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.

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