Two weeks ago, I attended a much-needed R and R session with some powerful feminist sisters, R and R here, meaning Rethink and Re-Energize. The theme for this session centred around body politics, a topic I have a deep interest in and passion for.
The first day being about beauty standards, a discussion that emphasized the need for us, as African Women to dissect the standards we have spent many years and bountiful amounts of money to live up to. Often, we do not realize the amount of influence these standards have on how we present ourselves and most importantly, look at ourselves.
What stuck with me was our conversation on appearance, beauty and body politics, the interlinking of the three under the highly patriarchal society we live in.
I recalled the words of my mother and aunt over the past few weeks. A point I have raised in one too many discussions, a point I thought was my effort in searching for solidarity among my feminist circles but realized was my search for self-validation against the image my mother and aunt were imposing.
For many weeks now, my mother has emphasized my need to lose some weight, there was no reason to it except that many parts of my body she would point out as too big or too fat, that included my bum, breasts, back rolls, arms and most of all, my stomach- which for context has not been flat since I became pregnant with my son over 7 years ago.
All the parts of my body she alluded to, are often determinants of women’s level of beauty, a spectrum of beautiful that we are examined on so we may receive the societal certificate of beauty. Other features on this spectrum include full lips, long necks, thin waists, bright eyes and light skin.
It is the same for many women in Africa, young or old and from the many intersections we occupy as women. We spend a lot of time picking apart each other’s bodies based on this spectrum of beauty standards, set by rich, white, heterosexual men in the hegemonic masculinity realm. All other men then adopt these standards in some pseudo effort to fit into the hegemonic masculine existence, after which Capitalism promotes them.
The likening to these standards does not exist because we are not beautiful or that we do not see each other as beautiful women, but because from the time we are born, we are conditioned to live up to impossible standards. This is done through our mothers who are influenced by other women including Aunts and Grandmothers in the comments and unsolicited opinions on how our mothers dressed and groomed us as babies, which then translates to how we dress and groom ourselves as young women.
Remember those itchy poofy princess dresses that we, as little girls were dressed in, usually on Sundays for Church or events such weddings, the dresses that threatened to suffocate us because they were so tight by the chest area? The dresses that resembled the old Victorian-era dresses that suffocated women with the frills and corsets? The dresses that had little girls feeling envious every time we would see a friend wearing one, mostly because our mothers told us these types of dresses meant you looked beautiful. I remember how the lace on these dresses felt, how hot they were and how itchy that tough lace was and I hold a deep hatred for them.
Beyond the clothes, there was the constant reminder and emphasis of what body type and skin tone we should aspire to have if we were to be considered beautiful as we grew older. This is what we have done to young girls and continue to do, this is what we have been conditioned to believe is the necessity for societal acceptance.
Back at my R & R, we went on with the discussion, many realities of our constant negotiation with society became clear. I wrote before, on Body politics and which systems own our bodies, on the punishments unruly women face when we step out of the patriarchally allowed lines. These punishments come in the form of statements such as no one will marry you if you have tattoos and piercings, or long straightened hair, the emphasis on wearing straight wigs to appear professional to hide African hair.
We struggle so much to fit into the box patriarchy has for many years attempted to put us in, because it is easier to control us if we are all uniform under its rules and it is easier to maintain male privilege if all our attention and time is spent on attaining these standards.
In our concluding conversation on this topic, there was a unified concession that we need to rebuild our confidence in ourselves as beautiful women, in our individual spaces as well as a sisterhood. We identified a strong need for us to separate ourselves from these standards for us to begin the process of rebuilding.
There is a recurring epiphany I have, each time my self-esteem and confidence takes a blow. Many of these times happen because of comments that are made about what I am doing wrong according to these beauty standards. I have no problem with my face, body or myself in general and the way I look, and I never have. But I realized that for a long time, I measured my beauty against these standards, whether it was because of the comments and opinions of others, or from what I saw on television, in books or magazines.
We spend many years internalizing these negative thoughts about our bodies, which influence how we address and look at other women around us. This has created a hatred for our individual selves and especially for women who have broken from the yoke of these standards, which for the most part, we do not realize.
For many years, we have suffered under these standards and it is long overdue for us women to unyoke ourselves and create a safe environment for us to separate ourselves from that and begin rebuilding our confidence in ourselves and our bodies.
There is nothing more radical than existing outside the box of patriarchy and living by beauty standards set by yourself, for yourself.
Jessica Mandanda is a young African feminist from Malawi. She is a writer and communications specialist specifically works on gender, development and the protection of women‘s rights. She is passionate about bodily autonomy, sex positivity, body positivity, ending sexual violence against all women and girls and the liberation of women in realizing our sexual and reproductive health and rights with zero discrimination, stigma and societal backlash.