THE LIKEABILITY PROBLEM
Updated: Jul 18
“Do you know Monica Lewinsky had sexual relations with Bill Clinton?” I asked my family at three years old.
At five, my uncle nearly killed me for shaving my brows off.
My mom kept the same energy when she found out I was leaving class to tell my elementary school principal to get a grip on the students writing curse words in the bathroom stall.
Clearly being on the “nice” list was not my goal.
I went through my childhood with that same fire and passion, until something changed.
Growing up, I listened in on conversations my aunties and uncles would have, where they would frequently criticize women and girls.
They usually went like this,
“Sade is such a good girl we never hear anything negative about her."
"Remi is never rude, anything you tell her to do she will do.”
Uncles who had no intentions of committing to their girlfriends would say things like,
“I like Sandra she lets me say whatever I want, she's never offended. She doesn't go out.”
Other times, the conversation would be,
“My son cannot marry Ola, that girl always talks back, just watch she'll sleep around when she's older.”
“I bet she got it from her mother.”
“Must Grace always go out?”
“Why is she wearing that?”
I toggled between being their version of good, and being myself.
When I was myself, direct and unafraid of confrontation, people would tell me I was too mean.
Slowly I let those words quench my fire.
A natural overachiever, I was going to make the good list.
I was always respectful and careful to smile when spoken to. No matter how difficult or strenuous the request, I would accept.
Even when I was made uncomfortable, I would continue smiling.
On the flip side, boys my age were free to disobey and interact any way they pleased.
Any mistakes they made people dismissed as boys will be boys.
When I was right I would make myself wrong.
Sit properly, stand properly, scoop the rice properly, be sweet even when you don't want to be.
All the overachieving Nigerian girls were the same way.
When my sister friend Azizah was graduating college, I had to convince her to tell her parents she didn't like her graduation dress and that she would like to exchange it.
Time and time again, girls stay silent and sweet when men make them uncomfortable because they don't want to overreact.
They want to still be seen as respectful, and they allow themselves to be taken advantage of.
Girls who have been sexually harassed and abused, blame themselves and cry in the dark, because they didn't want the social exchange to go the wrong way.
Everyone loves a “good girl”, but not the girl who is authentically herself.
What people really like is a girl who happily and quietly accepts anything sent her way.
The girl who goes out of her way to please other people, and live by their definitions.
This societal version of a good girl has no boundaries. Ask her how she is feeling, depleted is her answer.
Nigerian culture does not allow for full womanhood, you are either wild or good.
The rebels were disliked, but they had all the fun and lived the fullest lives.
I allowed people to take advantage of me, and disrespect me because only bad girls fought back.
I soon became worn out from making myself uncomfortable to make others comfortable.
As agreeable as I was, people still had a problem with me.
Everyone got what they wanted from me and I was left with nothing but possible approval.
I traipsed into a bookshop during a shopping trip and saw a little purple book, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's and titled, Dear Ijeawale.
I sat and read it in the store.
There was a chapter that read,
“Teach her to reject likeability, her job is not to make her self likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.”
That is when it dawned on me that every moment that I stayed silent when I was supposed to be loud, was me embracing likeability.
The truth is we are liked often times because we can be controlled, the version of "good" people speak of is a person who is always compromising.
These days I'm determined to say no when I mean no and to not accept what I don't want.
I speak up and speak my truth.
I don't always nail it, but it's important to speak even when there are no words.
Approval is not enough currency for my freedom.
Words by Oyinda A