I am seated in a large classroom in Wellingara, surrounded by a group of young Gambians who recently started a new organisation for kids and youth. I was invited by a friend and a Starfish International alum, to give a motivational talk based on my experiences as a child activist, youth leader and young Gambian feminist.
The night before, while organising my talking points, I tweeted about the positive irony of going out to give inspirational talks, but leaving with perhaps more inspiration than I had been able to give. When I spoke to this group, I kept this thought in mind, considering each person present at the gathering as someone I could learn something from. I was familiar with situations where there is an abundance of potential, yet very few opportunities to match, and it has become one of my guidelines to interacting with young people, both at individual and group levels.
I came. I talked. I answered questions. Then, I sat in one corner and quietly watched the next activity which included a fun question and answer session. The questions somehow morphed into requests and by the time I was set to leave, I had seen much dancing, singing and animal sound imitations to use up my daily ration of laughter. Yet, two cases stayed with me and months later, have prompted me to write this blog.
Describe yourself. This was the request for two of the girls, when their turn came to answer questions from their peers. They stood in the middle of the room, fumbling with their clothes, thinking hard and going through the various stages of shyness that I knew too well . I waited, eager to hear their responses, while silently hoping they would be well-rounded -don’t ask by what standards. The responses came and left me with more questions than I was probably allowed to ask.
Fat. Big Head. Big nose. Black. Slim. Tall. These were the adjectives I still remember from the girls. On my way home, a few questions lingered in my mind. Why did they concentrate solely on their physical features? Is self-description limited to the parts of us that are already very visible? How has this become the default route, especially for young girls? How did we get here, and more importantly, how do we move away from this place, to teach and encourage girls to see, appreciate and be eager and confident to represent their wholeness?
As someone who struggled with body image issues while growing up, I understand how it can become the yardstick by which we measure our worth, regardless of all the amazing things we are, do, embody and represent.
For many years, my skinny frame was the butt of endless jokes and taunting from my schoolmates, most of whom saw it as the only way to get back at me for coming out top of my year each term. I had a range of nicknames to choose from, each one chipping at the bones that had become too visible, too threatening, too abnormal for the people around me. Add to that my work in HIV/AIDS sensitisation, and you’d get a full mix of the ugliest form of bullying and body-shaming I could ever receive, especially at that young age. I was only eleven.
When I finally grew strong and confident enough to reclaim my body as the vessel that carried my soul, and recognised the importance of keeping it clean and filled with positive vibes, attitudes towards me gradually changed. What was regarded as an ugly skeletal frame suddenly became a supermodel to-die-for body goal, and had me dealing with the sometimes annoying requests for samples of my diet. The most frequent question upon meeting someone for the first time has been ‘are you a model’, followed by the incredulous ‘why not’. I understood the significance of my increasing self-love and the confidence in the body I had decided to rediscover and appreciate, and how it helped to shape people’s attitude towards me.
My open identity as a feminist means I now have to deal with less remarks about my body from people who know me and are familiar with the work that I do. More significantly, it has guided me to an understanding of what truly matters in my life. I grew increasingly aware of the difference in my choices regarding beauty and fashion, disregarding trends and choosing comfort in line with my own tastes. This is not as easy as it sounds, what with the ridiculous beauty standards set by society and promoted by the media, but it has been a journey worth taking.
For many women -especially young- however, this is not a given. The pressure to fit it and conform to these standards weighs heavy and therefore, influences the greater part of what we do and how we view ourselves. We are quick to set aside our great potential and even minimise our achievements simply because we do not meet these standards. It doesn’t matter how much we have accomplished as long as we are not moving around in a slim-thick, light-skinned frame that has probably had little bearing on those achievements. Our whole existence is reduced to how we look, what we wear and how appealing we appear to society.
In that room, I saw a group of young ladies with a strong passion for positive change in their communities. Some of them had already set out on this journey, mentoring and tutoring younger ones, while contributing to the design of new action plans for their organisation. I recognised the immense leadership potential and the ability that these young ladies had to lead change and transform their lives and those of others who are lucky to benefit from their acts of service.
However, in their responses, I saw an affirmation of the expectation from women to be seen and not heard. I saw a measure of their value and worth attached to their appearances, not their goals, dreams, aspirations and accomplishments. I recognised the younger me in them and knew they were not to blame for the socialisation they have undergone, which limited their self perception to the trivial and the superficial. And I wished society had dealt them -us all- a fairer card.
As with most of my experiences, I left with a mind full of thoughts on how to reverse this trend and teach girls that we are worth more than our bodies and the clothes we wear. We have power to transform the world and ensure that our daughters do not have to go through the same troubles. We are capable of taking ownership of our bodies and defining what beauty means to each of us.
We are responsible for rewriting the narrative about who we are and what we represent in this world that has chosen to relegate us to the backseat. We should no longer be afraid to break through the barriers set for us and pop out of the boxes we have been placed in, to claim our true destiny and work for what we want. It is certainly easier said than done, but it is not impossible.
While wishing these girls grow up to discover their true worth and essence like I had the chance to do, I hope we can be and create enough role models, who are willing to share their experiences and highlight what truly matters. I hope we can make the shift to celebrating women for their achievements and not chiding them for not measuring up to our visual expectations.
And to the women, the change begins with us. You are only as beautiful as you think and see yourself to be. Your beauty is yours to define and it certainly doesn’t have to be linked to your physical appearance. Reclaim your identity and redefine your stories, such that your idea of who you are reigns supreme over any external definitions. This is another manifestation of your power. Do not give it up.