My friend the performance artist Wura Natasha Ogunji had just gifted me a 30 by 40 inch framed still shot from one of her performance pieces which I participated in titled ‘Will I still carry water when I am a dead woman’. The shot captures three out of many of us wearing hooded and masked jumpsuits with twenty five litre water kegs strapped to our ankles as we stand and stretch for a break during our trek.
It is a Sunday and my friends are over for brunch, Seun takes funny swipes at me about my penchant for participating in social experiments all in the name of art. Oreka is curious so asks me what the process felt like. I explained that is was something of a breathing and moving metaphor. The kegs of water for me began to represent baggage and baggage I didn’t put on myself but had chosen to carry around and at the end of the journey it all felt somewhat anti-climactic.
Being a part of Wura’s performance piece changed my perspective on many things in a way that made me begin interrogating myself and my intentions a little more frequently.
Coincidentally, I was the subject of a documentary feature on perceptions of beauty which was being shot by a German television crew and that Sunday was the final day of shooting. So a lot of our girly chats would revolve around definitions of beauty, body image and attraction, albeit for the sake if the rolling cameras.
The thing though was that not until I had been asked the ambiguous question about what physically constituted beautiful, did I start to realise the extent to which trends and labels influenced these definitions and how much of a construct the idea of beauty is.
A strange weft of nostalgia seemed to take over me. I remembered being teased in secondary school about my largeness and particularly my large chests. There was always a recurring joke that when I had children, I wouldn’t need to cradle them in my arms to breast feed but rather just back them and fling my breasts over my shoulders instead. It didn’t help that the heavier they were, the more they sagged.
As an adolescent girl, being told that when you were old enough to start dating, boys only liked girls whose breasts were just a handful because they wouldn’t know what to do with the rest of it, or that boys didn’t like saggy boobed girls, didn’t do very much good either. At least for an already fragile self esteem.
The years that followed came with its own acute self loathing and particular disgust for my breasts and at sixteen I found myself trying to convince my doctor to put me on the list for a breast reduction and lift. The doctor failed me and so did my attempt to save up for project boob job.
Fast forward many more years later and suddenly, things have changed. Saline and silicone were selling like hot cake, big boobs were in and people are even questioning the authenticity of my large chests.
Unfortunately, it took me a little bit longer to exorcise my own body loathing demons whilst the world had moved on. It also got me thinking about people who were teased for having very dark skin, or big bulgy eyes, thick lips or those who were rail thin.
The internet and connectivity now means that we all share in global trends and beauty is really no exception. Definitions of beauty are seemingly becoming homogenised. The waifs and heroin chic once made those on one end of the spectrum cool and now thanks to the hit show Mad Men, Christina Hendricks is the poster girl for the curvy girl revolution.
Thinspiration, then fatspiation, hair extensions mania then team natural.
Everyone wants to look like they have collagen fillers in their lips and dark skin is now sensualised and romanticised with words like chocolate, caramel and molasses.
But my fear though is that how many people really consciously think of these constructs and labels, but rather carry with them the baggage of what it means to be beautiful even when you don’t meet up to those expectations.
The crew had filmed me earlier in the week on my radio show asking listeners if they ever felt ugly and the impact this ‘ugly feeling’ has had on their lives. It was harrowing hearing peoples experiences from those that were afraid to make friends, or scared to dance to those whose personalities had become altered as a result of their body image insecurities that they never quite came round to dealing with.
As filming was wrapping up, our Sunday brunch conversation took a dive into the subject of body image and attraction. Debates and responses sashayed between men wanting smaller women as arm candy but loving bigger women in secret. Tomi’s eventual response was that Nigerian men just liked women and depending on what phase they were in their lives, different things begin to take priority which goes beyond physical definitions of beauty.