A messy high ponytail, errant wisps framing my head in a stringy, sticky halo. Surprised eyes. Darker skin than I remembered. But still me, in some alien way.
I haven’t seen a full length mirror or put on makeup since Philadelphia.
In Ouaga, our only mirrors were hanging above the sinks in the shared bathroom. A light film of dust and grime on the surface. One half broken because Rachel tried to kill a mosquito on it.
In Leo, there are no mirrors. I pull my hair into a ponytail, put semi-clean clothes onto my body, and bike to class.
I feel lighter living like this. I scarcely remember what I look like. My weight is the last thing on my mind. I think often of my Parisian self, who rarely left the péniche without a flick of winged eyeliner and a smear of red lipstick. She seems like a different woman sometimes. Was that really just a few months ago?
Any vanity I once had has been worn away here, not wholly by choice, but by the shifting norms of femininity of my new home.
My notions of femininity growing up were shaped by my mother, a woman that was slightly more glamorous in her youth, but in motherhood, disliked makeup, never shaved, and dressed in mostly jeans and t-shirts. A blessedly uncomplicated upbringing until middle school when other girls started to buy makeup and designer bags, shave their legs and date boys. As a girl, I struggled to come to terms with that particular version of femininity.
Paris was a transformative experience in many ways. I was on the brink of adulthood, an ocean away from who I used to be. Everywhere, I saw effortlessly elegant women that I yearned to be. I started dating, bought makeup for the first time, started dressing differently to adapt my appearances and behaviors to my new surroundings.
Here, Burkinabé women are feminine and physically strong. Yet restricted in many ways. Coming here as American women, we have become a third gender. We’re not expected to fall into the restrictive gender norms of females here, and we gain some of the social power that men possess. It’s a strange liminal space that we’re just starting to discover. In a certain respect, we have an advantage over the male volunteers, as we are able to traverse both the world of men and women, whereas often the men are restricted to the male side. Despite the relative freedoms we are allowed as foreigners, the fear of sexual assault is perpetually present in my social interactions with men—vestigial instincts from growing up in rape culture. It’s a strange experience to be so acutely aware of my place in society as a woman, yet not have the constant awareness of my physical appearance.
It feels like a return to the femininity that I was accustomed to as a young girl, a version that is stripped of the material trappings of womanhood that are impractical in this new setting.