A Different Kind of Beauty
I was standing near the doorway of Beeman’s Afro Caribbean supermarket, aged 14, with my hands around my throat. Nothing particularly dramatic was happening; I was looking at my reflection in the shop window, squeezing my neck, trying to re-imagine it looking…
I ran my fingers up and down the ridges, like you would a xylophone, and poked and prodded at the rings of my striated neck. It isn’t a medical condition, there’s nothing wrong with me. It’s actually an ethnic characteristic.
But at the time it was the bane of my existence.
About five minutes earlier, a woman whom I had never met in my life had struck up a conversation with my mum. She claimed she had been able to tell, just by looking at us, where in Ghana we were from. My mum and this woman talked in Twi for a while. I could understand, but chose to stare at the brightly coloured scotch bonnet peppers until I had zoned out. A chubby finger suddenly made a jab at my neck and I recoiled.
“She doesn’t like it,” said my mum.
“You don’t like it?” asked this woman incredulously.
She pointed to her own neck, a ladder of rings leading up to a rounded head.
“It’s beautiful. It means something to our people.”
I smiled politely but remained unconvinced. How can any part of a body mean anything? Having this neck meant bullying and teasing.
I didn’t care one bit about our people. I just wanted to look normal.
Mum would liken my neck to the Tower of David in her commendable attempts to empower me. I would nod, all the while hoping it would disappear as I got older.
I wished the same for my other features:
I would use my forefinger and my thumb to measure the wideness of my nose, and then push my glasses down to squash the end of it in the hopes of making it narrower.
I would pinch and pull the bridge: I would lament the fullness of my top lip.
In short: I hated the features that made me look African.
Almost 2 years after the encounter outside Beemans, I was attending summer school at University College London. We took a little excursion to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, a museum of sorts. I browsed as I often do in places like these, slowly and nodding slightly, trying extremely hard to get it.
An exhibit encased in glass stood in the far corner of the room, filled with what seemed at first glance to be an assortment of random clay objects. As we filed round in apathetic silence I peered in and was met with the clay stare of an African face. Underneath the sculpture was a label.
Akan Memorial Head.
After the initial shock came excitement.
Akan is the name of my people.
I looked at the ancient terracotta head and saw things I recognized, things I had never seen in any magazine or on any TV show. At least not all on the same head:
The flattened face, the broad sloping forehead, the eyes shaped like almonds, the narrow nose bridge, even the eyebrows shaped like semi-circles. All these were on a head supported by that layered neck. That was the first time I saw the word striated.
That was the first time I had the vocabulary to describe the feature that had disturbed me so much. I wasn’t disturbed in that moment, however. I was curious.
I memorised as much of the information as I could and went home obsessed with finding out more. My first point of contact was mum, of course. I described the sculpture to her, and found images of similar sculptures. We talked about the Akan peoples, about others who had ringed necks, about my great great grand uncle J B Danquah, one of the founding fathers of independent Ghana. I stared at his face on a slightly crumpled Cedi note looking for the resemblance.
I was content enough at the time with this. I showed off the picture of the memorial head at school the moment I got the chance. I would still prod myself in the mirror from time to time, but with nowhere near the amount of anger and frustration as before. However, it was only recently, that I did some deeper research into the memorial heads. I remembered what that woman had said to me now almost 8 years ago, about my neck having meaning.
I learned that the memorial heads were made to commemorate an Akan leader when they died. Fascinating as this was, there was something specific I was looking for: I wanted to know about the facial features, I wanted to know about the neck. The elongated ‘egg’ shaped head, another source of teasing, I learned was ‘an emblem of creation as well as continuity, rebirth, and regeneration’.
I remembered mum telling me about parents who would gently mold their babies’ heads while they were still soft. With mild suspicion, I asked her if she had done this. She joked that it was the forceps. At last I came across what I wanted to read:
the segmented necks, the layers of fat underneath the skin, were symbols of beauty, health and prosperity among the Akan.
The features I had loathed for making me feel ugly were the features that linked me to my ancestors, to a large tribe of people, to a different idea of beauty, and to so many others walking around today, perhaps hating their features, in the dark about their significance like I was. I read that the heads of these memorial effigies were tilted upwards, eyes carved closed in an expression of serenity.
And so I went and stood in front of the mirror again, I closed my eyes and tilted my head upwards, hands wrapping around my neck, not in a stranglehold this time, but in an embrace.