Tuesday, 18 February 2014

My "live and let live" rant on the myth that is the African body image.

Source: Art by Isaiah Stephens

There is no simple way of defining body image. I'm going to say why without specifically doing so! At Uni, I probably wrote more than one essay about body image, as it was a favourite topic of mine during young adulthood. My interest in the topic came from growing up not quite understanding the human fixation with body-types and the negativity that is very often tied to it. Being a very skinny kid growing up in the heart of western-central Africa (Cameroon) was tough to say the least. It was sort of a reverse experience on what an overweight child would go through in a western country. Random people I didn't even know would crack jokes when I walked home from school. I was made fun of in class, out on the field during PE, at home, and worse of all; during my two year stint in boarding school! It was really bad through adolescence. I eventually quit PE all together; an extremely bad choice for my health. The PE teachers never tried to encourage in anyway. When I didn't show up, they probably assumed I had some chronic medical condition and gave me the usual F, which was fine with me as long as I didn't have to bare up arms and legs for ridicule! With everything else that I had to deal with like every other teen, I started thinking there must be something very wrong with how I looked. It was a rather negative way of coming into my own as a teenager.

My rescue came slowly, by way of Western media (interestingly)! Foreign magazines like Ebony and Essence which showed images of African-American models of all sizes, strutting and posing confidently in their glamorous get-ups would save my young life from perpetual torture! My early style interests came not from my immediate community, but from fashion models featured in glossy magazines. In my mind, the only way a person with my body type could dress to impress would be exactly what a high fashion model would wear. So, with my borrowed sewing machine (the same one I've presently borrowed), I copied anything I could possibly recreate from the runway. Looking back now I realize I must have worn some pretty outlandish looking get-ups! This helped my self-esteem enormously though. It is interesting that when you exude confidence, regardless of how you really feel inside, it really impacts how people respond to you. Some people say 90% of ones confidence comes from clothes. A really good friend of mine also said the way he went about developing his self-confidence was by faking it and imitating people whom he perceived to be confident! This really truly works. I am a prime example of someone who has worked hard at it. Presently, I consider myself very confident in a not-so-in-your-face kinda way, which is why I am confidently writing a post about body image in my underwear Great imagery... I'm stupid like that, so laugh with me!!!

Recently (in the last ten years or so), I've noticed an outcry; particularly within the African community, about Western media's continued glorification of the slimmer silhouette over curvier women. There certainly is nothing wrong in calling out any such misrepresentation of women. It does not represent a diverse mix of people and especially, it influences young people to only view body image in one dimension. What I think is wrong... and horribly so, is when anyone says something like this: " a curvier woman is a real woman", or "a real African women with a big butt"! That image of a particular body image is a myth that does not translate to any and all African women. I don't think I'm the only African woman who thinks it is obviously not true because though I'm no longer a very thin teenager, I am also neither curvy nor the proud possessor of a great big derriere, but I still know that every inch of me is REALLY that of an African woman. What is even worse is that when such rude comments are made, a lot of people act like they really have no clue that we... African women, just come in different shapes and sizes. Anyone who says this is doing exactly what the media is doing when it constantly showcases only a certain body-type. I feel that anyone who can not see beauty in it's diverse forms is extremely ignorant, closed-minded and a bully waiting to happen. The way I see it, whatever body-type is used in any particular campaign, as long as it is one of a healthy human being, is perfectly beautiful to me. I don't really care if the image is that of a tall, short, light or dark complexion, slender or curvy person. It's all beautiful. Learn to appreciate the differences. 

Bullying and negative criticism does not just happen to bigger people. Since this has been my personal experience, it has been easier for me to learn that all women regardless of body-type are beautiful in their own way. Every time one person doesn't like something about a woman, another person will absolutely adore her for it. I'm asking the question "what's not the wrong body-type for a REAL African woman?", so people can start really thinking about it for themselves. What's not the wrong body-type? Whether a woman diets, works out, makes healthier choices or does not; however she happens to look naturally is what a REAL woman looks like isn't it?! It's not OK to put out negativity just because it is popular opinion. Many people think it's always the right thing to root for the underdog, but in this particular situation there is none and the attitude of blindly fighting fire with fire, is plain hypocrisy.

Why is it so very difficult to stop putting people down in order to feel better about ourselves? Why can't we let people live comfortably in the bodies they have or the bodies they want. On that note, I'm trying to loose 5 pounds and anyone who has a problem with that ... erhhhmmm... just has a problem don't they?! It's a shame when some people knock down women who work out... as if it's a bad thing to want to be fit, strong, and healthy. Within the African community, it would be nice to get some encouragement in one's health endeavors. I'd like to say kudos to Naturally Nigerian and African Hollistic Health and Fitness for promoting fitness and encouraging healthier choices within the community. Thumbs up to Finest Cameroonians  and countless others, for showcasing our diversity in beauty and breaking stereotypes by simply letting the world see with images of real people, what splendors our African continent holds. We really are beautiful in so many different ways. Accepting that means we can really truly love and embrace ourselves without needing to define body image into very narrow-minded place-holders.

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