I was once told that I should stop trying to be white and embrace my Africanness. This was said to me by an Australian expatriate as I was studying abroad in Hong Kong. Naturally, the statement threw me off. I looked at him like he had just redefined idiocy. He must have not noticed the look or he simply ignored it, for he did not offer an explanation. Instead, he toyed with his drink. There is a lot that I could have said to him at that moment but what came out of my mouth was, “How am I trying to be white?” He went on to say that he had travelled extensively throughout Africa. Hasn’t everyone? In his opinion, African women didn’t look or sound like me. This piqued my curiosity and I had to ask exactly how African women look and sound. His response was the stereotypical full lips, voluptuous breasts, and child-bearing hips. No surprises there. He stated that by working so hard to be skinny I was distancing myself from Africa. Let’s just ignore the fact that I am naturally skinny…but I digress. My proper English apparently was an attempt to fit in with people from the West. In his unsolicited opinion, by being skinny and speaking proper English, I was denying the fact that I am an African woman and, therefore, trying to be white. It’s as if being white is something that people aspire to achieve, like getting a graduate degree or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Needless to say, I walked away from that conversation. Life is too short to spend it in the presence of such small-minded individuals.
That was unfortunately not the first time that my body size was equated and related to being an African woman. It took a while for me to grow into my body. In my early teenage years, I was often in danger of being confused for a boy. It didn’t help that I had closely-cropped hair, and spent a lot of time in jeans and t-shirts. By the time I completed high school, I had come to accept that I was probably not going to get any curvier than I already was at the time. The curves that I had were enough to clear any confusion and I was fine with that, or so I thought. Some people, on the other hand, had no qualms about letting me know what they thought of my skinny frame. I was once told that no African man would marry me because they all want a real African woman, you know, one who is curvaceous and can carry children. I wasn’t aware that skinny women could not carry children, but hey, that’s just me. “Umekonda! Utapata bwana kweli?” said a stranger once. It translates to, “You’re thin! Will you really get a husband?” Because obviously getting a husband is every woman’s dream. “Your sisters have the African look, how come you don’t?” someone once said. Now, if you have seen my sisters you know that they have the kind of curves people write poems and dedicate entire book pages to. My answer to that question is because we have different body types. I don’t know what else people expect to hear when they ask that.
While in college, people sometimes made comments about my skinniness. “We, African women, are known for being curvaceous,” someone said to me. “You have to represent.” Again, being an African woman was being defined in terms of the presence or absence of curves. I think I was exhausted by all the comments and wanted to qualify as African when I challenged myself to gain weight. I went all out, complete with a plan of how much weight I would gain each week. I wanted to gain seven pounds at the end of the first week. There was no method behind zeroing in on the seven pounds, before anyone asks. My Facebook status update that week was, “I intend to gain seven pounds by the end of this week.” It may have sounded like a joke but I was serious. By the end of that week I had lost exactly seven pounds. In case you have been wondering whether the universe has a sense of humor, I guess you have your answer. I gave up the challenge and decided to own my skinny. That’s right I am skinny…say something…actually don’t…I have heard it all.
These experiences led me to question what it means to be an African woman. Is it really all in the curves?
Yes, there are African women who are curvy but there are also those of us who are skinny. Our shapes and sizes are as diverse as our cultures. Even in the same family people are different so what more of an entire continent? There really is no universal African look. I am not sure why some people think or even try to insinuate that there is.
Being an African woman, to me, is an identity that transcends physical attributes. It means to have been born in one of Africa’s beautiful countries. It means to have an appreciation for my culture and that of those around me. It means to be a part of such rich heritage. It means to embrace the continent’s beauty. It means actively engaging in positively transforming Africa both for current and future generations. It means relishing in the stories and proverbs passed on from one generation to the next. It means being unable to resist the beat of the proverbial African drum. It means having my dreams take place at home even when I have been away for so long. It means strength and resilience. It also means many other things that cannot be quantified or aptly captured in words.
Yes, I am skinny and yes, I am an African woman. The two are not mutually exclusive.
By Patricia Egessa