Body image and black womanhood – When shapes and sizes have a colour

I was on Instagram the other day and came across a post that stood out to me, not just for the message it conveyed, but for the way the words made me feel and the memories they brought back. The post (pictured below) contained a tweet from a lady I had never heard of before, a cultural critic and editor, Harvard graduate and feminist, by the name of Kimberly Nicole Foster.

For those few seconds, she became my hero. Mind you she didn’t say anything particularly groundbreaking, but as evident as her statement is to some of us, it doesn’t seem to be widely embraced as the truth in black communities around the globe. Today I’ll focus on what I experienced as a black woman within my own (African) culture. This post isn’t easy for me to write because I’m about to unveil and bring attention to some of my biggest body-related insecurities, and consequently invite anyone who knows me personally (or follows me online) to zoom in on them.

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As soon as I read the tweet, I was taken back to my teenage years; a period of my life where I became very conscious about the way I looked, my body shape, my size, the size of my bust, and other little hang ups most girls develop at some point in life. What made it more difficult for me was the fact that I had often been on the receiving end of comments from other young black girls and older women, who would make reference to my body shape as being very different to that of a ‘typical black girl’.

I was skinny, had a tiny bum, no hips, a big bust, somewhat disproportionate by typical black/African standards and ideals when it comes to body shape. These ideals, at least in my culture, would consist of a big bum, thick thighs, large breasts and a hourglass figure. I did tick one box: the boobs (much to my disappointment I might add).

I inherited this shape from my maternal side of the family – my mother had a similar figure to mine when she was younger, and my mixed-race grandma (half Belgian, half Congolese), was pretty much the same but in a bigger version. So when people used to tell me that “I was shaped like a white woman”, I just thought “well, genes work in mysterious ways”.

A few minutes after nodding in agreement with the Instagram post/tweet, double tapping and reposting it in my own Instagram stories, I log into Twitter and lo and behold, the first thing I see is the very mentality Kimberly Foster was tweeting about. I mean just look at the statement below – the contrast is so unreal it’s actually amusing.

(But is it really?)

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Body image and black womanhood… can we talk about it?

I have to be very careful when I write about body image because very often we generalise. We sensationalise. We use blanket statements. We lack nuance. This is why I’m keen to explore the topic using my own experience and the environment I grew up in. I know that as a black woman who doesn’t fit that standard – that voluptuous, beautifully curvy hourglass shape, clearly a prominent feature of African female morphology; this prejudice (the sly remarks, etc.) is something I endured both in my teenage years and in my adult life.

I’ve also seen it around me, heard many stories, in fact just after reposting the picture on Instagram I received messages from women with similar experiences to mine. I’ve watched documentaries about how some African women (I hate that it had to be my country, the Congo) resort to injecting diluted Maggi cubes in their arses to avoid being “the skinny friend” (Don’t believe me? Click here to watch it, or see the screenshots below).

And as much as we’d all like to think that “Nobody actually does that” or “Nobody speaks that way” – I can confirm that this mentality is real. I’ve witnessed it, I’ve somewhat internalised it, obviously not to the extent where I think Maggi cubes injections are the solution to my body hang-ups, however even the fact that I did consider plastic surgery just for the sake of fitting into that ideal, is worrying enough in my eyes…

The @GoldenMbalis of this world, with all their influence, are spreading a narrative that is destroying the self-esteem of many black women out there. Trolling or not, this thought system needs to be dismantled, or at least challenged.

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Let me take you way back…

I grew up in a small Belgian village, surrounded by white people – we were one of the two or three black families in the village. I had an amazing childhood, but I didn’t really know or hang around black people (with the exception of my relatives) until we started going to a Congolese church in the heart of Brussels. This was the place where I got to know other beautiful black girls, Congolese for the most part, who I could identify with. We shared a faith, a cultural heritage, a language… in many ways we shared a common identity, as African sisters growing up in this small predominantly white European country. But one thing I was often reminded of, both through my own observations and comments from other women (young and old), was how shapeless I was. And that was despite the fact that I was still young and my body hadn’t even finished developing yet.

I remember very vividly during a conversation about body image, relationships and other typical things I used to discuss with my girlfriends, one of them mentioned quite candidly that “at least, I didn’t need to worry about unwanted male attention [with a body like that]”. Implying, “There’s not much to look at, so something like catcalling, for example, would never be an issue”…

A passing comment – we were young and it had probably just come out the wrong way; but I’m sure you can imagine how I must have felt at the time. Comments like these – and there were a few over the years, including from older ‘aunties’ who really should have known better, did nothing for my self-esteem. They made me particularly conscious about my build; they made me wonder if God had made a mistake…

But that was also one of the many times I was reminded of just how deeply rooted this idea was, that black women simply shouldn’t be ‘straight’, only curvy, in order to be seen as desirable or beautiful.

Very quickly, I started to develop a complex around my body shape. Everything became a problem: I over-analysed the fact that I had big breasts and a smaller bottom, when images in the media and in music videos dictated that it should be the other way round. My hips were simply non-existent, so I started dressing in a way that would create an illusion of shape – a trick I’ve maintained to this day. I’m always on the look out for peplum tops and dresses, blazers or cardigans that would take the attention away from my apple shape. I don’t recall ever slaying in a bodycon dress, unless I wore a blazer or some kind of cover on top, again, to create that illusion of shape around my hips.

I had somehow convinced myself that my shape was difficult to style, and so my efforts to try and look good by creating a shape I did not have had to be doubled. Mind you I was neither overweight nor underweight. I was a healthy young woman with absolutely no reason to feel insecure. Except I had internalised the idea that my figure didn’t look right for a black woman. My body confidence was at zero.

Overtime I also developed a bizarre obsession with black women’s bodies. Everywhere I went I would stare at curvy black women, admire them… thicc or thin, it didn’t matter, as long as they had that shape. I would watch as they walked past me, discreetly or not, I didn’t care. It wasn’t even envy. It was almost as if I needed to see it for myself, “Oh, so this is what I’m supposed to look like, as a black woman. Yet here I am, as far away from that ideal as one can be.”

There were a lot of things I loved about myself, but my body definitely wasn’t one of them. Looking back, it had everything to do with this emphasis on curvy bodies used as a signifier of black womanhood. Based on my own experience and the experiences of many other women out there, Kimberly’s tweet is actually spot on.

The process of unlearning toxic ideas is not an easy one

Funnily enough, since I started having kids I have been every size under the sun. And today, at my biggest, as I embark on yet another weight loss journey, I’ve come to accept and embrace that I will never ever be ‘curvy’. It just isn’t the way I’m built. I’m perfectly okay with this. I’m at a stage where I’m becoming more and more comfortable posting full-length photos of me online wearing clothes that are slightly more figure-hugging, (albeit only certain angles and poses – baby steps!).

Most importantly, I do not aspire to be desirable to anyone else other than my husband. When you no longer care about what people other than your spouse think of you and the way you look, life becomes so much better. It’s actually liberating.

I thought I’d also mention that anyone who knows me knows how much I love and celebrate curvy, fuller figures. And I always will. This obsession I spoke about earlier is in fact a form of admiration.

I’m also very aware of how much Western society has contributed to the erasure of curvaceous and bootylicious bodies in the media, on our screens, our runways and our magazines, especially black women’s. I will never not celebrate natural curves, naturally big bums, thick thighs and voluptuousness – I love a Coke bottle body no matter what size it is. It is undeniable that a lot of my sisters out there are sculpted in this way, to me this will always rhyme with beauty and elegance. But what we’re not going to do in the process is denigrate all other shapes and make black women feel like they’ll never be enough unless they fit that particular standard.

It’s great that I’ve been able to come to this realisation, after years of feeling insecure. But I think of other younger black women who once felt (or still feel) the way I did in my teenage years and throughout my 20’s. This isn’t really a debate about size. You can be thin and still feel like this if your frame is straight or your butt is flat. I think of how damaging some words can be, and the lasting effects this can have on a person’s self-esteem. I think of the young girl who is sick and tired of hearing her auntie bang on about how skinny or shapeless she is, whilst slamming a second helping of fufu onto her plate, because you know, curves and big bums are attractive to black men.

Speaking of which, I honestly believe that a lot of the issues young women develop around body image and the shape/size of our bums, hips, thighs and boobs stem from the idea that we must entertain the male gaze. From the video vixen in hip hop, to the love interest and object of all sexual attention in your favourite Nollywood movie, we are bombarded with the false subliminal messages that our bodies are for the male gaze.

You are fearfully and wonderfully made (See Psalm 139:14)

If I could look at my 16 year old self and have a conversation with her about body image, I’d tell her that it really shouldn’t be that deep. What truly matters at the end of the day is a healthy body. A less curvy shape is beautiful in every way. Being bigger on top and smaller on bottom isn’t an anomaly, it is who you are and there’s no ‘one way’ for a black woman to be. We come in all shapes and sizes, and this doesn’t make us less black, less African, neither does it make us less desirable and attractive within our communities.

I would also emphasise that it is no one’s responsibility to make me feel good about myself, but my own. Other people’s words and comments about my body may have rubbed me off the wrong way in the past but it’s up to me to not let them affect the way I view myself today. My daughter will learn from me and what I refuse to instill in her, especially if she ends up being shaped like me, is that curves and voluptuousness are determining factors of black womanhood.

Lastly, and not that it matters more than anything else, I want to tell my 16-year old self that in just a few years she’d meet the man of her dreams who will love her just as she is, and wouldn’t change a thing about her.

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4 thoughts on “Body image and black womanhood – When shapes and sizes have a colour

  1. Love your post. I really have nothing to add here: ). I just imagine how you felt growing up and having deal with the comment about your body shape (Not a nice feeling). I am skinny and told all the time how shapeless I was. To be honest it didn’t bother me. I know what really helped me cope about comments regarding my body shape was my parents. It’s important for parents to let there children know beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully created.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for such a lovely comment and I agree re: parents telling their kid they are beautiful, fearfully and wonderfully made. This is what I do with my kids.

      Like

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