I once went through a phase where I tried to transform my skinny figure to a shapely, hour-glass one, which was and still is highly praised as the perfect African female figure.
During my late teens and early twenties, I was never one to focus extensively on my body shape or outward appearance. If anything, I was a tomboy and I hardly did conventional girl stuff like manicures, worrying about weight and dressing up in pretty outfits.
But, life happens, removing all oblivion about the world and its norms, and suddenly, I found myself affected by conventional understandings of female beauty.
Here in Africa, the hour-glass figure is highly celebrated as the epitome of femininity and beauty. Aesthetically, being curvaceous is linked with being very fertile and healthy, and according to scientific research, this is true for many cultures across the world. Added to that, scientists have discovered that seeing a curvaceous woman can feel like a reward in the brain of many men.
I didn’t think that curves were a big deal until guys would look straight past me and admire my curvy friends, with some of them telling me to my face that I needed to put a little more meat on my bones to be considered datable.
Obviously, my curvy friends were ecstatic that their figures were now beautiful after years of being bombarded with the mainstream notion that skinny is beautiful. The media wasn’t helpful either, often celebrating the figures of women like Beyoncé, South Africa’s Minnie Dlamini and ex Big Brother Africa contestant Huddah Monroe and music videos bombarding us with men drooling over women with big bootys.
I was being body shamed because of my skinny figure, and I felt self-conscious about it because I was outside the domain of being pretty and woman enough.
So, I decided to remedy the situation by packing on the calories in an attempt to grow my curves. I thought that being liberal with food would work, but it backfired.
I became obese, and instead of having bigger curves, I developed a huge tummy, flabby arms and constantly feeling heavy. I was unhappy because I looked terrible in everything I wore.
Even though I was no longer skinny, guys still looked passed me to admire my curvy friends because I was now overweight. The same guy who told me that I wasn’t datable because of my skinny physique told me that I needed to lose weight because I looked like a large lump.
It was then that I realized that I had unfortunately fallen into the trap of patriarchal standards of female beauty. African patriarchal culture has shaped this idea that curvy is the only standard of female beauty, and as women, we easily fall into that trap out of a need to feel accepted and beautiful. My female counterparts weren’t helpful either, throwing me under the bus for having a small physique instead of standing with me in overthrowing these unhealthy notions of beauty and celebrating our uniqueness.
This is showed me how fickle people and cultural systems are. International mainstream society said I was beautiful because I was skinny, however African society demonized for not being African and female enough due to my lack of big curves.
Beauty is dynamic and cannot be boxed in to represent one aesthetic look. And certainly, patriarchal and even colonial notions of female beauty should have no bearing on our self-esteem and self-worth as women because they are inherently flawed.
*image from Linda Ikeji.