The Diet Dilemma

Upon discovering that I’m a vegetarian, my relatives respond in various ways. My uncle and brother, being practical African men with no time to waste on trivialities, immediately deal with the question at hand.

“Okay, what will you eat? Rice? Plantain?” A quick nod from me and the matter is closed.

But my grandmother is another story. She’s stumped. She hasn’t seen me in years, and the only appropriate way to make up for lost time seems to be to feed me as much as possible in the little time we have. But what do you feed a girl who doesn’t eat meat, or chicken, or fish? That rules out all manner of soups and without soup all hope is lost.

She’s already unhappy with me after discovering that I no longer go to church and have lost my rosary. I don’t want to shock her too much, so I don’t start going on about Zen, the human condition, the simplicity of a peaceful and compassionate life and my honest belief that God couldn’t be bothered with Hail Marys and Our Fathers. I sit there, feeling inexplicably guilt-ridden, wishing for a moment I was just a docile little girl who believes what her folks tell her to believe and eats what everyone else is eating. I experience a flash of frustration, followed by gratitude to my parents for raising me in an environment that allowed me to think for myself.

She asks the dreaded question – why on earth am I vegetarian? Rather than get into a long conversation about ethics, environmentalism, the global food crisis and the evils of modern agriculture, I take the easy way out and tell her I just don’t like the stuff. She’s baffled. She doesn’t seem to believe me when I tell her I enjoy food without meat. She gives me this look that suggests she’s going to humour me, even though she thinks I’m an idiotic, backwards apostate who has no real job, no direction and doesn’t even know how to say the rosary.

Then she asks, in a voice teetering on the edge of hope, “Do you eat eggs?”

Success! She leans back, satisfied, and my aunt goes off to the kitchen to boil me some. The fact that I have just eaten is irrelevant, as is the fact that I had egg stew for breakfast and scrambled eggs for lunch. I don’t want to be difficult, so boiled eggs it is. Three of them, to be exact, on a plate with a fork, as if everyone is convinced that this is what constitutes a lacto-ovo vegetarian meal. I’m practicing surrender. I say thank you and eat my boiled eggs without a word.

When my father comes to pick me up a few hours later, my grandmother decides that it would be unseemly for me to leave empty-handed. I’ll give you three guesses what her gift to me is. You got it – eggs. A little plastic bag filled with them, wrapped up so they don’t break, and I put them gingerly into my handbag and express my gratitude.

I have no idea what I’m going to do with them. I leave for Accra the next day and there’s no way I’m getting on a bus and travelling down our terrible roads with eggs in my bag. But I also understand that this is a gift from a grandmother who hardly ever gets to see me, and who is probably a little disappointed by how I’ve turned out. I’m practicing optimism, too, so I decide to look on the bright side: at least I won’t have to worry about breakfast.


Friends and Benefits

Poor you. There’s this girl you want to date, and she just wants to be friends. She’d rather hook up with some idiot and lean on you when he breaks her heart, because you’re the buddy she can trust.

Well, cry me a river. Look, I feel for you. Unrequited love is painful. But here’s the thing that you don’t seem to get – the fact that she’s not jumping your bones is a good thing. Did no one tell you? Jackasses get laid. A LOT. But we don’t value jackasses. We value nice guys.

Sex is awesome. It’s also complicated, brutal and manipulative; a massive power struggle. Even in a loving relationship there’s an element of that. When she says she likes you as a friend, maybe she means she wants you to go away and stop bugging her. Or maybe she means she likes you as a person rather than an object of desire. That’s a compliment.

So why is the friend zone seen as Siberia when it should be Shangri-La? We don’t choose who we lust after. Sexual attraction is moronic – we have no control over it. We do choose our friends. If we pick you it’s an honour, not an insult.

For most of my 20s the fact that I was attracted to a guy meant he was trouble. It was always the inappropriate one who happened to come along when I was too confused to realize that I didn’t really want what I thought I wanted. Relationships are a minefield. Everyone’s worried about what they can get rather than what they can offer, forgetting that the ability to love is the true gift and everything else is icing.

With my guy friends there’s no agenda. I can love them without pressure. It’s great to appreciate someone for his mind, heart, sense of humour, without being confused by chemicals that make my brain go hazy. It’s great to love someone and not need them, or need them to need me.

Our lovers have our bodies but our friends have our souls. The ideal romantic relationship combines both, and that’s tricky. Desire breeds expectation, expectation breeds resentment, and we’re still figuring out how to balance it. We live in a time when friendships last longer than marriages. Sex is easy and common. A real connection is rare. We’re looking for love, but we still don’t know how to appreciate it in all its forms.

You might get that perfect blend – a friend who is also a lover. Or you might hit a thousand dead ends. As long as you keep an open heart and mind, you’ll have a thousand wonderful experiences rather than a thousand failures. You’ll be glad you met them, rather than bitter that you lost them.

The search is part of the adventure. You know what you need on a great adventure, besides sensible shoes and perseverance? Friends. People who love you just because you exist. People who don’t need you to validate them or boost their egos.

Instead of “I don’t want to be your girlfriend – I think we should just be friends” maybe she’s saying “I don’t just want to be your girlfriend – I think we should be friends.” Maybe the guy she’s dating gets the side of her you never see, the side created by insecurity and conflict and drama. Maybe you got the better deal and don’t even know it.

Maybe less is more, and friendship IS the benefit.

Barbie Girl

I don’t get it.

Sure, I get the politics. I get the body-conscious palaver, the rage against the  beauty machine, the arguments for realism, variation and standards that don’t make girls want to kill themselves. That is clear to me. Clear, valid, justified. Completely.

Here’s what I don’t get. How is it that a whole world of young girls grew up seeing Barbie as anything more than a doll to play dress-up with? How did she become an icon?

For me, Barbie had no identity. I loved the dolls because they were small enough to work with. Barbie was nothing more than a blank canvas on which to paint my stories. Baby dolls were fine at first, but even an imagination as vivid as mine had trouble casting a diapered imitation of a child as a detective, or a scientist, or the queen of an imaginary kingdom. When I got my first Barbie I was thrilled. Something with legs and arms I could move, hair I could style and cut (bad idea) and, most importantly, a body I could put costumes on. Heaven.

ads 028

It didn’t occur to me that I was supposed to look at this plastic creation and see the figure I should have when I grew up. Much as I loved my dolls, their figures were frustrating. They didn’t have enough butt to fill out a pair of hand stitched pants. Their breasts were too big – when I needed a young girl or an extra boy I had to resort to careful styling. And those feet, designed for heels, were useless for actually standing, so all my characters had to sit or lean against something. But I was a professional, so I made it work.

When I grew up I began to understand that out there, in that mythical place referred to as “The West”, people were OBSESSED with Barbie. Not Barbie the doll, but Barbie the persona. The notion that Barbie had a persona to start with was news to me. My sister and I called our collection of Barbies and similar dolls “The Barbs”. They were an amalgamation of characters we had cooked up – journalists, police officers, undefined science types, fashion designers and pharmaceutical moguls.

All my fond memories of them are based on the stories they were cast in. Our first attempt at science fiction – a story we called Launch. Our boarding school stories, which required us to make grey and white uniforms. The Marguerite series, set in “the olden days”, the costumes for which required layers and layers of fabric.

cwToday the idea of parting with The Barbs is anathema. Not so much because of the dolls, though we love them, but because of all the stuff. Clothes upon clothes upon clothes, all made by hand with love. Accessories, also made or adapted (like the old buckles that turned into handbags). Shoes, handcrafted by Jamelia Choo (yes, we did) out of cardboard, elastic and bits of colourful string. Years of artwork we created for our countless “Barbie games”.

When I was studying art, I wrote a paper on Barbie. It was the first time I really understood that this toy was a celebrity in her own right. I was fascinated, disturbed and amused. Only in The West could such a thing happen. Africans had more important things to think about, right? Wrong. To my surprise there were scores of black girls out there who felt disenfranchised because the majority of dolls in the shops were white.

Sorry, but that just confused me. Forget a doll that looks like me – I wanted a doll that could change according to my whim. I want her to be a reptilian alien, a long-limbed ebony-skinned supermodel, and a hapless freckled redhead. I turned blonde ice-skaters into mixed-race security guards. How? Well, mostly by popping her head onto the body of a Ken doll, but sometimes by dressing her in baggy clothes and giving her a gruff voice. If I got sick of her hair, I changed it. To this day one of the Barbs has a wig, another has an ill-advised bob cut, and a third has braids that fall to her knees. It took me a whole day to do that, with actual hairpieces. I can’t complain about the way they looked when I got them. I barely remember how they looked when I got them. Mattel gave me a blank canvas, and I painted a masterpiece.

There are many issues involved in the Barbie debate and I appreciate all of them. A global toy company should cater for all types of children, especially in this day and age. I’m up there with all the others, waving my placards. But my issues are with Mattel, not Barbie. Why blame her for the shortcomings of her creators? It’s not her fault she’s white and skinny with a chest that defies gravity. The truth is I don’t give a damn what Barbie looks like. If I have my way, she won’t look that way for long.

One day I might have a kid who doesn’t think the way I do. God forbid she is one of those people who (gasp, shudder!) keep all their dolls in their original clothing. I’ll get her a doll she can identify with, but I’ll also get her scissors, paint and a sewing kit. You know, just in case.

You’re Sexy (And you don’t know it)

You might wonder why I’m fanning myself on a winter evening. It’s cold out there, but it’s hot in here. For one thing, your tie is showing. Then there’s the suit that drapes seductively over your broad, manly shoulders, the utterly indecent haircut you got two days ago, your jaw-dropping grasp of whatever it is you’re rambling about with such titillating eloquence…

I’m at a disadvantage. You’re seducing me shamelessly and I can’t return the favour; you’ve already told me I remind you of your mother. I wanted to wear that other outfit, the one so tight I can barely breathe in it, but I was told it was too revealing. Ha. No mother ever said to her son, “Cover up those sneakers – they’re too revealing.” No one tells a man that his flashy car is too sexy for the office, or that his shirt makes him look like a whore. When a successful man is accosted by a horde of adoring females, no one says, “He asked for it. Did you see how expertly tailored his suit was?” Well, they should. Because here’s a little something no one thinks about – suits are sexy.

A girl might need a cold shower after watching a well-dressed man walk past. But he’s allowed to be sexy. She’s not. When people think about sex they envision the female form, because apparently that’s all it’s good for. A naked man is comical, or awkward, or creepy. A naked man can mean anything. A naked woman means sex. It’s as though women’s bodies exist for no purpose other than arousing or refraining from arousing men’s desire. No one thinks about what arouses our desire. Yes, that’s right – we get turned on, too. We get tempted. Why aren’t the moral police clamouring for men to be less sexually provocative? I’ll tell you why – they don’t know that women get turned on, and if they did, they’d assume we get turned on by the same thing as men. Newsflash, boys – we’re far more subtle.

So here’s my suggestion. If women are not allowed to be sexually provocative in public, then neither are men. No more wearing snazzy suits in public. No more speaking eloquently and with admirable authority in public. No more flaunting your success, athletic prowess, or business savvy. By all means, be a sexy hotshot go-getter. Just not where I can see you.

It’s not fair that I’m subjected to your suave sophistication or your Levis jeans that fit just so. It’s not right that you throw your obscenely expensive musky fragrance at me, along with your polished leather shoes, your articulate manner, your five o-clock shadow, your artful bedhead. Stop shaking your naked ambition in my face! It’s downright immoral!

I’ll cover my chest, hips, butt, lower back – whatever bits get you worked up. You cover your intelligence, earning potential, efficiency, and charm. I’ll try not to tempt you, and you try not to tempt me. If I can wear a long skirt, you can wear a cheap suit. If I can forgo that low-cut top, you can forgo that pimped-out ride. I’ll cover up. You shut up.

Do we have a deal?

Soap Opera 101

There are people who say you can’t learn anything from watching the soaps. They say such fare is frivolous, ridiculous and completely over the top. I am one of those people. I can actually hear my brain cells frying each time I watch the Days of Our Lives.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that a lot of the things I know today, I learned from watching the soaps when I was a kid. For example, almost everything I knew about the legal system as a kid came from typical soap opera episodes.

Thanks to Santa Barbara, I knew what a subpoena was long before I learned to tie my laces. I also knew that a capital crime was one that could get you executed (courtesy of Days of our Lives). The phrases “Objection, Your Honour!” and “Overruled” were as familiar to me as homework, and all my friends could quote the Miranda Rights. The Bold and the Beautiful educated me about DNA, paternity tests and custody battles, and introduced me to the wedding march, wedding vows and wedding crashers, as well as adultery, incest and alimony.

It was because of soap operas that I figured out where babies came from years ahead of the awkward videos we were shown at school, and that I developed a firm belief that the truth always comes out in the end. Soap operas gave me faith in true love and sexy lingerie, but made me wary of maternity wards, twins and anyone wearing black leather gloves or a massive ring with a strange symbol on it.

My exposure to in-vitro fertilization came courtesy of Sunset Beach, my first encounter with a non-stereotypical gay character happened with Isidingo, and Generations opened the door to advertising accounts, pitches, campaigns, and upper-class black people who drink orange juice with breakfast. Every morning, too.

The Sibeko Family on Isidingo

The Sibeko Family on Isidingo

How clever I felt when kids whispered that kissing got you pregnant, and I declared smugly, “It does not!” Everyone who watched the soaps knew that two characters had to roll around naked in satin sheets before babies were written into the script. Duh! And, naturally, all soap watchers are familiar with the terms “ulterior motive”, “vendetta” and “ultimatum”. At ten, my vocabulary was second to none.

It’s rather incredible to me that I manage to maintain my disdain of the soap opera industry despite all the wonderful (and not so wonderful) ideas it put into my young head. Honestly, if it weren’t for Brooke Logan I’d never know that it’s really creepy to sleep with all the men in one family. If it weren’t for the Bradys of Salem it would never have occurred to me that if I really love someone I’ll be able to “feel it” when he’s alive and trapped on a desert island, even though I saw his body go up in flames.

I would never know that nice guys (and girls) don’t have to finish last, after all. At least not in soap opera world, where all the sweetest people are in love with each other and all the evil people (who also happen to be exceptionally good-looking) have to resort to kidnapping and blackmail in order to get their hooks into decent partners. Oh, if only…

Home and Away revealed that people in Australia walk around in bikinis and shorts all day, sans make-up, baring freckles, spots, love handles etc…and everyone still thinks they’re so hot. The show also made me realize, for the first time, that children can’t age sixteen years in three seasons. No, those folks age in real time, baby. They’re betting on a seriously dedicated fan base. God Bless Summer Bay!

But nothing trumps my enviable soap-based medical knowledge. Years before McDreamy’s hair won Meredith Grey’s heart, I knew all about blood types, rare diseases, mysterious skin disorders, cancer (the number one killer of soap opera characters), bone marrow transplants and miracle cures. I watched as tireless doctors who specialized in every condition under the sun pronounced people dead, only to have them rise from the ashes. I was initiated into the world of unattended scrubs, slippery scalpels and super-fast surgeries, and experienced vicariously the infamous awful hospital coffee.

There’s no doubt in my mind that soap operas remain the most outlandish form of entertainment in existence. Fantasy novelists have nothing on the folks behind Passions and Days. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that my years as a reluctant soap fan have done wonders for me. Thanks to the ageless stars of these shows, I now know that when I’m fifty and looking forward to my first grandchild, I won’t look a day over 25.

Second Skins

I hate skinny jeans. I have nothing good to say about them. They are unflattering and impossible to get into and out of. They were obviously designed by skeletal humanoid aliens with no hips or feet.

And yet, for some unfathomable reason, EVERYBODY wears them. Skinny jeans with ballet flats, skinny jeans with Converse sneakers, skinny jeans with stilettos, skinny jeans with Uggs. All that soft flesh and toned muscle begging for release…to no avail.

WHY??? I stare in wonder at women of all shapes and sizes, in their skinny Levis and skinny Miss Sixtys, and ask myself: Don’t they chafe? I imagine the constant friction, denim against skin, and those designer crotches riding up, up and away… And when the skinnies are teamed with a nylon thong – in summer – the only possible result is thrush.

I love clothes as much as the next girl, but I also love being able to walk down the street without a desperate urge to scratch in sacred places. Of course, the skinny squad might say that their uniform is an acquired taste. I can’t escape the fact that skinny jeans mysteriously look good on a lot of women. Just not on me, apparently.

This has nothing to do with my opinion on the trend. I mean, sure, skinny jeans expose all the flaws I try so hard to cover up. In those jeans my knees, where I seem to deposit almost every bit of fat on my body, tend to stretch the fabric to breaking point, and I hear sinister rustling noises every time I walk…

OK. So I have a personal vendetta against skinny jeans. But I know I’m not alone in my dislike of another fashion statement. I’m talking about jeans that were clearly made for women with small behinds, but into which those with generous butts will squeeze with no thought of the consequences. Those consequences are not pretty. No one wants to be treated to an eyeful of plumber’s crack every time someone leans over. To make matters worse, these ill-fitting jeans are almost always paired with equally ill-fitting underwear – the kind that seems to vanish southwards when most needed.

Women the world over! It is time to accept that, unlike Britney Spears circa 2000, whose pants were laced with sorcery that kept them intact no matter how much she gyrated, the rest of us have to simply invest in jeans that fit – or throw on a belt. And as for skinny jeans… if you can wear them without flinching, I applaud you. I only hope that you won’t ever have to be cut out of them. Not that that’s ever happened to me…