We’ve seen a consistent theme of identity and its relation to beauty standards throughout Adichie’s Americanah. There are a lot of discussions about natural vs relaxed hair, skin bleaching, and how people dress. Another aspect of that, perhaps a little less developed, is body size and body image. Before moving to America, Ifemelu is depicted as skinny – Obinze often teases her about not having a butt. Once she leaves Nigeria, she gains weight and becomes curvy. Her weight gain is perfectly fine and depicted as normal – her life continues improving, and she has healthy romantic relationships. It’s almost better that Adichie avoids focusing heavily on her weight gain; it’s mentioned, sure, but it isn’t a huge part of who Ifemelu is. This is a unique handling of a character’s weight. In many books and movies, a larger character shedding pounds is an active part of the story and a pivotal point for that character. Ifemelu’s ability to still be fully herself, just with some added weight, creates an important dialogue. Many young people go through a period of rather sudden weight loss or gain that can leave them feeling alone or insecure. Seeing a strong woman like Ifemelu owning her curves is helpful for anyone struggling with body or self-esteem issues.
Ifemelu does view women of different sizes in different ways. Her friend Ranyinudo, who she lives with for a while after returning to Nigeria, is described as having a “luxurious, womanly slowness to her gait” (480). Ifemelu notes rolls and the movement of her behind, and although she doesn’t explicitly say it, the reader can infer from this description that Raniynudo is not a skinny woman. However, this isn’t used to degrade her – in Ifemelu’s eyes, it makes her powerful. She similarly notes another woman on the street, using her size to show her power. On the other hand, Zemaye is said to be slender, with a small waist and high breasts. Although she is less physically powerful, she is shown as more of an authoritative figure simply through her frame and the way she carries herself. Ifemelu thinks at one point that the way Zemaye moves makes her want to lose weight. Ifemelu’s comparison to Zemaye exemplifies inherent insecurities that many people experience, but she avoids following that thought, showing the reader that she’s comfortable with herself. It’s also important to note that even though Ifemelu does notice size and it influences the way she views different characters, she does not shame anyone for how big or small they are. The way she observes size fits in well with the modern but developing culture of size-inclusivity and acceptance.
There are a lot of things that I really like about Americanah‘s protagonist, Ifemelu. She’s strong-willed and independent (for the most part), and she isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes in. She expresses herself well through writing and works to stay true to her identity. That being said, her relationship habits are a major character flaw. It’s certainly true that a flawed character is generally more likable than a perfect character, but Ifemelu’s pattern of infidelity and her tendency to purposely antagonize her boyfriends is hard to look past. She indulges her whims without a second thought, and then gets angry when someone is rightfully upset by her actions.
Don’t get me wrong – I believe that people should be free to do whatever they want. But when a character is involved in a healthy and committed relationship, cheating isn’t something that I can support. Ifemelu’s first case of disloyalty is during her relationship with Curt. She has sex once with Rob, a man from her apartment building who she barely knows, and plans on a second meeting, but leaves before anything happens. After telling Curt, he lashes out in anger and she devolves into a period of self-pity punctured with attempts to win him back. She has a hard time accepting that he doesn’t want to interact with her, even though she was the one who cheated.
Later in the novel, after Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria, we see a similar situation. The major difference is that this time, she’s the mistress. Obinze is married and has a child, but they both make the decision to engage in a sexual relationship that ultimately breaks Obinze’s family. When Obinze invites her on the business trip but later apologizes and says he needs to go alone, Ifemelu cuts off all contact with him. I understand that she is upset and disappointed, but behaving in such a petty way is uncalled for. She’s more than happy to maintain their relationship so long as he doesn’t talk about his wife – and the moment he mentions her in passing, she withdraws angrily. Again, like with Curt, she struggles with accepting responsibility and the reality of their situation.
A not-as-obvious example occurs when Ifemelu moves to America. Even though she slowly loses touch with Obinze, she enters into sexual relationships with other men while he still believes that they’re together. Depression deeply affects a person and is likely part of why she treated him in such a way, but after such a long and serious relationship, one would think that she would consider his feelings a little more. She also has a bad habit of saying things that she knows will hurt her partner and saying them anyways, just to see what happens. We see this repeated in every relationship she has. Overall, I truly enjoy Ifemelu as a character, even though her repeated infidelity takes away some of my appreciation for her.
Adichie discusses identity a lot in Americanah. Hair is a huge part of identity, and dialogues about natural, braided, and relaxed hair are common through the novel. Cultural identity and how to retain it is another major theme. The reader watches several characters, including Ifemelu, Obinze, and Aunty Uju, struggle through crises of identity when they move to a new country. Both Obinze and Ifemelu spend some time working under someone else’s name, which makes it even more difficult to hold on to one’s true self.
Another big aspect of Ifemelu’s identity, perhaps a bit less developed but no less important than other parts, is her blog. Ifemelu’s blogging was an extension of herself, a way for her to vent when needed and share her experiences with other people. She was free to write about anything, and she was allowed to be as sarcastic as she wanted. She could start important dialogues and show people different points of view. With her new job at Zoe, all of that freedom is in the past. She goes through interview after interview that are basically the same; she even wonders if she could write an accurate article without even interviewing the woman she was writing about. The expectations of her boss make her feel trapped. Now, of course, Aunty Onenu reserves the right to moderate Ifemelu’s writing, as it is her publication, but this is still a major loss of identity. As her time at Zoe drags on, she has to deal with bickering, annoying coworkers and regulations on her writing, and she isn’t able to blog about her frustrations the way she used to. If she still had her blog, she could’ve written a snappy post about how women are conditioned to tear each other down or how important the freedoms of speech and press are, or something similarly important and relevant. Ifemelu is not a passive, quiet woman, and without the ability to express herself, a large piece of her identity is stifled.
When Ifemelu finally returns to Nigeria, there are immediate parallels between her arrival in America and her journey home. Disappointment is a major factor. One of the first things she noticed about America was that the billboards were matte; she had expected everything to be shiny and bright. She also held many other perceptions that were disproved through her experiences in the United States, like those of quick success and happiness. Upon returning to Nigeria, she is instantly critical of her surroundings. There are potholes in the roads and the homes are falling apart; at first, she can only see the negative. She experiences culture shock when returning to her own culture. Nothing is as she remembers it. Even things as trivial as phone numbers have changed. However, we see her start to embrace Nigeria again, especially with the malts. This slow re-acceptance mirrors the hesitant happiness that she eventually discovered in America.
Another big connection the reader can make in this section is between Ifemelu and Curt’s relationship and Ranyinudo’s relationship with Don, the married CEO. Ifemelu eventually finds success in America through her blog, but before that, all of her happiness and success stemmed from her relationship with Curt. He got her a job, and their relationship changed her. She slipped into the identity of “Curt’s girlfriend” and began to feel entitled because she was with such a privileged man. She relied on him a bit too heavily at times. We see this same relationship dynamic between Ranyinudo and Don. She doesn’t fend for herself; she relies on him to get her a new car and buy her tickets to London. She lives where “things fell from the sky” (481). Without him, she wouldn’t have the same sense of privilege. These relationships also parallel that of Aunty Uju and the General, from much earlier in the novel. Again, she relies on him to provide her with everything she wants and needs. She is not self-sufficient, and the changes she has to make after his death are drastic. We did get to see Aunty Uju and Ifemelu move past those dependent relationships; perhaps Ranyinudo will undergo a similar development.
Trigger warnings: suicide, drug abuse
I’ve previously written about Adichie’s use of mental illness in her novel Americanah, and I’d like to again applaud her. In chapter 41, Ifemelu’s cousin Dike attempts suicide by taking an entire bottle of Tylenol and anti-nausea pills. The way the author shows this attempt is realistic, and she avoids a lot of the preconceptions of mental illness that we see repeated in literature.
Dike’s actions are shocking and unexpected, much like many real-life suicides. His method is revealing of his mental state. The inclusion of anti-nausea pills to prevent his body from rejecting the overdose means (at least to me) that this was not a spur-of-the-moment decision or a cry for attention. This was a premeditated and intentional action, and even though Adichie doesn’t explicitly mention it until later in the novel, the reader can infer with a fair amount of certainty that Dike is suffering from a mental illness (or illnesses). This wouldn’t necessarily be unusual, as illness does tend to run in families, and Ifemelu suffered from depression earlier in the novel. An important concept here is the lack of any prior indicators of Dike’s attempt. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t there; it just means that Aunty Uju and Ifemelu didn’t know what to look for. There are warning signs of suicidal intentions, but not everyone knows how to recognize them or what to do if they see someone who needs help.
We see a lot of literary stereotypes surrounding mental illness. Quiet teens who wear a lot of black and write sad poetry – sound familiar? Illness is often used as a plot device to drive the protagonist into a relationship with someone who ultimately “fixes” them. While that might be nice to read about, it doesn’t represent reality. Anyone can be mentally ill or bullied or abused, meaning that anyone can be pushed to attempt suicide. Dike might not fit the suicidal stereotype, since he’s physically healthy and athletic and well-adapted to life in America, but here’s the thing: suicide doesn’t have a type. The way Adichie completely avoids sugarcoating or romanticizing Dike’s attempt makes his experience crucial to broadening the conception of the mentally ill.
Some of the most central ideas in Adichie’s Americanah revolve around people moving to foreign countries to pursue what they believe to be a better life. We see this repeated with Aunty Uju, Ifemelu, and Obinze, and while they each have a different experience, there are underlying similarities. They all encounter degradation and hardship upon arriving in their new country.
Both America and England are often built up as perfect places where anyone can do anything. All three of our characters fall for those false conceptions. Ifemelu is surprised when she sees matte billboards in New York; she thought that everything in America, even the most mundane things, would be glossy and sparkly. As we watch her cycle through self-prostitution, oppression, and mental illness, the reader learns that America isn’t all Ifemelu thought it to be. Aunty Uju has a similar experience. After the General dies, leaving her stranded and penniless with a new baby, she decides to move to America to pursue a better life. However, once she gets there, she loses her cheery demeanor and the dignity she held back home in Nigeria. Her braids are messy, she has ingrown hairs, and her pants don’t fit her correctly. She also pursues a relationship with Bartholomew based solely on financial need, and disregards her own son in doing so. Obinze encounters difficulty in London. As a man with a college education, he ends up cleaning bathrooms under someone else’s name. His move also puts a tremendous amount of strain on his relationship with his mother, and they become estranged. We also see a bitter side to Obinze that hasn’t been brought out before; without knowing Ifemelu’s situation or history in America, he disregards her apology email without a second thought.
These characters also each encounter a crisis of identity. It manifests in different ways. For Aunty Uju, it’s shown in how she lets go of her physical appearance. Her looks used to be a source of pride, and her hair especially was an extension of her identity; failing to keep to those self-set standards shows how her perception of herself changes after coming to America. Ifemelu is similarly represented. I’ve written a lot about her hair, as it’s a big part of who she is, and her decision to relax it shows her losing a bit of herself. She also has to find work under someone else’s name, and therefore must force herself into being someone new. Obinze also works under someone else’s name in England. Overall, these characters may have been much better off had they stayed in Nigeria. Staying true to oneself while trying to conform to a new society and simultaneously working with someone else’s name results in a twisted self-image that fundamentally changes these three characters.
I want to start by saying that I do not presume to have insight into the experiences of African or African-American women with natural hair; I am what Ifemelu refers to as “the white kind of curly”. However, there are some parallels between my experience with curls and Ifemelu’s struggles with her natural hair.
My 3A curl pattern didn’t fully emerge until 3rd grade. Curly hair is a recessive gene in my family, so both of my parents have straight hair, and they were just as clueless as me when it came to caring for curls. For years, I put it in buns and ponytails and braids, tucked it away under headbands and hats, or brushed it out and let it puff into a frizzy mass. Before middle school, I got comments regularly from friends, relatives, and even a few strangers about how much prettier my hair would be if I straightened it. Those words, even when meant to be positive, can damage a young girl; embracing my hair when everyone around me wanted to change it seemed impossible. During middle school, I was obsessed with straight hair. Having unique hair was too much for a shy pre-teen to handle. But no matter how much I tried to burn the curl out with my mom’s straightening iron set to the highest temperature, it just didn’t look right. It was too thick to lay flat, and if I encountered humidity, my curls would quickly reappear. In eighth grade I Googled “how to make curly hair permanently straight”, and I discovered relaxers, like the ones Ifemelu uses. My mom refused to let me use the chemicals (which I am so grateful for today), so I resigned to straightening as often as I could. Like Ifemelu’s burn from the hot comb, I suffered many minor burns from my iron. By the time I started wearing my hair curly, it was so heat-damaged and brittle that I cut off almost 8 inches so it could grow back healthy.
It took me a long time to embrace and learn to care for my hair – I only started wearing it natural during sophomore year. I still get comments about how nice and “tame” my hair would look if I straightened it more often. When I do straighten my hair, I don’t feel like myself, and going back to curls the next day feels like coming home. My hair is a very distinctive and definitive part of who I am. Now, obviously, my struggle towards acceptance hasn’t been as trying as Ifemelu’s. People have far fewer conceptions about white women with curly hair than about African women – I cannot imagine straightening my hair for an interview out of fear of appearing unprofessional – but having finally embraced my hair, I truly appreciate Ifemelu’s hair journey and her decision to let it be natural.