Saturday, April 25, 2015

Body of Confessions: Big Legs, Tight Skirt


I meant for this to be a series, but residency took a bite out of my life yet again and I got behind. This is the next installment of Body of Confessions, to follow the first in the series, "Long Hair."

I think other people have always admired my legs more than I have admired them myself.

Well, not always. There was the preschool ballet instructor who told my mother that I could not succeed in ballet because "[my] things are too big." My mother didn't tell me that until years later. I thought I stopped ballet because I was no longer interested. News to me.

I didn't have a distinct Neruda ritual de mis piernas moment. It all happened gradually after my legs took a very different shape after puberty. Prior to puberty, I was an obese kid with a big belly and smaller, but chunky legs supporting my frame. As puberty commenced, the fat in my body shifted somewhat, but it wasn't until I lost some of that weight of childhood that my legs came out on top.

Well, more than just my legs--my backside, my hips, and my thighs. I don't think I was ever aware of them myself; my mother made me aware.

"You need to cover them legs. They could stop traffic!" That was how my mother told me that I had pretty legs. That they were a distraction and needed to be covered, for modesty's sake. Though modesty, in this case, was painted through the lens of causing male distraction. As soon as I was pubertal, my mother no longer allowed me to wear shorts and instead sewed her own culottes for me to wear.

My mother had an odd set of norms for modesty that I think harkened back more to Nation of Islam's clothing requirements for women. She held tight to "below the knee" as if that were a definitive thing even though in her own time she wore full hijab.

As I got older and defined my own sense of modesty, my legs became a focal point. Maybe it was better for me not to wear tight pants like the other girls, I thought to myself in high school. Because my thighs were so much bigger than my calves, tight pants made my legs look like chicken drumsticks. It took me several years to realize that I couldn't properly wear a belt because the ratio of my behind to my waist was too much for any low-rise jeans. And even in times when I wasn't a hijabi or otherwise particularly concerned about modesty, I felt my legs were never meant for shorts. My thighs would rub together and cause them to ride up in the middle, which was almost as unattractive as having to tug at the inner hem all day long.

"I don't know how...women can wear those canvas panties," my mother would often lament.

I was never comfortable with my big booty, hips and thighs.

It didn't help that my mother's prophecy came true. From the ages of 18 to 20, while walking in jeans and a t-shirt along my college campus, I did more than turn heads. Men of all ages (usually not students) would stop what they were doing and look, wave, cat call, you name it. Just walking from class to the bookstore, I could count on being hit on at least 2 or 3 times. One day it was a trucker calling out to me, another day it was the city police waving to me.

I got used to male attention, and I came to like and expect it. I began to look in the mirror at myself, turn myself around and think, this is what men want. I don't know why, but this is what they want. The chicken drumsticks. But other women at college told me that they didn't like cat calls and found them to be demeaning. I began to wonder, what was wrong with me for liking them? At the same time, I used college to delve deeper into my Islam inspired, ironically, by an almost-boyfriend in high school who asked what I wore in the summer, trying to imagine me in little clothing, which ultimately led me to embrace my mother's Islam from which I had distanced myself during my high school years.

At that point, my legs became a simultaneous point of pride and shame for me.

Because maybe if I didn't wear those "tight" jeans, I wouldn't call attention to myself.

So at 21, a few days after being called "bitch" after not responding to a man's advances as I walked to class one day, I donned hijab. I looked rag-tag in the beginning because I did not have very many loose-fitting pants that I felt were appropriate. This would be the answer, I believed. This way, my thighs would no longer stop traffic.

It took me a few months to get used to having bountiful male attention to becoming invisible.

I struggled with weight during and after hijab in a way I never have. In the midst of that struggle, my thighs have taken on another identity for me--evidence of poor fitness. Sometimes I look at the shape of my lower thigh as a barometer for how much weight I have gained or loss. In medical school, I embraced the idea of "challenge pants," or pants that were too small for me now but that I would use as a weight loss incentive. Sometimes, it worked. Other times, I was a third year medical student. I still have a few pairs of those challenge pants in my closet.

Even with fluctuating weight, the lower part of my body still draws attention, usually from men I designate "street randoms." This one man proclaimed to me that my thighs were "like they made 'em in Mississippi!"

To which I laughed and though, "No, more like how they make them in West Africa." And that's where I reached my peace with my legs, years ago. I did not inherit my mother's body. I get my body from my Nigerian side of the family. My mother loved me and marveled at the transformation of my young body into a form different from that of the women in her family, the form of a Nigerian woman with long legs, thick thighs and ample behind. She would later lament the "baseball bat" legs in her family. Her instinct was for me to cover to protect myself. Though covering is certainly a tactic, self-awareness I think is another important tool of protection.

Not only self-awareness, but self-love and compassion.

This is the body of my West African ancestors that I have been blessed to inherit. These are not the legs of other women, whose thighs and calves are not that different in size. So no, my figure does not lend to the classic ballet physique. And yes, maybe I share ancestors with some of my sisters in Mississippi. But this is my body, and before it's for anyone else and more than it will ever be for anyone else, it is for me, alhamdulillah.

I don't need street randoms to validate me.

How powerful it would have been if my mother taught me to love my body, or taught me modesty in the context of self-love.

Who knows, I...probably would have been the same woman who thought her thighs looked like chicken drumsticks in skinny jeans.

...and I still kind of do.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Hater hater hater hater hater

As salaam alaikum,

I started reading The Root ( after my previous relationship, and my SO at the time was into all things black. All things pan-African and all things African diaspora. I mean, it's no wonder--we met at a pan-African book club hosted by mutual friends. It only had to be. Except, in spite of being the one who actually has black American ancestry, he was blacker than I was. I didn't read The Root or Grio as my main news sources, after all. And it was always off-putting for me to see only stories about black people--as if only news stories involving black people mattered to black people.

Maybe I really wasn't black enough.

Though it's by far not my only news source, it's one of the more consistent news sites I visit. I get most of the rest of my news from my Facebook newsfeed and the front page of NYT or The Seattle Times in the coffee shops I visit a couple of days a week.

I don't have television.

Anyway, this was a long preface.

One of the stories I love to read in The Root is that of young adults of color excelling in academics or in their early careers. Reading these pieces make me almost certain that I want to home-school my future children, insha'Allah. Seriously, it seems like children who are home-schooled really have their potential unlocked.

Occasionally, there will also be a story about a young person who got accepted to all of the Ivy League schools for college. I'm impressed that this happens more than once, but then again, I never met anyone who applied to all Ivy League schools.

The first two articles of this type that I'd seen in the last two weeks were about first or second generation African students. One was Nigerian American, the other, Somali American. I've come to almost anticipate in the comment section at least someone pointing out that these are African immigrants, and then stating a variation of the following sentiments:

(1) "Slave-descended success does not equal non-slave-descended success." I put this in quotes and I must call it out because this was blurted in a Facebook discussion by one of my acquaintances, who was one of my smart and hardworking classmates in public health school. She said this in response to an article I posted about Nigerians being the most educated immigrants in the country. I think she didn't know that I was, in fact, only half Nigerian and the other half "slave-descended." I asked her which success I benefited from, either or none at all. The more tactful version of this comment is, "I'm proud of this young person, but their circumstances are different, being an African immigrant. They came here as a child, so their formative years were not marred by the effects of American institutionalized racism like their African American counterparts."


(2) "If only young black kids/students could stop [fill in the blank of some stereotypical assumption about black students], they could be achieving these things, too."

(3) African first- and second-generation students are taking "the slots" meant for African American students at these schools.

There are probably others I have missed.

I'm used to these things, and, knowing that I probably shouldn't be wasting my time reading comments sections, anyway, I move on. Or so I think.

Then, today, I read an article about an African American student whose family lost everything in Katrina who overcame this loss and went on to get into 8 Ivy League colleges. I looked at her first and last name. She did not seem like a first- or second-generationer. I scrolled down to the comments section, expecting to see someone say, "Now, here is the story I'm looking for. Congratulations to this young woman!"

Instead, I see a comment, full of vitriol, that does not merit paraphrasing and makes little sense. The young woman wanted to study literature and political science. Great. Those are great majors for pre-law, I would think. Instead, this commenter said something about the majors guaranteeing that she would stay in her parents' home until marriage, harkening to a history at HBCUs of women entering college to marry the HBCU men, snarky comment about high echelon blacks, as this person assumes this woman's parents must be, etc.

And the title of this post is my reaction to that comment.

I realized that there is a group of never-satisfied people who will take this story and despair at the fact that the person is African immigrant or immigrant-descended and thus not "real" black. There is someone else who will dismiss and individual as being part of a so-called disconnected black social class, even if they do not have that data.

This is why I loved the "Player Haters Ball" skit of the Chappelle show so much. Hate for no reason. Hate because you're breathing. Hate with no data. Hate because you can.

And this is the semi-benign (because no hate is ever benign) hating-on, as opposed to the always damaging actual hate that I'm speaking to.

I guess those who think of the stories in an only positive light, like myself, are not the ones commenting.

One of black people's favorite words (at least the black people I grew up with) was accolades. Okay. Can we not give accolades where accolades are due? Seriously. Let's stop bickering about how we should celebrate young African first- and second-gens less because their success means less and its supposedly achieved on the backs of African Americans. Because no it doesn't and no it's not. I am Nigerian-American and I am African-American. I live both perspective simultaneously. Ask me anything.

Maybe if we celebrated one another with genuine pride, we could learn from one another and make this place a better place for all of our children, because seriously, right now, this country is pretty shitty for black people. An African surname will not save any of us from a racist too blinded by our hues and browns to see our humanity.

Maybe we wouldn't have turned our back on Martin Luther King and left him vulnerable and left him assassinated.

Maybe we wouldn't have assisted in the killing of brother Malcolm.

And on and on.

So, in summary, I'm tired of the hate. This is ridiculous. Yes, I do want to hear the story of the kid raised by a hard-working single mom, or who grew up below 100% poverty line, or who struggled through the grittiest ghettos or survived the most dilapidated of school districts get accepted into all the Ivy league schools he or she applied to, but more than that, I want to hear about the adults on the other side of their college education finding careers to help make a difference in ways that are meaningful to them in their communities and in society in general. Because that's where it counts.

And if we're stuck back at being less proud of Africans or disdainful of rich blacks, then I have to quote my mother in telling us, "That's why [we] ain't runnin' nothin'."