2 November 2017

Africa: Don't Hate Me Because I'm Beautiful

Photo: ThisisAfrica
The attention that @Thickleeyonce’s response to @imleyton garnered from international media is just one indicator of how imperative it is to address the issue of women’s bodies being policed and scrutinised.

Whether we are being told that we are too fat or too thin, women are expected to want to change their bodies to meet society's standards of beauty. But as Lineo Segoete writes, body-positivity is one way of taking a stand against discrimination, objectification, fetishisation and other attempts at patriarchal control.

The Internet is a wonderful world of expression, knowledge and entertainment but it can also be a cesspool of abuse. An example of the latter is the tendency for trolls to prey on the image and self-esteem of others - particularly of women.

Twitter lost its mind in September 2017 when a user named @Thickleeyonce dished out one of the most refreshing clap-backs of 2017 to one @imleyton. What @imleyton had intended as a stab at full-figured women ended up being turned back on him in a full-fledged assault on men who feel entitled to critique women's bodies.

Nothing new

Women's bodies have been policed for as long as hyper-masculinity (the exaggerated demonstration of stereotypically male behaviour, such as physical strength, aggression and heterosexual desire) has existed. However, the powerful force that is social media has made this monitoring much easier. And with the absurd association of a slim and petite figure with the epitome of a woman's sexiness, as promoted and mainstreamed by Western media, the foundation for petty resentment and competition among women has been laid. This leaves women who do not fit this aesthetic burdened with feelings of inadequacy.

The irony is that different places have different preferences. Places like Ghana and many other parts of Africa, including Lesotho, where I am from, tend to value curvier figures as standards of female beauty. It is clear in the advertising, television and print media of such places that thicker is considered better. As a slim woman, I spent my teens and 20s being teased by peers, especially men, because I did not have the curves considered to be desirable in a woman. Comments such as "You don't eat" were common.

At one point I grew obsessed with putting on weight so that I would be deemed socially compliant. I imagine that the same consciousness is experienced by women on the other side of the size spectrum who are exposed to the ideals of thinness portrayed in Western media. Whether thin and aspiring for thickness, or thick and aspiring for thinness, the pressure can result in severe psychological issues that can interfere with women's ability to live their best, beautiful lives.

The Politics of Body-shaming

Women in many cultures are conditioned to believe that their beauty comes before everything else. Regardless of where we are, we are told that we ought to want to change our bodies to fit what society deems to be ideal, or risk being the targets of scorn and ridicule from others, both random strangers and people familiar to us. This relentless and audacious notion is embodied in the vitriol expressed by Internet trolls such as @imleyton.

It is often argued that outrage about body-shaming comes from a place of vanity, and that such shaming is necessary to force women to dress more "decently". Those who make these arguments use the high rape statistics from many parts of the continent to justify such restrictions, calling them 'a precautionary measure' to keep women from being the victims of sexual assault. Uganda made headlines earlier this year when it embodied this thinking and announced restrictions on women wearing clothes that were deemed too revealing.

And seeing as marketers for brands such as Nike have jumped on the body-shaming bandwagon in the name of turning profits, we all have a responsibility to learn what body-shaming is, evaluate if we are participating in it and take a stand against it. We have a duty to resist the exploitation of artificially induced insecurities and relentlessly affirm that our self-acceptance and self-love is not dependent on our outward appearance or on the validation we receive from others.

It seems that women have now been forced into a position where any type of body-positivity is political.

However, it seems that women have now been forced into a position where any type of body-positivity is political. It now falls within the realm of human rights advocacy to declare that, regardless of its size, every body deserves to be valued and must be treated with dignity.

The Woman in the Mirror

Looking good and celebrating ourselves makes us feel good. Body-positivity is one way of taking a stand against discrimination, objectification, fetishisation and the external forces that aim to dictate how we view ourselves. It can also be exhausting and emotionally burdensome to deal with trolls and other such attempts at patriarchal control.

The attention that @Thickleeyonce's response to @imleyton garnered from international media is just one indicator of how imperative it is to address the issue of women's bodies being policed and scrutinised.

Thankfully, throughout the world, the conversation is changing. More people are feeling empowered to speak up, and the resistance to body-shaming is gaining momentum. The attention that @Thickleeyonce's response to @imleyton garnered from international media is just one indicator of how imperative it is to address the issue of women's bodies being policed and scrutinised.

A woman in the US decided to appropriate the bullying she encountered on social media by turning it into art.

A growing number of women are viewing themselves as independent entities who bear all the rights to their own bodies and a huge population of women are leading this transformation in both explicit and subtle ways. One example is a woman in the US who decided to appropriate the bullying she encountered on social media by turning it into art. Her form of clapping back was to use the negative comments people made on portraits of her as triggers for positive affirmations for all plus-sized women. Her defiance has given voice to many others and offered them a new perspective on how to control the narrative about their bodies. Any sturdy, confident woman who publicly shares a picture of themselves or wears so-called 'suggestive' clothing knows that she risks negative feedback from online commenters. She has the option to either ignore such attention and continue living life on her terms, or to clap back. Thank goodness there are those among us who have been blessed with enough sass to shut body-shamers down, swiftly and unapologetically.

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