CHICAGO — For Itunuoluwa Ebijimi, shea butter always has been key to her survival and self-care.
For six years, Ebijimi has sold her handmade shea butter mixes under her Petty Butter skincare line, on a mission to “eliminate ashiness and instill self-preservation” with every lotion she sells. Petty Butter is part of Ebijimi’s lifelong connection to shea butter, helping her adjust to Chicago winters, and heal from trauma and depression to develop a healthier relationship with her body.
But the Black queer entrepreneur is fighting to keep her business alive.
The pandemic has taken its toll on Ebijimi’s health and slowed production of Petty Butter to a near halt. Funds are low, orders have stopped, and securing stable housing has been difficult, Ebijimi said. Keeping the dream of Petty Butter going has been difficult. But letting it go and denying customers a homemade, loving product that works isn’t an option, she said.
“I go back and forth about quitting every day, but I know in my heart that Petty Butter is my destiny,” Ebijimi said. “I’m lost right now, but I have so much to offer.”
‘Petty Butter gave me a safe space to express myself’
Ebijimi has loved the idea of pampering oneself since childhood, she said.
As a teenager growing up in Rogers Park, she liked reading “beauty books” and learning DIY beauty recipes. Creating music also was a gateway to freedom and happiness.
Those careers were out of the picture in her household, she said.
“I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but being Nigerian American and having a parent who immigrated to this country to better your life and their family’s narrows your vision of what is possible and acceptable,” Ebijimi said. “There was no option for me to play the drums or sing in a rock band. I didn’t see any possibility of having a happy life. I felt like my path was predetermined and had to be in the academic field.”
Ebijimi struggled with depression and anxiety, she said. She didn’t feel seen or heard. Pursuing her dreams seemed impossible. She missed dozens of high school classes and almost didn’t graduate, she said.
But programs at Gallery 37, a venue for youth, after-school programs, gave her a voice and an outlet. She held on to that love for skincare beauty, too, she said.
Ebijimi finally pursued her passion for arts as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, but her mental health deteriorated again. In 2016, she won $1,000 through a school program to travel wherever she wanted to go, she said.
The 20-year-old decided it was time to head back to her roots in Lagos, Nigeria, to “absorb the culture and be with family,” she said.
Ebijimi stayed in Lagos nearly two months. She had a violent altercation with a relative two days before she returned home.
“I failed classes. It immobilized me,” Ebijimi said. “It made me slut shame myself and doubt myself sexually. It made me doubt my sensuality and if I had a right to my sensuality.”
The trip still had one silver lining. She’d seen women in Nigeria craft and sell their shea butter and black soap at markets. Inspired by their work, she brought their products back home.
That laid the groundwork for what became Petty Butter, she said.
“Petty Butter’s inception coincided with the return of my mental health journey because, after a year of not dealing with that assault, I went back to therapy and committed myself to heal myself and dealing with the internalized issue of shame,” Ebijimi said. “Petty Butter gave me a safe space to express myself and forced me to deal with my mental health to rise to the occasion to be good enough to be the founder of the business.”
When Ebijimi crafts Petty Butter, she does so with “an energy of lightness and weightlessness,” she said. Each product is made with confidence and “self-assurance,” the meaning of her birth name in Yoruba.
She only makes Petty Butter when she feels her best, she said.
“I don’t like making Petty Butter moves when I’m lacking confidence because I feel like that energy can be transferred over to the product, and I don’t want to make it from a desperate place,” Ebijimi said. “I want my product to be a vehicle for my patrons to connect with themselves, a partner, and other people.”
After the physical assault, it was important for her to reconnect with her body, she said. Moisturizing and grooming the body is a way to “self connect,” she said.
She wants everyone to experience that intimacy when they use Petty Butter, she said.
“Petty Butter isn’t the end all be all, but I hope it acts as a safe portal to self-care as it did for me,” Ebijimi said. “I believe what my ancestors believe. Shea butter can be a direct vehicle that connects you with your destiny and provides a space for you to align yourself with your goals and intentions.”
Like most self-made business owners, Ebijimi is barely hanging on.
Before the world shut down, she worked as a DJ, The Wife of Wrath, to fund Petty Butter. But Ebijimi juggles multiple chronic illnesses, so risking her health to play a set in an unprotected space hasn’t been worth the trouble, she said.
Her side hustle no longer an option, Ebijimi applied for a commercial kitchen license and a business license so she could sell her products in stores, she said. The city denied both.
Ebijimi started a GoFundMe to raise $65,000 for a Petty Butter production studio where she can sell her products, but it’s gotten little traction after several weeks.
It gets more difficult each day to keep the Petty Butter dream alive, especially as she tries to protect her health, Ebijimi said. But she won’t give up just yet. For now, she must fight for her vision, she said.
“I will absolutely continue Petty Butter because it is my destiny,” Ebijimi said. “I don’t think I can ever let Petty Butter go, because my perspective is so important. My ancestors gave me this product. They gave me this formula.”
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