How many of us are, secretly or explicitly, addicted to freely proliferated self help quotes that urge us to “self love” because we are “worthy”? I mean, I certainly am despite being cognizant that feel good quotes are often short-term fuel for actualizing the love and the worthiness that should be inherent and thriving. Here is the crazy thing though; I do love myself, most days. I do know at some level that I am worthy of love, of goodness and of all the success in the world. I am generally confident; I have the ‘I will prove you wrong’ type of confidence that works to keep the world that tells me I am not worthy wrong. That type of confidence often comes with a high-level worth ethic, boldness and persistence, important qualities to possess. Yet, that type of confidence feels reactionary, a slight imbalance between buoyancy and innate sense of self-love. I relegate this tilt to being big-bodied which often elicits self induced head bobs and snapping of fingers when with white friends and/or acquaintances – I get it, the classic internalization of the American mammy caricature. I am African. This conflates histories. I often meet people, regardless of where I find myself, who matter-of-factly refer to my body as ‘fat’, ‘obese’ or ‘big’. Or, for those who take a moment to examine my physique, a big girl with ‘a shape’ somewhere amidst my mass. To the latter commentators I mumble a quick thank you, and to the‘you are fat’ callers, I become feisty and again start to bob my head, blinking my eyes at shutter light-speed with explanations that my ‘fat’ is none of their business. Internally I leave that conversation a little bruised, a little sore, wishing I did not carry this much weight; habitually believing that if I just lost some pounds, I would be so much more worthy, so much more innately happy and comfortable. More importantly, if I just loose weight, I often think, the issue of my weight will cease to act as a conversation starter, filler, or wrap up.
I have always been the big girl. I remember in middle school having a crush on the class hottie. During a math class one day, I sat next to him and his friend who both said I’d be much prettier if I lost weight. I agreed with them and went on a soliloquy about my weight. Heart sunken, my thirteen year old self registered that cute boys like him do not go for girls like me. I was hurt, but confident and so I went on with my life, not loosing weight, but rather joining theatre, running for class president, then school president and being on every social organizing committee. I did what confident people do, kick-ass in all that I did, while licking my bruises every so often. Right before I graduated from high school, one of my pretty and slim girlfriends asked me how on earth I felt comfortable wearing sleeveless shirts despite being ‘big’. I confidently told her that I did not worry about such things. Her comment threw me over the edge and after graduation I lost fifty-pounds.
I put it back on; every single pound of it especially since moving back to Sierra Leone where being fat is the holy grail of conversation starters. One’s weight, it seems, will often be spoken about, spoken off, and becomes the barometer at which one’s presence is acknowledged. This surprised me because it completely dispelled the myth that generally, Africans appreciate bigger women. I have been told that I should go to Nigeria or Mauritania instead, the men are more appreciating of big-bodied women in those countries. The statement rings problematic, that my weight is directly linked to the male gaze and acceptance. Yet, in relation to the male gaze I also learned that being a bigger woman does often-illicit conceptions of wealth, aggressiveness and or overt sexuality. Like the time a now prominent female leader in Sierra Leone shared with me that her husband thought that ‘bigger’ women, like myself, are very sexual. This was after my twenty-five year old self read an erotic poem at a Valentine’s Day event. The message was clear; my bigness is political, threatening, weak, misunderstood. I also once dated a man, who him self was anything but fit or muscular, who would watch me eat, disgust plastered all over his face. His voice smooth and clear would gently ask, ‘why do you eat so much’? On the continent, Africa, where I thought I’d be more accepted, the thin, light-skinned, silky hair trope is hard-wired into the general psyche. In short, notions around beauty, body acceptability, and perfection are standardized globally.
I continue to read the self-help quotes ‘I am love, I am worthy’, often re-posting on my social media accounts with daily chants ‘I am love, I am worthy’. This is until I am sat next to a petit, dainty and soft-spoken young woman at a women’s workshop who gasps, to say, she’d never met someone like me who was so ‘huge’ in body and personality. I immediately become uncomfortable and begin to over-talk about my weight to blank stares from other equally small to medium sized African women. Nowhere seems safe, even in women’s spaces.
I am looking at my body; zigzag-lightening shapes act as overlay across my brown. My breasts heavy as they lay lazily at the top of my belly, I spread my arms; gravity pulls small pouches of excess fat, and I wiggle my arms just so see the pouches shake a little.
I have no make up on and I think of Alicia Keys’ ‘No Make Up movement’ (hashtag) and wish my face had a more pronounced dimple and more freckles or something. The ‘love’ yourself movement gets it wrong every time. Alica Keys with her pretty button nose and freckled face got it sort of wrong this time. My presumption that 'Africans' would appreciate me more than people from other cultures failed me. Women in my social circles, my conscious friends charging the streets for liberation and feminist ideals also drink warm water with lemon first thing in the morning as a weight control mechanism subtly acclaiming thinness – they have a right to. Plus-size fashion bloggers with round belly's, double chins strut in designer shoes and made to fit plush dresses shatter fat stereotypes, acclaiming that sexiness is for ‘bigger-women’ too. They only tell half a truth.
I arch my head up, turn my body around and see my buttocks, half round and half square – a shape of its own perfectly unscarred, smooth, calabash brown. I wonder what it is going to take for us to focus less on the body talk and more on the strength and perseverance of our spirits, or ethereal souls. Are you going to show me where he hit you that night, or how you broke when you learned that he cheated on you, or how you felt when you experienced cultural displacement? Are we going to discuss colorism, sexism and that time your boss, or that influential man pushed your back against the wall against your will? I mean the real shit.
My thighs touch one another and I smile, repeating ‘I am love, I am worthy’, striving to feel this way about my body as authentically as possible.
It is important to me that as I evolve spiritually and mentally that I stretch the depth of my confidence to encapsulate my physical body and my soul. To gather and affirm all the times I hurt only to grow. All the times I fell into a ditch, or down a flight of stairs, or got bitten by mosquitoes that my body and spirit still healed. That every time life threw me a hurdle and I felt empty, I clawed my way back up with my bare hands and through divine grace. That even with this BIGNESS, physically, I have achieved every goal my spirit wanted or needed for nourishment.
If fatness is easy to roll off the tongue, so should insecurities, so should vulnerabilities, so should self-love - love.
I pull my hands to my face, palms thick, fingers heavy and I watch blood run through my veins. Starring into the mirror I see ‘ love’, I see ‘worth’ I know off ‘strength’, even when all the world warrants that i focus on my unworthiness because I am difficult to ignore – physically of course.