A few years ago, a Ugandan friend of mine, let me call her Sandy, sent a long message on an email listserv we were on. It was an account of her experience in the hands of American immigration officials. Sandy was on her way back home from Uruguay via one of the American airports and she was stopped. She was asked what she does for a living and she said she was a Lawyer and Community Organiser. The immigration officer looked at this plus-sized African woman, dressed in a flowing African-print dress with a headscarf to match. He decided that Sandy could not possibly be who she said she was. After arguing back and forth, in exasperation she asked him who he thought she was and he declared, ‘You look like a housewife’. In other words, Sandy looked too fat, sounded too ‘African’ and was dressed too ‘primitively’ to be who she claimed to be. I leave the rest to your imagination, suffice to say my friend was angry enough to want to kill the racist and sexist officer if she could get away with it. We all shared our own experiences of ‘travelling the world while being black, African and female’ to make her feel better.

In the early days of my career in International Development, I had a mentor who told me that I should never go through an airport outside of Africa dressed in an African outfit. She told me that if I did that, I increased my chances of being stopped and my luggage searched. I took her advice and it worked. I was hardly ever stopped, and I noticed that most of those who looked ‘African from a distance’ would have a tall customs officer appear from nowhere to obstruct their way. Those were the times when being African at the point of entry meant you were a potential drug trafficker, asylum seeker or an economic migrant who would disappear into the bowels of western cities to scrounge off the welfare state. I never developed the courage to ‘look African’ going through an international airport, but I made up for it by attending formal occasions decked out in what western admirers describe as ‘costumes’, and attending meetings looking like an African.

How times have changed. Who would have thought that a day would come when an African woman would walk into the headquarters of the World Trade Organisation as the Director-General, dressed in Ankara wax print, a head-tie firmly perched on her head? Looking ‘African from a distance’, on her first day at work, not on ‘dress down Friday’! I stared at Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s photographs of her first day at work at the World Trade Organisation, and I was almost moved to tears. In addition to all the obvious lessons about the importance of educating girls and ensuring that women have access to limitless opportunities is the lesson about self-love.

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s choice of attire and appearance, in my opinion, holds a lot of symbolism. It is about being original, exceptional and worthy. It is about Africa standing out for a change and not hiding behind the good graces of one global super power or the other. It is about Africans offering something unique to the world and a different approach to global trade, in a space that determines who calls the shots, who benefits and who gets left out in the cold. It is about women taking their rightful place to lead, regardless of whether they look like teachers, models, bankers or grandmothers. It is about self-love.

 Black women are taught that their body image always has to be mediated by western aesthetic standards of beauty. That is why we are socialized into believing that our bodies have to look a certain way (no larger than a European size 14), our hair has to be straight and our skin has to be light. What slavery and colonization accomplished with the denigration of black women’s bodies and psyches, global media, popular culture and technology have taken it from there. The result is globalized standards of body image and beauty. Recently I read the tragic story about a Nigerian woman based in London who went to Turkey for liposuction, something went wrong and she passed away. She is one of many who have sadly met the same fate or have been left with debilitating conditions. According to her distraught husband, she was concerned about how her body looked after three children and was always hurt when people asked her if she was expecting another baby because of the size of her abdomen. Many would ask why did she not simply go on a diet and exercise. Perhaps she should have, but that is not the point. Body shaming women is the point. Making women feel inadequate. Making women feel they are never enough. Making women hate themselves and their bodies. Raising girls with low self-esteem who will grow into women who feel they have no value unless it is given to them by a man or society. This is why we have scores of young women lusting after ridiculously expensive imported hair. This is why some of our silly male artistes recruit girls from other parts of the world to star in their music videos because our own girls are deemed ‘too black and too fat’. This is why many women now feel they will never be enough to satisfy men’s sexual desires so they have to resort to purchasing ‘Kayan Mata’ products from enterprising charlatans. It is therefore not enough to educate a girl so that she can become the next Ngozi, she also needs to have the right confidence and attitude. She needs to learn never to loathe herself. She needs to know what self-love is. There is no point having all the education in the world without self-love. The former gets you through the door but the latter is what gets you the seat at the table.

Congratulations once again Auntie Ngozi. I absolutely, definitely, certainly want to be like you when I grow up!

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She is the First Lady of Ekiti State, and she can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

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4 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: Self-Love

  1. Femi Diipo March 8, 2021 at 10:42 am

    It has never been more imperative that a woman should love herself and shut out all negative vibes than now. So many young ladies keep trying and making unnecessary effort to look, speak and dress in a certain way just to get some silly men approval.
    We are indeed blessed to have great women like you and Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who continue to raise the bar, speak in their own voices and show with their daily lives that women are strong, smart and formidable leaders.
    There is still a long way to go but surely we are getting there
    Happy international women’s day

  2. Priscilla Usiobaifo March 11, 2021 at 4:33 am

    Thank you so much for this piece.

    Two days ago, I led similar discussion with BraveHeart Initiative’s Team about Self Esteem. The manner by which our young women in Edo State tolerate partner abuse is shocking.

    Unlike excuses given under marriage, these women are not married not having any legal bond with their abusive partners. It takes good Self Esteem to set boundaries and to reject abuse.

  3. Olakunle Olajide March 11, 2021 at 4:58 pm

    Well said mama, well said.
    Self love gets you the seat at the table..

  4. DSEED March 16, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    Self love is everything one needs. I’m joining you ma to be like in the future.


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