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Of Chi-hive, Beyhive and the fallacy of ‘Flawless’

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo   |   24 June 2017   |   3:55 am


“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller” – these words from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous TEDX talk We Should All Be Feminists caused furore over social media when fashion entrepreneur Lisa Folawiyo voiced her reservations on the generalisation and in return got trolled by fans of the award-winning author with such fervour that would put the Beyhive (the name adopted by the fans of Beyoncé who of course proved her fan girl credentials for Adichie by sampling her speech in her 2013 single “Flawless”) to shame.

While I believe, in the case of Ms Folawiyo and the Chi-hive, to let the dead debates on social media lie, it struck me during a family chat the other day, “We teach girls to shrink themselves”, in fact, we have been teaching girls to shrink themselves in more ways than one.

As my sister-in-law and I were harassing another member of the family over their weight gain, Bisola, my 19-year-old niece interrupted and announced sternly, “Do you realise this is considered body shaming?” before adding “I’d me mortified if you spoke to me like this.” Puzzled, considering her slight frame and size 10 figure, I said, “Well, easy for some, as you are not the one putting on weight.” Ever as quick in the art of the retort as her daughter, my sister-in-law quickly interrupted with, “That’s what she thinks! Of course she has put on weight.”

Bisola’s response? “Well, you can say what you like. I am perfect in every way!”
There I was, nearly twice her age, marvelling at how this girl at the edge of her teen years could exude more confidence than it took me to muster my whole adult life. And I knew how – like practically every woman of my generation, we were all taught to shrink ourselves. Negative body image, body confidence issues, eating disorders be damned; we were raised by the tenet that skinny is good, fat is bad. After all, imagine growing up in a part of the world where the size of your backside is more a topic of discussion amongst family members than the size of your ambitions or your bank balance?

It was only moving to the UK in my twenties where the average dress size for women is 14 that I started slowly making peace with the fact that I would never be a size 0 and that was okay. Eventually with compounding health issues, as I grew from size 10 to 12 to now 14 – finally the UK average, I started struggling my obsession with weight flared up once again. I took up exercising more, eating less, constantly watching the scales and tape measure.

If you thought the obsession with skinny is an oyinbo foible, think again – as I had to. Since the mid-noughties, I had noticed a sea change in the Nigerian attitude to weight. What was once and still often is seen as a sign of prosperity and well-living was gradually shunned by a new generation of young women, who in their quest for slim hips and tiny waistlines had ended up with lollipop heads incongruous to the rest of their figure which was reminiscent of pre-pubescent child’s. If I needed any further proof, spending six months with a 23-year-old niece who’d only eat once a day, take up 100 sit-ups at the sight of a slight pouch, saying she had to avoid getting bigger (her euphemism for fat).

As for me, there are no two ways about it – yes, I am getting fatter but also more mature – at least mature enough to know that being size 8 doesn’t guarantee good health; likewise, you can be a size 18 and be at your fittest. Don’t get me wrong, the battle is not half won. Occasionally, I still catch myself side-eyeing a size-20 woman and judging her for the girth of her hips and the size of her arms, then immediately check my behaviour. Or I still enviously ogle the perfect figure of yet another Instagram girl and have to stop and remind myself she is half my age. Occasionally when I go home over the holidays and when my mum reminds me I need to lose weight, it hurts of course.

Now, the difference is, however, I don’t take it personal but a manifestation of a mindset that teaches us girls – sometimes even boys – to shrink, and that if we shrink, we will be happier, healthier, and more loveable. The truth is, none of us is flawless; the real flawless are those who can see beyond the flaws – expanding waitlines, sagging skin, dimpled thighs, stretch marks – and can still have the audacity to say, “I am perfect in every way!”

Perhaps the defining feature of my mindset shift is the fact that I am fortunate enough to be married to a man who accepts me with my bulging arms, expanding waistline, widening hips; who has never said a negative word about my body; a man who was raised by a woman who taught him better than most our mothers and most of us do. That we are flawless with all our flaws, in our own way and size, without having to shrink – mentally, emotionally or physically – to fit into other people’s expectations. Perhaps that’s all we should teach our children. That, and my 19-year-niece’s inimitable self-confidence.




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