Daughter. Sister. Friend. Believer. Warrior. Writer. Voracious reader. Shoe Lover. Car Accident Survivor. Quasi philosopher. Prone to circumlocution. Beyonce stan. Retired cynic. On a quest to make a dent in the universe. Impossible to summarise in a few words.
The awareness that my body was something I should worry about came at age 7. My school had implemented annual health checks on its pupils and one day I was summoned to an office. There I found my mother in tears and a solemn nurse. I don’t remember the exchange between my mother and the nurse, but I remember the nurse pointing to a chart, which indicated I was relatively underweight.
Up until then my parents hadn’t been bothered by the fact I was a naturally thin child. However for a brief period after my parents attempted to get my weight up.
Sidebar: I think it was a pride thing. (African) Parents aren't fans of being summoned to school offices (unless it's to be told their child's the brightest in the class).
I remember feeling outraged that a nurse’s opinion had disrupted our implicit social contract. My parents had once understood I was the child who only ate when she felt hungry. I would much rather devour books than chocolates. Therefore they would buy me books as a treat. Being force fed pounded yam and egusi soup, was not part of our arrangement.
Sidebar: This force- feeding was made all the more traumatic by the fact I wasn't allowed to chew pounded yam. Apparently you're supposed to swallow it. * shudders at the memory *
Although my mother and I now laugh at those days, the experience left an indelible mark on my mind. The worry I absorbed in the nurse’s office caused me to conclude my body was something I should be worried about. I needed to care about my physique because my body was the lens through which the world would view me. Finally, I concluded there must be a ‘perfect’ body that a girl could have and be accepted.
As an adult I’ve realised that my pessimistic conclusions were accurate. Despite the spread of feminist ideals, we live in a society where a woman’s identity is rarely distinguished from her body. In fact a woman’s body is often a tool with which many draw superficial conclusions about her character, attractiveness and sexuality. Flick through fashion magazines and you’ll realise the implicit message is that the ‘perfect’ body is a thin one. With so many successful women (specifically celebrities) being thin, it’s very easy to see why some young girls believe being thin is a prerequisite of success.
The discourse surrounding the ‘perfect’ body is more complicated for young black women. Whilst the mainstream remains enamoured by the ‘size zero’ physique, black women are exposed to a subculture where the expectation is she should be voluptuous. Whilst it’s good there’s a subculture where physiques usually pushed to the periphery are celebrated, the problem is the ‘curvy black woman’ is one-dimensional. Furthermore it fails to reflect the hybrid of physiques (and tastes) that exist within the black community.
A friend of mine recently expressed her joy at the fact the size zero body seemed to be being edged out by the ‘Kim Kardashian’ mould. Personally I think the contradictory ‘perfect’ body messages simply add to the confusion and pressure, rather than create balance. Whatever body type the media celebrates (whether a curvy Kim K or frail Lindsay Lohan), the common denominator is it’s physically flawless. However most women aren’t physically flawless and are unable to attain and maintain the ‘perfect’ body, no matter what it looks like. Despite this, many young women are on a futile quest to attain the ‘perfect’ body, whether it’s via constant dieting, working out excessively or surgical methods.
We’ve internalised so many messages about our bodies, it’s become almost impossible to distil what we want, from what they tell us we should be. Consequently a young woman’s relationship with her body can often be about everyone else but herself. You’d think the fact that women’s magazines are run by woman would help matters. Instead the women who run these magazines seem to be leading the movement that wants all women to hate their bodies. ‘Get Your Bikini Bod’ the headline screams. ‘Dump Your Love Handles’, ‘Duck Tape Your Jelly Belly’ (ok the last one was an exaggeration….). When I pick up a woman’s magazine, I’m more likely to read about how to modify the appearance of my body, not how to maintain (or increase) the health of the body I already have.
Yet funnily enough when it comes down to it, it’s health that really matters.
Sidebar: Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who’s dealing with a serious health issue whether they still care about cellulite or bit of back fat.
Rather than obsessing over our hip to waist ratio or whether our stomachs are flat enough, or natural ways to get bigger breasteses * hangs head *….our focus should be on what’s going on internally. The real questions we should be asking ourselves are: Am I living and eating in a way that ensures I have the best quality of life possible? and ‘How do change my lifestyle to optmisise the chances of me having a healthy body and long life span?’
Whilst it’s unlikely we’ll be able to take control of a media that insists on putting a disproportionate emphasis on body type, what we can do is take control of our health. Until we do this many of us will remain on a futile journey where we foolishly value aesthetic over our health.
The choice is yours. What do you want, a healthy body? Or a 'perfect' one?