When I hear women talk about their bodies – and it is something that we all seem to do, however enlightened we are – I find myself having to bite my tongue often. This is down to two things: I am in the privileged population, body-wise. I am slim, have proportionately large breasts, and long legs, which means any dissatisfaction I may wish to express is often less than welcome. Figuratively speaking, I am the straight white man in a room full of black Muslim lesbians who are disabled; at the top of the totem pole in terms of privilege. So I have learned to shut up when discussions on weight, body image and dress size come up. My opinion may be valid, but my experiences are second-hand, which robs it of real pertinence. Last year, I wrote an article about domestic violence within teenage relationships and the government campaign to address the problem. Ten comments in, someone complained that both the campaign and my article ignored the voices of young men who were facing abuse from their female partners. A good point, perhaps, but not necessarily relevant to the discussion at hand. Commenter Number Ten is the person who whines about the lack of ‘White History Month’ and gets butthurt because there’s no ‘International Men’s Day’. I never want to be Commenter Number Ten.
The second reason is – and I realise I may as well paint a target on my back and wander blithely through a shooting range – I am really okay with my body. Really. This is God’s honest truth. I like my body. I like my arms and legs, which are longer than they need to be for a person of my height. I like my torso, which is short and makes my legs look even longer. I like my high waist, I like my boyish hips, and I love my bottom. I love my size 5-and-a-half feet with their stubby little toes. I like my thighs (slightly less so in the summer when the friction caused by their rubbing gets hot enough to light a fag) and I like my back, even though a part-time job stacking shelves as a teenager has warped it forever. I like my breasts, for which I wear a 32E bra (I wrongly wore a 34C for years – ouch), like that they are naturally high – it made wearing v-necks indecent for a while but I have high (heh) hopes for their potential should I make it to old age. I like my neck, which is not elegant, but does its job well enough. I like my small scarred hands, with their wrinkly fingers and irregular nails. I like my shoulders – with their even, smooth brown skin, they make spaghetti strap dresses look amazing. I like my stomach well enough. In the days before my period, I retain water like a rainwater butt and it swells to ‘smuggling a swimming doughnut’ proportions, but at other times, it folds comfortably two or three times while I sit and doesn’t disrupt the lines of dresses too much when I stand. I like my wrists, which are tiny. In the largely sunless winter months, you can see the network of thin greenish veins just under the skin when you turn them over. I like my knees, scarred and in the words of dodgy estate agents everywhere, ‘full of character’ after five years with hard labour of Nigerian boarding school. I like it all. And honestly? I’ve never ever hated it.
Objectively (!) speaking, I was probably at my most uncomplicated loveliest around the ages of 19 and 20. Sure, I’m more confident now. And I have learned the necessary lessons about dressing to suit my body etc. but for sheer, eye-pleasing reasons, you can’t beat 19 year old Bim. She was so lovely: slender, largely carefree and happy, with none of the thin, spidery wrinkles which are beginning to form from my hairline, casually changing my face for the next stage of life. I think back to myself then and can barely recognise what I was. Strictly speaking, I am not that different now, but life’s experiences have a way of colouring the filter through which you view yourself. What I know now, what I have done and seen and been make it very clear: I was so pretty. And crucially, like most girls, I didn’t know it.
My mother once told me I was the least beautiful of all her babies. It sounds mean, but it wasn’t meant maliciously; it was just the truth. I wasn’t ugly, you understand, but compared with my sister and brothers I was clearly the least attractive baby. (gosh, that looks bad written down – who wants an ‘attractive’ baby?) There are photographs – precious few, as I hated the camera with a passion, could smell a photo op and ruin it at three paces – which show me as I was. I was placid enough, my mother says, but every time the camera was near, I would cry, fuss, glare and object. The photos show a grumpy looking toddler, usually next to my far more accommodating older sister, who was always eager for her photo to be taken. No records seem to remain between my first birthday and my fourth, where I am smiling in a white dress and grey leather boots with a white fur trim. No two ways about it, I look cute. Chubby cheeks, hair in a bun atop my head, a small smile playing at my lips and my palm cupping my face. I look happy and calm. I am loved, and it’s clear that one of the people who loves me is holding the camera – probably my mum.
A poor attitude towards archiving family photographs means they taper off again for a few years. I remember we each had individual photo albums growing up, but somewhere between living across two continents, they’ve disappeared somewhere. There are images from when I was four, in a blue cardigan with a lace collar, knitted for me by our downstairs neighbour, Aunty Ellis. Every birthday we received the same gift from her: a hand-knitted cardigan, plus a bottle of bubble bath. There’s one of me in a beautiful ankara dress (I loved that dress), fussing over my baby brother, and looking like an officious busybody. There I am aged five, at the Notting Hill carnival, dressed in a stripy short set, holding a balloon and eating an ice cream cone, the baby fat showing signs of beginning to fall away. There exist very few photos after this point because once again, I got camera shy. More importantly, I also got very, very thin.
There was nothing physiologically wrong with me. I was healthy, I was looked after. But life was changing. We moved to Nigeria in early 1988 and I decided that I wouldn’t eat very much of anything if I could help it. If I dust off my two years of psychology at college, I’d suggest it was a route to control, via a tangible thing, because I had lost whatever measly power I’d had prior to the move. I insisted on baked beans, though. Baked beans weren’t as widely available in Lagos back then and would’ve required my parents to travel into the big Lagos markets to get some. Of course, they tried cajoling, bribing and threatening, but my father assures me I remained firm, growing pathetically thinner while my parents held whispered conferences about negotiating with five year old terrorists. They gave in. My mum called me ‘The Little Rebel’. Considering how flaky I would become, I’m a little surprised I toughed it out. But hey, I got my baked beans.
By the time I went off to secondary school, I was still almost comically skinny and long-limbed. I wasn’t tall– just thin and small. For me, there existed the Yoruba word, ‘janjala’, a sort of catch-all word meaning gangly and slight. In what I realise now to be a deeply politically incorrect move, my dad nicknamed me his ‘little Rwandan refugee’. It was a term of endearment – right before he hugged me goodbye on visiting days, he’d look into my eyes and say gently, “I think you might have an iron deficiency.” We checked almost every summer holiday – I wasn’t anaemic. I was just extremely thin. My mother said I took after her father, my grandfather, who was six feet tall and lean as a whippet. We – everyone – called him ‘Chief’. It felt good to know I looked like someone. My mother had been very thin for a very long time too – we found a photograph of her taken in 1979, when she was pregnant with my older sister. She is wearing a pair of flared jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. She is very slender, save for the beachball of a bump she’s sporting. She told me, in one of those “Ew, TMI!” moments, “Only my breasts got larger when I was pregnant – your dad always missed them when they went away.”
Aged 15, I returned to London. I was still thin. And I was returning to Year 11 in an inner city state school. I’d left my Nigerian boarding school a prefect, popular and well-liked (and winner of the ‘Hottest Legs’ Award two years in a row, thank you very much) and arrived in cold, grey London to classmates who laughed at my accent, teachers who marvelled at my Nigerian-bred politeness and the misery only available to teenage girls. I was bullied, not overly and not for a very long time, but enough for me to smile wickedly and wish evil upon my tormentor when I saw a photograph of her on Facebook years later.
Coming from an all-girl boarding school in Nigeria and starting at a mixed gender and largely black secondary school in east London was not wildly different, but there were a few stark changes. I’d never been so close to boys on a daily basis before; it was exhilarating. I’d watch my classmates, seasoned pros at co-education nonchalantly share textbooks and chemistry equipment, lend pencils and protractors and think, “Wow! Boys! EVERYWHERE.” Unsurprisingly, I developed crushes on a daily basis – crushes which fizzled out when they opened their mouths and said something foolish, which in Year 11 was practically a law. All the girls I hung out with came in a variety of sizes and hues – tall, short, thin, chubby, cute, spotty, pretty, whatever. Most of us in my little group were black and almost exclusively of African descent. We all did the ridiculous hairstyles of the day: gel-encrusted ponytails with elaborate shapes swirled into the baby hair at our temples, tonged ringlets, fan-like structures atop our heads… I often feel like my mid-teen years should’ve carried the banner: “Sponsored By Elasta QP Glaze”. We looked ridiculous but felt fabulous, and really, isn’t that what life is all about? We modified uniforms the way several generations of girls had done before us and wore the highest chunky heels school regulations allowed. Looking back, I see young women impossibly confident about their bodies, women who had no qualms assuming and believing they were beautiful just as they were. It seems crazy when I think about it now, but it honestly was the way things were. I look at the teenage girls of today and feel bad for them. The focus on girls’ and women’s bodies has only grown exponentially since I was a teenager – I can’t imagine the daily pressures they must be under.
For college, I left east London and ventured into Essex to attend a sixth form. I made new friends, most of whom I count as my best friends today. We were all Eastenders, and would make the journey further east every weekday, chatting loudly in an attempt to assert ourselves, to prove to the world that we were present and alive and here, right now. These days whenever I get irritated at a bunch of screeching schoolgirls on the top deck of the 254, I try to remember my time as a teenage idiot and bite my lip. If singing along to shocking lyrics or talking about “that time Jason tried to feel me up, yeah” is how you need to work through your teen hormones, go for it. I loved Sixth Form. It became clear I’d chosen the wrong subjects, but I had a blast, not least completing the Duke of Edinburgh Award – a scheme where young people learn new skills and give back to the community. I did it because I thought it would look good for university applications. It was largely useless in the end, but one camping trip gave me the funniest diary entry I have ever recorded, and so for that alone, I’m grateful.
I took a year out after, as I knew my predicted grades would see me rejected from pretty much all the universities I wanted to apply to. I decided to take myself to America. I worked two jobs to save the money needed and when my visa arrived, I was over the moon. I ended up working on a Girl Scout camp in California as a camp counsellor. It remains one of the happiest times of my life and because of the nature of it, there are lots of photographs from this time. Here I am as part of the ‘Spice Girls’ at one of our campfires, and there’s me pretending to be a TV chef in an attempt to make the homesick children laugh. There I am in Mexico, tanned to a shiny ebony after a summer working outdoors and there’s me outside the Flatiron Building, wearing ridiculous bowling shoes (all the rage in 2002).The photos of me towards the end of my time in America show a very dark, slightly plumper young woman. Fed exclusively on American food – and American portions – I’d shaken off the ‘Rwandan refugee’ look. My cheeks are fuller, my thighs rounder, my body more tightly packed with muscle. When I returned to London, my mother exclaimed, “You’re black! And big!” prompting bewildered looks from strangers at Heathrow.
I started university a mere two weeks after my return to England. My time in America meant I’d put on the Fresher 15 before I’d even been down to the Student Union. I moved into a house with two other girls and three boys, each of us first year students allocated random housing. I felt like a grownup – I was a grownup. That would be the first time I’d step on a weighing scale outside of a doctor’s office. Both of my female housemates were if not obsessed, then certainly… very aware of their bodies. They knew how much they weighed, how much they wanted to lose, where they wanted to lose it from and how quickly, and they had methods of doing so. On a purely anthropological level, it was fascinating. But as I lacked the specialist training of Margaret Mead, I could not avoid observer bias. Before long, I was on the scales too. Ultimately, the new focus on my weight didn’t last – I wasn’t built for it, and I am inherently lazy.
When I look back at my childhood, I realise that my mother was, surprisingly, not the first feminist I looked up to. That was my dad. He was obviously feminist – constant positive reinforcement on the legality and necessity of our opinions and ideas. Always fair and consistent, an insistence on equality at all times, that was my dad. My mum was less vocal about these things – like many African women before her, she just did. She was and is still awe-inspiringly confident. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more assured woman than my Ma. Never arrogant, just quietly sure of her worth. When it comes to body politics and my mother, all I remember is we never discussed weight or our bodies in a negative way. In fact, we barely discussed our bodies at all, beyond basic biological functions. It just never came up. I never heard her moan about her body, not once. She was never on a diet. We had an ancient weighing scale in the bathroom, but that was only used to weigh luggage (Naija Brits will know what I’m talking ’bout). My mother’s response, whenever we said she looked pretty (usually as she put on her makeup at her dressing table) was “I know, right? We all are. God made something beautiful here.” And that was the end of it. Every time. No bells and whistles, no “love yourself!” streamers, just a casual, shrugged off acknowledgement – “Yes, yes. We’re all good. Now, lunch?” I never realised how lucky I was in that regard until I was a grownup. My mum, the undercover feminist.
Nowadays – as described above – I’m no longer than skinny girl with the prominent clavicles. I sometimes struggle to fit into clothes that were fine only a few months before. When that happens, I try to walk more, maybe stop that third helping habit for a bit. I don’t weigh myself. I try not to compare myself to celebs (too much). I never talk about how some actress “needs to eat a sammich!” I like my body. Not everybody will or does. But that’s okay. Because I do. It’s alright, you know?
I like my body.