy” (Matlwa 118). Both girls struggle to find their own identity since they are stuck between two worlds, namely the South African and the Western one which have an impact on the perception of the two main characters. The novel is divided into two parts. The first half of the book is narrated by Ofilwe and the second half by Fikile. Both girls live in Johannesburg. Although their lives seem to be completely different, they have one important aspect in common. In contrast to Ofilwe, Fikile is poor and lives with her abusive uncle in a township. Ofilwe lives with her wealthy family in a suburb. The only place where they meet is the restaurant Silver Spoon - Fikile's workplace. Ofilwe and her family have “the same Silver Spoon's Traditional English Breakfast every Sunday” (Matlwa 22) and since Fikile works there, both girls know each other. In brief, the summary of this novel is the black female's struggle to find her identity in post-Apartheid. It is difficult for these women and young girls to know their identity as they are influenced by the western culture and its beauty standard. Furthermore, not only does the western influence play an important role in Coconut, so does gaze. According to the Oxford Dictionary, gaze is either a “steady intent look” or in literary theory, “a particular perspective considered as embodying certain aspects of the relationship between observer and observed”. In this paper, the second definition of gaze is relevant. The concept of gaze is divided into three observer perspectives. With respect to black females, the first perspective is the one of white people looking at black women. The second perspective is the one of black females looking at themselves. Finally, the third observer perspective is the one of black women looking at other black women. Referring to beauty standards, the relevance of gaze for both main characters seems obvious. Fikile and Ofilwe attach great importance to their appearance which is perceived from different perspectives. According to Adams, “beauty has turned up as an essential part of all human cultures” (32) as it seems to reveal information about a person, such as ethnicity, social status et cetera. However, it is primarily necessary to clarify two more terms in order to understand this paper without any difficulties. These important terms are Apartheid and the concept of Othering. Firstly, I will explain Apartheid. In the 20th century, there was “the total separation of peoples according to the [color] of their skin” (Bradley 6). White European colonists declared themselves as the one and only supremacy. Those Europeans occupied South Africa, discriminated, segregated and even killed black South African citizens. Apartheid ended officially on “10 May 1994” (Bradley 6). The next term is Othering “which is a process that identifies those that are thought to be different from oneself [...] and it can reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination” (Bottorf255). Consequently, the othered group is excluded and denigrated since it is regarded as subordinated by the dominant group. Othering can have a wide reach. Not only can colored people be othered but also females, homosexuals, and other groups. Now, I will explain the connection between these terms and the novel Coconut. The gaze used in Coconut, illustrated by the main characters Ofilwe and Fikile, reflects the concept of Othering and in particular the westernized beauty concept of black women caused by Apartheid. In the following paper, this will be developed in respect to the perspectives of gaze. The first three paragraphs will concentrate on the self-perception of black females. The next one will focus on black women's notion of other black females. At last, the final paragraphs will be about other people's, in particular white people's view of black women.
Firstly, the media focuses on white stars which influences black women by conveying them that being white is the only standard of beauty every woman should strive for. This seeming beauty standard in “media [has negative] effects on the self- concept” (Milkie 190). At its worst, it makes black women mentally disordered. Those females feel less confident and dissatisfied with themselves. Therefore, they change their appearance in order to fit to this unreachable standard. Because of this change, those females have more poise. Thus, “the central position of media in everyday life [and the] unrealistic beauty images” (Milkie 191) in the media are a toxic mixture for young black females. Media are everywhere. Media, such as magazines, the internet with social networks and websites, advertisements, poster and the television, are consciously and even unconsciously perceived by people all over the world all too often. Since people's “access and exposure to contemporary [...] media seem extraordinary” (Roberts 9), it appears clear now that black women are always exposed to “unrealistic appearance in media imagery” (Milkie 205). Even people who cannot afford a television, a mobile phone or a computer are affected. Those people either buy cheap magazines or they experience media in public places through posters and images unknowingly. According to Yan and Bissell, women are harmed by public images as they suffer from “syndromes such as bodyimage distortion and appearance anxiety” (Botta et.al., quoted in Yan and Bissell 196) et cetera. Those mental diseases have a strong impact on females' behavior. As a result, women and in particular black ones tend to modify their appearance since they feel “more uncertain about themselves” (Henderson-King 413). For instance, there is a “photograph of Avril Lavigne on the cover of the magazine” (Matlwa 133) which Fikile has bought. A photograph of a white American singer. In all the other magazines, which are mentioned in Coconut, there is “not a single face of [color]” (92). As Fikile cannot afford expensive technical devices like a mobile phone or computer, she possesses a lot of magazines. Since her grandmother had “collected [the first magazines] from the white homes she worked at” (Matlwa 166), Fikile's attitude towards her skin color, her body and her whole life has changed. Since that time, she has been exposed to “a forced comparison with ideal beauty [images of western stars and models which] seems [to be] almost inevitable for most girls and young women” (Yan and Bissell 196). She has also “come to know the great importance of presentation” (Matlwa 117) and the western beauty characteristics. A western appearance requires having a light skin, blonde hair, colored and “round eyes, [a] narrow face[...], and [a] pronounced nose[...]” (Kim, quoted in Yan and Bissell 197) - characteristics which do not apply to Coconut's second main character Fikile. The reason why she sees the mediated “images as goals to which [she wants to] aspire” (Henderson-King 403) is the fact that she hardly sees colored or black stars in her magazines. Her South African appearance makes her very unconfident and unsatisfied with herself. Even when her teacher asks her “what [she wants] to be when [she grows] up”, she responds that she wants “to be white” (Matlwa 135) then. Hence, she uses many aids to change her appearance in order to look more like a white girl. The western details of her new look make her stronger and more self-assured. However, she is not herself and in particular the South African girl anymore. She is only a poor copy of the white girls in the beauty magazines. She modifies her appearance with her so-called “life's treasures”. Those are her “magazines [and her] emeraldgreen [colored] lenses [...], [her] Lemon Light skin-lightener creme, [her] sunscreen [...] and the pieces of caramel-blond hair extension” (Matlwa 117). Fikile solely feels confident when she alters her appearance and becomes “the charming young waitress with pretty green eyes and soft, blowing-the-wind, caramel-blond hair” (Matlwa 117) - as she calls herself. To summarize, media all over the world have a harmful impact on females and in particular on black women. The majority of beauty magazines contain images which do not reflect the reality since the images are only “assimilated into the Western norms of beauty” (Yan and Bissell 194). As a consequence, one could say that black females suffer from self-dissatisfaction and only have a positive self-perception when they resemble the western stars and models in media.
Not only does the vast use of white stars in media have a negative impact on the selfconcept of black females, it also makes those females associate wealth and a good life with a white skin color only and poverty solely with a dark skin color. Since black women think that they will become “rich and happy” (Matlwa 118) then, those women alter their appearance in a western way. Especially magazines' “cover stories around the [western model give] “follow me” instructions, telling [black women] what to read within this issue and what to do to become the next “her”” (Yan and Bissell 207). Thus, it is obvious that black women and young girls carry out those instructions. Fikile, for instance, owns “dainty little emerald-green [colored] lenses” which illustrate “how far [she has] come” (Matlwa 117). She is not “the naïve orphan child” (Matlwa 117) who lives with her uncle anymore. Fikile thinks that her new westernized appearance turned her into an attractive and lovely server who works in the most luxurious coffee shop in the world (Matlwa 117). It seems to be a small step to a decadent life. However, she does not completely look like a western girl yet and therefore, she neither lives a total wealthy life. She believes that her life conditions depend on her appearance. The whiter she looks, the happier and richer she thinks she will become. Due to that reason, she does not want to be herself and in particular not black anymore as “the life in those pages [is] the one [she] was born to live” (Matlwa 167) and not the life in “this hole” (Matlwa 109) which she is actually living in. In other words, she is unsatisfied with her current township-life because she sees the fancy lives of white stars in the magazines. The reason for her desire to be white comes from those magazines. As she sees only “rich and happy” (Matlwa 118) people who are white, she connects a luxurious life and happiness with a western appearance. According to Yan and Bissell, “the more important and attractive the compared subject or group is perceived to be, the stronger the [wish to resemble this group] becomes” (196). Hence, she uses many aids to change her appearance to look more like a white girl and to seemingly live the wealthy life of a white girl. Fikile is ready to live an extravagant life and she even knows “what to pack when spending a weekend away in the Bahamas” (Matlwa 167). The only remaining requirement for this goal is the complete appearance of a western young girl and in particular a white skin color. Her so called “life's treasures” have been already mentioned in the previous paragraph. Fikile's “life's treasures” contain a skin-lightener crème which gradually lightens her skin. Thus, it is necessary to emphasize the importance of a white skin. This significance is also shown by the fact that “77 percent of women in Nigeria use skin-lightening products” (Adow, aljazeera.com) as Fikile does. In conclusion, black women alter their appearance and lighten their skin because they associate wealth and happiness only with a white skin color. Especially poor black females strive for luxury and therefore, try to appear more western as they think that a western look is the only way to escape poverty and to achieve a good life.
Apart from that, being white entails more advantages than being black and rich does and is therefore not only aspired by poor black people but also by rich black people. Even though black and rich women possess a great amount of money, they are dissatisfied with themselves. These females strive for a white skin color because being white has numerous advantages. These advantages exceed capabilities of money. Whereas wealth enables only material goods, beauty can be used “as a social capital within different cultures” (Adam, 12). In each culture, there is a specific desired beauty standard which “can give women status and success today” (Adams, 12). Wealth does not always ensure success or a positive reputation. For instance, the protagonists in Coconut have the strong wish to be white. Ofilwe belongs to the wealthy people in Johannesburg, but many people in her surroundings reject her. Whereas Ofilwe struggles to make friends, her “rude and foul-mouthed” (Matlwa 1) school friend Kate Jones is popular among her surroundings. Kate has “the most beautiful hair”. Her hair is “soft [and] curled slightly at its end” (Matlwa 1). It seems that Kate's white skin color and wonderful hair make other people ignore her bad character. She is not rich, but she has the advantage of being white. Another example is the attitude of Fikile's boss, Miss Becky. Before she employs Fikile, Miss Becky advises her to “do something about [her hair]. Fikile is not allowed to “come to work looking like that again” (Matlwa 122). Therefore, Fikile changes her black South African appearance. As in the previous paragraphs mentioned, she uses blonde hair extensions and lightens her skin. In consequence, Miss Becky starts to call Fikile "gorgeous" (Matlwa 119) and emphasizes how amazing she looks now. Miss Becky's new attitude towards her makes Fikile think that she is only “essential [...] to the functioning of Silver Spoon” (Matlwa 141) on the basis of her westernized appearance. Lessing explains that Apartheid still has ongoing effects in modern days, since it “has played a role in reinforcing the oppressive gender and race characteristics of South African society” (98). These present effects of Apartheid can be seen in Ofilwe's and Fikile's examples. Both girls suffer from injustice and disadvantages. Ofilwe and Fikile witness the privilege of being white directly. To sum up, one might infer that having a white skin color and western appearance enables many advantages in both social circles and workspaces.
Apart from having a negative self-perception and the wish to become white, westernized black women do also refuse to accept other black women in their circle of friends as they have a negative view of them as well. Khalifa argues that negative feelings and prejudices against Blacks are “existing primarily in the minds of the dominant group, as thus also in the minds of the assimilated” (260). In this case, the dominant group is the white society. Westernized Blacks are the assimilated ones. Since westernized black women strongly wish to be part of the white society, they do not only modify their appearance but also their view of certain people and their behavior. Based on assimilation, westernized Blacks perceive “differences between themselves and their stereotyped Blacks, and the references to the normalized, dominant (White) group” (Rodney, quoted in Khalifa 261). Therefore, they reproduce racist behavior and rejection of other Blacks. Referring to Matlwa's protagonists, Fikile reproduces a racist behavior as well. She is biased towards the black girls in her neighborhood. Hence, she refuses to play and become friends with these girls. Fikile explains to her grandmother that she does not want to go outside to the other black girls as they “are stupid” and cannot “speak English” (Matlwa 131). Moreover, she argues that they “spend the whole day […] talking about boys and laughing with old men so that they will buy them cold drinks” (Matlwa 131). Even Fikile's grandmother notices that she has changed and became biased towards Blacks. Matlwa's main character Fikile does only have these negative feelings towards the girls in her neighborhood because she does not perceive herself as one of them. She perceives herself more as a member of the white society and therefore, she “practices that run counter to [her] own racialized group” (Khalifa 260). Fikile is likely to denigrate every action of Blacks. Actually, “white [girls] could be [doing] the exact same thing [and would not be subject to [westernized Blacks] criticism]” (Daren, quoted in Khalifa 275). If there were white girls in Fikile's neighborhood who are only talking about boys and spending time with old men, she would probably not be avoiding and denigrating these girls. To conclude, westernized black females assimilate White's negative view of Blacks and are biased towards other black women. Hence, westernized black females do not accept other Blacks in their circle of friends.