by Ngozi Cole
“Just eat more!”
“Bo you dray o”
“Of course you can afford to eat another doughnut, look at you”
“Somebody feed her-fufu or a Big Mac ”
... The gentle violence.
The rib counting started early, when the crooked finger poked at her collar-bone, the grey eyebrows furrowed, and the rice matriarch cast a disapproving glance on her flat chest and flat ass … “you nor full up yay sef.” After that she would go to her room and take off her uniform, stand in front of the mirror and count the bones stretched tightly against thin spare flesh. Then she would get her big bowl of rice and soup, each spoonful was less delicious than the previous one… diminishing returns… but the rice had to be finished. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she crept out into the backyard and fed the dog some of it, praying he would devour it quickly before anyone saw her. The she would present the empty bowl to the rice matriarch, and in her eyes, there would be a glimmer of hope that someday, she would be a little bit voluptuous and “full up yay.” Then the night would come and in her dreams, there was always a man forcing rice down her throat. Thankfully, she finally learned to love her body, but this strange man still haunted her dreams.
“Do you even eat?”
The rib counting continued later on, even after he told her that it was okay that her fullness wasn’t "in all the right places," that it instead fattened her beautiful spirit. Despite the well-meaning flattery behind the "compliment," it never drowned out every self-conscious voice in her head, and her collar bones still stuck out defiantly, falsely giving off signs of persistent hunger, bitterness, and bitchiness. The ribs were okay — they could be hidden under over-sized clothing. The legs were a problem though, especially during the harsh purgatory of winter, when leggings and jeans were a necessity. Her legs would be tightly pressed against these and their thin form could not be hidden. She hated sweatpants — her bony knees always seemed to stick out weirdly in them. After trudging through the snow the whole day she would return to her room, remove layers of grey and black… and count her ribs.
“Real women have curves,” and a model died from anorexia last week.
Was she faking her womanhood then? She didn't really benefit from it either. She didn't walk the runway. She was no Adriana Lima, Miranda Kerr or Liya Kebede. Her catwalk was her unwilling trek to work every morning on the slippery ice laden runway for $8.50 an hour. No, she was not responsible for the media telling women that their body type was the epitome of the white capitalist construction of female beauty. She also wasn’t white. She was African, and was supposed to have a thick ass and bursting voluptuousness, according to constructions of "true African womanhood." This is for skinny girls, who are not supposed to have body image issues, and dare not complain about their insecurities. This is for skinny girls who binge eat in the hope of finding their fullness. This is for skinny girls who are shamed and blamed for the media’s dastardly message that skinnier is prettier. This is for skinny girls whose jobs do not include posing for cameras or walking Victoria’s Secret runways.
This is for skinny girls who stand in front of a mirror… counting our ribs… sometimes unsure of our own fullness.
Ngozi Cole is a 2013 recipient of the National Youth Excellence Award for Leadership in Sierra Leone, an exhibition of my deep commitment to my country. As a MILEAD 2013 fellow, she is involved in networks that promote women’s leadership and socio-economic empowerment for the grass roots, and my MiChange project-E-hub Sierra Leone, has attracted over 1000 followers on social media. Cole writes for several online media platforms such as African Youth Journals and Voice of Women Initiative, and runs her own blog at sepiadahlia.com.