The clock ticks slowly- ever so slowly- towards 9:20. You allow your gaze to shift from the good lady in front of you going on about Hitler’s faulty strategies in World War 2, to the leaves basking in the mid-morning sunshine outside your window. A gentle breeze pushes them to rustle just a bit, and some of it catches you, washing away some sleep from your eyes. It’s not that world history is boring, just that when taught in a quiet drone, it is. Plus you’ve been in class since 6:30 am and the two slices of old bread and cup of watery tea that was your breakfast is all but gone from your stomach. Your body aches for the outside world.
You can feel the rest of the class waking up. Even the good lady at the front seems like she could use a break. One minute to. Pens are hurriedly being put away and exercise books shut. Not that you have been taking notes-the drawn on moustaches and lipstick on the photographs of Africa’s prominent leaders in everybody’s textbooks tell a different story.
The bell rings and a collective sigh of relief escapes some. The class was a millimeter close to erupting in cheers.
“Make sure you read ahead on the…”
Nobody hears her, the poor lady. Some are halfway out, the rest have dropped their heads to their desks for a quick nap.
The moment you step into the sun you know that twenty years from now, when you will be telling your kids about your days in high school, the 9:20 am break will be a highlight. They will hear how the sunshine slowly seeped into your skin, warming you up from the outside in. They will know that in the long run you sincerely believe that that sunshine made you a better person, filled you with hope and love for humanity in an environment that mostly suffocated individuality and trampled upon dreams. Those poor kids will hear, multiple times probably (because as a parent you must, you absolutely must, tell your stories over and over again- everybody knows this. If they are not telling the story along with you and hurrying it to the end because they honestly feel that if they hear it one more time in its entirety they will jump off a roof, you’re doing it wrong), about how in a day filled with cold, boredom, despair and terrible food, those rays of sunshine were your only hope of a better life. And that because of that celestial magic, the phrase ‘the sun will shine again’ holds deep significance for you, and that is why it is emblazoned on that wall hanging that they say is ugly and old-fashioned but you will never get rid of.
You stand there thinking of all the good and beautiful that is left in the world, allowing new dreams to hatch and reviving the older ones that were injured the day before, when your teacher said that their work as teachers was to make sure that you, as students in a school of such high caliber, would be leading in the rat race out there in the real world…and you didn’t see why you had to be a rat and why it had to be a race. Your classmates slowly gather around you and the banter continues. Somehow from talking about one of the English teachers you end up talking about weight gain and loss. And you know that this will not be a delightful conversation for you.
“Na Michelle hapa hajawai nona tangu Form One,” someone will say.
It is an interesting conversation and many will laugh. “Eeh. Lakini she doesn’t even eat.”
“Haiya! You you don’t know! This girl eats kama sijui what!”
“And she still doesn’t gain weight? Ama you’re on a diet Michelle?”
Here there is raucous laughter because the idea of skinny, bony, tiny, hipless and assless Michelle on a diet is ridiculous. You don’t blame them. People aren’t exactly going out of their minds and screaming themselves hoarse rooting for you during a game of musical chairs.
“Let’s just pray that she gets a husband. Na vile wanaume wanapenda madame wenye wako nazo…”
“Eeh. Wanapenda kuwa na vitu za kushikilia.”
You laugh as well. How can you not? To express any other emotion will be to show that you are offended. Which will be to show that you are bothered by your size. Which will be to show that your self esteem is not as healthy as you portray it to be. And you don’t want that. No matter how true it is.
The bell rings and everybody is upset about it. Ten minutes is too short and the sunshine too delicious. You all continue to hang around instead of trooping back to class. No, you prefer to wait for the teachers to show up with threats and menace so that you are all caught in a frenzy of chaos, tripping over and bumping into each other in a bid to get into your classrooms before the teachers do. You don’t want to get locked out of class so you all shove and jostle because, somehow, forty girls must fit through a standard size doorway in five seconds.
You sit at your desk and begin getting out your mathematics books. You glance outside and regret how quickly the ten-minute break passed by. Your hands go to your waist and move down to where your hips should have been.If they had the courtesy to exist. You sigh, remembering that you have never owned an item of clothing that actually fit and wasn’t picked from the children’s section. And you wonder whether indeed hips and ass and general fleshiness was that important to even the man who might one day be your husband.
You learn pretty early on that one of the rules of social conduct is that you do not call a woman fat. Because that’s just rude. If you must draw attention to the amount of space a female takes up, say that she is ‘kinda big’, ‘not small’, ‘big-boned’, PHAT (you know, pretty hot and thick. It’s a pretty good movie too)…or such other euphemistic terms. You must keep in mind that the world has not provided an atmosphere within which girls who are on the heavier side can thrive and be confident in who they are. You must remember that just because the Western world appreciates smaller sizes on women, it doesn’t mean that the rest of world is of the same mind. You must, and this is important, remember that there are people whose self-esteems have been enormously (sorry, completely not intentional) affected by bullies who made them feel ugly and worthless because they couldn’t fit into a size 6 dress. And finally, forever be aware that psychological disorders are real and there are people committing suicide, acquiring eating disorders, and generally walking around with their heads down and their shoulders drooped under the weight of the knowledge that they do not meet the world’s standards of beauty.
Then after a while you realize that the world does change and every era has its own ideas of what an attractive woman should look like. And that in this particular one, you would do well to have a tiny waist and flat midriff that serve as a contrast to a well-endowed chest and well-endowed behind.
And then you realize that because it’s considered that you’re heading in the right direction if your physical endowments aren’t that obvious, you are not allowed to be aggrieved about it. I mean sure you’re not exactly the ideal, and so still not good enough, but at least you’re on this side of the scale. Which means that while the term ‘fat-shaming’ will be invented, ‘skinny-shaming’ will not become a thing. So you shut up about your size. Like, true, you do not meet the impossible standards of beauty that have been set for women everywhere, but you are not allowed to be distressed about it so suck it up and shut up, okay? And try to put some meat on those bones, over here looking like some awkward adolescent boy with your skinny ass.
You stand in front of your mirror, assessing yourself. Scrutinizing yourself. The human eye is drawn to mistakes, your lecturer said the other day, and it appears he was right. It is easy, too easy, to see everything that is wrong with the girl in the mirror.
You gained weight, at long last. A few minutes ago you were triumphantly narrating to your family how you can finally donate blood. You were at the clinic today and you checked your weight; you finally hit 50kgs! In fact, you did three better. 53 Kilograms of flesh, that’s what you are. You were smiling as you spoke of this latest development. You reminded them, even, of how they had told you years before- when basking in the 9:20 sun was one of the highlights of your day- that girls normally gain weight in Form Two. But yours never came. Not in Form Two, not in Form Three, not in Form Four.
“You should start going to the gym now.”
It hit you like a brick. Your smile faded. Your sense of triumph deflated. “What?” you struggled to say.
“Yeah…umenona sana. It’s better you start losing the weight now instead of waiting until some years from now. It will be harder then.”
“Why should I lose weight?” You began getting intensely annoyed.
Another voice. “ Ni hiyo cheese yote umekuwa ukikula.”
“Kwanza look at your arms vile they’ve began jiggling.”
“There’s no difference between you and Mum now. Na katumbo kameanza kucome.”
Now here you are, assessing, scrutinizing, finding fault. You had thought they would be happy now that you have put some meat on those bones. Apparently not. But perhaps they are right. Your mid section is no longer flat. But then again neither are your hips. And the jeans you have on, they fit. Well.
“Screw it,” you mutter to yourself. You like the weight, that’s all that matters. You’ve wanted this for years. You wanted to have curves. You wanted to be soft, not straight. You wanted to know that if you wanted to donate blood, you could. But the jiggly arms…the pudgy tummy…the non-toned everything…
“Screw it,” you say again, and back away from the mirror. You even smile, remind yourself that you got what you wanted. That you are beautiful- you always were, actually. That you will not conform to the standards of this world- it’s in the bible. That you will not allow society to dictate to you anymore whether you are enough.
But the thought persists: Maybe you should shed a bit of the weight.