Young people today are redefining the confines of physical expression and are reclaiming full ownership of their identities. The Gen Z innovators we see today are constantly reminding us that exceptional things can be done outside of a suit and tie.
Rigid expectations of who people should be, how they should act and appear have been imposed on people for centuries. Today, while these impositions still exist, young people are breaking out of the confines of respectability and professionalism and; as they decentre the traditional 9-5 mode of employment, there is more room for vivid expressions of self.
Self-expression transcends the superficial and it goes beyond physical presence. There is power in self-identification and few things are as empowering as being able to assert autonomy over your appearance. A major limiter to our right and ability to express ourselves is the concept of professionalism and how people are required to look a certain way to be taken seriously.
Professionalism is rooted in white supremacist ideals. The idea that certain appearances are professional while others are not and these supposedly professional appearances are anti-black. Black hair is not deemed professional and colonialism made us ditch our traditional formal attire in favour of the white man’s suit and tie, the pinnacle of “professional” appearance.
Tattoos, dreadlocks, piercings and, in general, how a person chooses to express and present themselves physically is not indicative of their abilities. Stereotyping is a very Nigerian problem, from law enforcement officers, SARS and co, who harass and extort people based on how they look to peddlers of respectability politics who also, in their own way, harass people who do not fit into the narrow mould of what passes as acceptable presentation.
Conservative fashion is out; creative, non-traditional fashion is in. The Nigerian “alté” or alternative scene is a prime example of how young people have shed traditional ideals of expression. First, it referred to music, a new sound by young people and for young people. Soon, it evolved to be even more than that and the alté fashion scene was born. Alté fashion draws inspiration from Y2K, grunge and goth fashion and ultimately, is very different from the conventional, conservative fashion that Nigerians favour.
Young Nigerians are locking and dyeing their hair, getting tattoos and dressing how they want. They are also producing exceptional art and music; creating employment and contributing to an era of creativity powered by youth.
Self-identification is more than physical presentation even though that’s important too. Identity is individual and only a person is allowed to define themselves. To deny people the liberty to do so is to deny them their freedom of expression and curtail their potential.
The rigidity of the confines of acceptable expression also continue to force people into a binary; present this way as a man and that way as a woman, no intersections. Gender itself is fluid and so, expressions of it can and should be too.
People have been defying the gender binary for ages and the young people today, who are considerably less conservative than generations before them, are no different. Gen Z Nigerians are also defying expectations of professionalism and creating communities and art that are undoubtedly imprinting on our collective history.