There is a dress that sits somewhere in my wardrobe, folded with everything else as though it holds no special meaning to me. My mother bought that dress two years ago—the money was hers, I mean. It was one of those glorious days when she expresses love by saying, “I saw some nice clothes at this shop near the salon I go to, go find something nice for yourself.” Gifts for no particular reason: a love language. So I did. I went and I found something nice for myself. A little black dress. The second I put it on I knew that I had never looked as amazing as I did just then. It was special from the beginning.
Every few months when I’m cleaning out my wardrobe in the spirit of minimalism, I take that dress out and I try it on. Every time I have done this, it has been a tighter fit than the last time. It doesn’t zip up anymore and the hem sits much higher now. My mother would be scandalized. I have never actually worn this dress anywhere. I am the only one who knows just how great it looked on me three years ago.
I have always been skinny. When I was 14, I weighed barely 30 kilograms. Nobody really cared at that time; it was only mentioned once in a while how small I was. I was a normal height for my age so my weight wasn’t alarming to the self-appointed BMI specialists that everybody has in their life. It worked for me. Then high school came and brought with it a very specific brand of expectations. Suddenly I was ‘too’ small, whereas a year before I was just small with no degree attributed to my smallness. My classmates made fun of me for not having any curves. Because we were now in high school and boys were to be the main motivation for a great deal more than before. They said I would be lucky to find a boyfriend because men liked women with meat on their bones. When others came to my defence it was often by saying things like how there were many men out there who value things other than curves. Which is to say without really saying that at least I had something. Not the best thing, but something. I left high school weighing 39.5 kilos.
I have gained a lot in weight since then. I spent quite a bit of time enjoying life and not caring or thinking about my size until one day my clothes didn’t fit anymore. I was elated to look at myself closely and see more flesh everywhere. And I mean everywhere.
What they don’t tell you when they are insisting that you’re underweight is that when you do gain weight, they will change their tune and insist that you’re overweight. Or that the weight is fine, only that it is the wrong places. Hips, good. Thighs, good. Ass, so good. Breasts, fantastic. But no tummy fat. No arm fat. No love handles. Just no. Stick to the designated body zones for acceptable weight gain.
My identity crumbled.
My whole life I had been the small girl. The short, skinny, light-skin with a serious face. I had integrated this size thing into myself so that it didn’t bother me so much. It didn’t bother me that I was smaller than people preferred. I laughed about it and said how it only meant that sometimes if there were too many people in the car I would be the one to be carried. I was used to people thinking that I was the last born in the family because everybody else was bigger. I was okay with relatives who met me and asked why I was not eating, and with friends who wondered where all the food I ate went when they discovered that I actually ate like I had never heard of the word self-control. It was who I was.
Until it wasn’t.
Suddenly I had to deal with being a bigger girl. With finding clothes in my wardrobe that I loved but that were now too small. With struggling to zip my jeans. With people meeting me for the first time in a while and staring because they couldn’t believe it was me. ‘Na umenona! Kwani unakula nini?’ It was always asked with an incredulous tone; a tone that suggested that okay, weight gain is good but you went a bit too far. My mother’s sisters began commenting that I had the ‘family arms’ and would hold up their arms and jiggle their arms as they said this. They laughed and so did I. But there was always that implied meaning in their words: the family arms were not a thing to be proud of, and I should have saved myself from them while I still could.
Of all the phrases I have heard as a result of people meeting an unexpectedly bigger Michelle, the worst one has been ‘You’re too big for a girl of your age’. It stings. It angers. Partly because it never comes from people I actually like; it’s always the ones I can barely stand so already I am irritated by their presence and the sound of their voice. But mostly it is that second part, ‘for a girl of your age’. Because what is a girl of my age supposed to look like exactly? Is there a template that was forwarded to some people and not to others? Who decides these things?
For the past three years, I have had struggles with body image that I never thought I would. At 16 years old and 35 kilos heavy, I was standing in front of mirrors convincing myself that I did have curves, that it’s the clothes that covered them up, and mourning the fact that I had a tummy. Now, I was standing in front of mirrors confident that I had curves but still mourning the fact that I have a tummy. Somehow, 30 kilos later, I found myself still stressed out about the same thing. It’s taken a lot of reading and a lot of listening for me to realise that maybe my appearance was never the problem. My perception of it was.
I am slowly rebuilding my identity. Saying it is easy, or that I am completely over my body image issues, would be a lie of the worst kind. Because it is hypocritical. I don’t believe that there comes a time when people, and especially women, will be utterly rid of society’s impositions on them and their bodies. The ‘ideal body’ changes every couple of decades or so. What’s in now probably won’t be what’s in when my daughters (if they end up existing) are discovering their own bodies. But the standards will always be there. And there will always be people who do not measure up. People who will suffer because, for all our intelligence, humans aren’t showing any signs that we will learn how to accept difference, diversity, that which looks unlike what we are used to.
My readings are serving me well. I am unlearning and learning. It’s spectacular just how little I knew about the politics of bodies before they began affecting me directly. But I am here now, rebuilding, refining my sensitivity towards the issues surrounding our different bodies, searching for growth, for a path to acceptance and maybe love. The steps forward are small and difficult to take. My mother’s sisters do not like to be told that they have no right talking about my body or anybody else’s. But it is what it is. I am here, in this space, right now. They will just have to deal.
As for my dress, it still sits in my wardrobe, folded with my other un-special things. Since the revolution of love began in me, I have chosen to give away clothes as soon as I realise they no longer serve the purpose. I don’t hold on to them in the hope that they will motivate me to get me small again. I know it won’t happen; it will only make me feel worse when I see them and get tempted to try them on only to find out they still no longer fit and still make me feel ‘less than’. So I give them away. They are just clothes, after all. But I keep the black dress. Every time.
I was saving that dress for a special occasion and I never got to attend a special occasion in that size. Perhaps I can’t let it go because it’s one of the most expensive things I own—my mother bought it, remember? Maybe it’s because I enjoy the memory of how I looked and felt in that dress 20 kilos ago. Or maybe—probably—I am still learning to give love to the girl I face in the mirror every morning. A part of me still yearns for the me that fit into that dress. A part of me cannot unhear the voice that goes: You will never look as great as you did then, not like this. Can you blame me? Every other day there is a stupid commercial or show or magazine article that tells me that the girl of two years ago is better.
One day I will be able to give away that dress. Today is not that day. For now, though, the unlearning and the rebuilding continues.