Maya Angelou once said, “we delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it went through to achieve that beauty.” No one perhaps understands this better than Hayet Rida, a stylish Chicago-based Ghanaian lifestyle blogger, photographer and strategic planner who has built a reputation for being bold and unapologetic. On her blog, That Hayet Rida, Hayet shows that she is “exactly what you were thinking” – but more. With her beauty and honesty, Hayet has garnered a large following by sharing her journey to becoming the confident woman she is today. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke candidly with Hayet about how she became that girl.
At a young age, many young girls begin to cover up and think that their body or intelligence is something to hide. When did you first learn shame?
I first learned shame at the cusp of my teenage years, but I didn’t learn shame because someone told me to cover up. Everyone did it with their eyes. When I was younger, I went through a phase where I was probably as confident as I am now. My friends would wear backless tops and I would, too. At that age, your friends don’t tell you about your size, so I was dressing up with them. But I soon realized that we would get two types of looks—one reserved for them and one for me. People don’t realize that when you look at somebody, especially someone beginning to develop self-consciousness, that person can see exactly what you are looking at. So at that age, I began to develop shame about certain parts of myself just based on how people looked at me. Even today, it’s something that I still battle with. Anytime someone looks at me, my automatic reaction is “why are you looking at me?” They might be looking at me thinking I’m pretty, but my automatic reaction is to think that they are critiquing my body and every move.
On your blog, you flaunt your curves with confidence. When did you begin to care less about what others thought?
The beginning of this year. I went through a quarter-life crisis where I had a period of trying to find myself. I got to a point when I realized I don’t need to find myself. I am myself. No need to look for her. She’s here. I started to accept myself exactly how I was. For so long in my life, my actions were dictated by how I wanted other people to feel about me, but I have started acting based on how I feel. So now when I go out, if I choose to wear something, even if it’s a baggy t-shirt, as long as I leave the house knowing that I feel good, that obscures what anyone else thinks of me.
Growing up, you mentioned that you were conscious of other people’s gaze. The first gaze we often look to is our parents. How supportive were your parents in letting you be you?
I went through a phase when I was growing up where I wanted to be fully covered and wear baggy clothes. My mother tried to push me to try different things. She was the mother who all my friends envied—she was the hip, cool mum who was always fashionable. But when I was younger, I rejected all that—no fashion, no dressing up. I did not like the body I was living in. It was like I was two separate people: the one moving through the every day, and the other side, which was my mental state. When I grew older, those two sides converged to form who I am now.
On your blog, you mentioned that you had a fairly big weight loss. Following that change, did anything happen that you weren’t expecting?
There are two sides. I got a lot more attention. I remember the first Christmas when I had lost about 30 pounds, and I went home to Ghana and went to a club. For the first time, somebody spoke to me. I was used to being the one who people spoke to when they wanted to talk to my friends. I was used to being the go-between. When a guy walked up to me, I used to think “who am I here with and whose number do they want?” When that guy came up and spoke to me, that was a new feeling. People who had never paid attention to me before were suddenly trying to talk to me, but it was mostly in a sexual way, which made me feel uncomfortable. I was a brand-new person to all those hormone-charged boys. The flip-side to that was that I became extremely self-conscious. What people don’t understand is that when you have a huge weight loss, your body is going through changes, so naturally you pay more attention to things you may have never paid attention to. I wasn’t emotionally ready for that much weight loss that fast, so I began to become very critical.
Before I lost weight, I was probably around a size 22, and at the time of that first Christmas, I had gone done to a size 18. I would look in the mirror and fixate on things and say, “Oh, my arms don’t look good.” Even though my arms were probably three times bigger a month before, I suddenly started paying attention to them. When I was bigger, I accepted that that was who I was. When I started to lose weight, I thought of it as a process, so every morning I would look in the mirror at what had or hadn’t changed and pick at myself. The worst day for me was when I looked in the mirror and started drawing circles around what needed to go and what needed to be worked on like one of those plastic surgery shows.
How long did it take you to lose the weight?
It’s hard for me to say how much weight I lost because I never used to weigh myself because I was over the limit of my scale. When I first started weighing myself, after I lost a little weight, I probably lost over 80 – 100 pounds over two years.
What would happen if you put on 20 pounds? How would you feel about yourself?
Guess what? That happened this year. I went through a rough period earlier this year where I put on about 30 pounds, but I forced myself to love myself at that size. I knew that I was so much bigger than the scale or anyone’s comments. That’s when I started blogging. Originally, I told myself, “When you lose the weight, you can blog.” But then I stopped and realized that people always postpone confidence and self-love. They make it conditional. They’ll say things like “I will love myself when ___” or “I’ll do this when _____.” Then I realized I could die tomorrow and have never loved myself, so I decided to start now. I’m working on getting my health back on track, but what’s different this time around is that I’m loving myself every step of the way. I don’t criticize myself or my body. I’ve learned that there are two levels of self-love. One: how you eat and treat your body, but two: how you treat your soul.
Some people who go through extreme weight loss often deal with things like excess skin and stretch marks. How have you dealt with that and how has it affected your body confidence?
I’ve dealt with some excess skin on my stomach, but not so much on other parts of my body. I’ve been very lucky. I have so many stretch marks, but to me, they’re part of my skin. If you’re going to look at me and only see my stretch marks, there’s something wrong with you. I see them everyday and they’re a part of who I am. I’ve had stretch marks since I was young. I have them down my arms, my sides, the upper part of my back… it’s fine. A couple of years ago, I hated them, but now culture is shifting. People are starting to accept stretch marks and say that your stretch marks tell a story. I think we’re moving to a place now where all the things that people once called flaws are no longer flaws. They’re life.
I always found it peculiar that people can label something that more than half of women have as a flaw. Stretch marks are a representation of transition. You can get stretch marks losing weight, from gaining weight, from growing taller, from having a baby, etc. It’s your reminder of what you’ve gone through and where you come from—and where you’re going.
I recently saw a TED Talk by Lillian Bustle where she discussed the term “fat” and said that we should see fat the same way we see the terms “tall” or “blonde”—just as a statement, not a judgment. How do you feel about that? What would you say if someone were to call you fat?
I don’t agree. It’s the same as saying the n-word. Historically, it’s come from a different place, so we can’t all of the sudden try to flip it positively. If I call someone fat, that person is fat with me—it’s almost like a joke. The same way girls might call other girls bitches in a way that is not meant to be derogatory but show some camaraderie. But you call me fat, I will take great offense to it. Just like when a white person calls a black person fat even though black people call each other the n-word.
You live in Chicago now. How do you feel that perception of bodies and self-esteem differs in Ghana versus the United States? Is it easier to go out on a date in the US?
A lot of people might call me for this one but it’s so much easier to be confident in America. Over there, I don’t think anyone would have the courage to come up to me and talk to me about how I look. They might say it behind my back, but nobody will come up to my face and say something, whereas in Ghana, it’s the opposite. Read my first article. At ten years old, somebody told me I looked six months pregnant. I don’t know if that would happen over here because in the States, they value things like self-esteem and self-consciousness. In African culture, we don’t discuss feelings—they’re a very foreign thing.
If you were to go back to 18 years old, what would you tell yourself?
Don’t chase those damn boys! At that age, I was so fragile and hung on acceptance from the opposite sex. I needed someone to tell me I was good enough. At that age, I was so fixated on “why doesn’t anyone like me?” At 18, you wake up thinking about boys, you go to bed thinking about boys. I hope my mum doesn’t ready this—I feel bad for all the school fees she paid when my mind was focused elsewhere!
When did you stop thinking about what boys thought and how it affected your sense of self?
April 1, 2015. I just decided one day, “nope, I don’t need them.” I don’t discredit any experience I’ve ever gone through because it’s gotten me where I am today. But it’s interesting—as soon as you stop caring about them, that’s when they all show up!
What makes you feel sexy?
You do have a very full mane.
It’s the Middle Eastern blood. My hair is the sexiest part of me. When I have my hair down, I’m a different person. You know how Beyonce stomps on the stage? That’s how I walk down the sidewalk—I know the wind is about to catch it and I look flawless.
From that comment alone, I can tell you have a pretty big personality. Is that innate or is part of it a defense mechanism against other people’s critiques of you?
Definitely the latter. It has always been. I’m actually very shy, but I always feel I have to own a room. It’s a way that I’ve always dealt with people judging me. I didn’t want them to remember me as the fat girl—instead I wanted to be the funny one, or the sarcastic one, or the one who was very friendly. Now it’s just a part of me, but when I’m the most self-conscious, I am louder.
Who is the harshest when it comes to critiques—women or men?
I think it’s a 50/50 split, but women do it because men have conditioned them to look at another’s woman’s body through a man’s gaze. Men will pass around pictures and comment on women. When women hate on other women, often it’s not “she hasn’t read as many books as I have.” It’s “she’s not even cute” or “look at her stomach.” We’ve been conditioned to judge women by their appearance, which is an attitude that stems on the male fixation with women’s bodies.
Do you ever find yourself judging another women’s size?
Yes. It’s a hard thing to admit, but everybody does it. For how long you do it is the difference. I might think, “oh wow, she’s big” but then I’ll think, “oh wow, she’s gorgeous” or “she’s so confident.” It might be my initial reaction, but I’ll always look for something more memorable. I don’t fixate on people’s size. I’ve been that topic of conversation, so I wouldn’t do that to someone else.
When you’re with a new person, what kind of things to do you try to hide the most?
I wear my emotions on my sleeve a lot, which is the number one thing I’ll try to hide. If I’m in an uncomfortable situation, you’ll see it on my face, so I try to cover that up. And then I hide my stomach. [Laughs].
You’re fairly well-off. Do you think this has made it easier for you to find flattering clothing? What advice do you have for those who might not be able to afford the designers and brands you’re drawn to?
If you are in Africa, there is always a seamstress around the corner, and those people will hook you up. In places like Ghana, people are set up to have the best clothing. It’s not about what you’re wearing, but what you do with what you’re wearing. It’s all about attitude. Look at Kanye West’s new line—some people might look at those outfits and say, “wow, that looks like a sack,” but most will say, “that’s hot or that’s genius.” It’s all about how you wear it.
How has being open on your blog affected your relationships?
Men are scared of me. I had a guy once say, “I’m scared to date you because I know that if I break your heart, it will be your next blog post.” If somebody has the courage to be in a relationship with me and they’ve seen the blog, then they know a lot of my baggage and history. They’ll have a pretty good idea of what they’re getting into.
Who is this blog written for?
It’s written as a healing process—it’s for me. The beauty of it is that so many people are going through the stage I just emerged from, so the open healing process heals people as well. Talking to myself, writing for myself allows me to be open and honest versus when you’re writing with an audience in mind. It’s raw and unfiltered. In twenty years, I’ll look back and know how I got through what I went through. When my daughter is going through her teenage years, I’ll print out all my blog posts and people’s comments, so she knows Mommy went through it too, and it’ll be ok.
Follow Hayet’s journey on her blog, That Hayet Rida.