I do not like explaining myself to people who do not understand what I do. Not that explaining would make them understand anyway. They’ve already made up their minds about what I can do, should do, shouldn’t be doing, and what does and doesn’t look good on and for me. A few years ago, that would have bothered me. Now, it doesn’t. To be clear, I listen to what people say but sieve everything I hear through the screen of my truth and take only the ones that pull through1.
Most of the beliefs about what a woman should do, how she must look, and what tone and texture her feel should be, are mostly inherited mindsets. In cultural settings, as we have in Nigeria, myths are passed down generational lines, with opinions steeped in the supernatural. With the interpretation that divinity is the ultimate source, questioning expected forms and patterns can be termed sacrilegious.
“If your muscles continue growing bigger, I might lose interest, and you may not be lucky to get any other guy to look in your direction.” Pretty much plain and direct what an admirer told me when I began fully engaged in learning the martial art skill of taekwondo during my postgraduate degree program at the University of Ibadan. The confidence with which he spoke gave his opinion a believable notion. I was a lot younger then, about twenty-six years, and the year was 2005.
Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I loved action movies, especially with female protagonists. Cynthia Rothrock was my action hero, and I methodically studied her moves. Spin kicks, sidekicks, backflips, teeth-breaking punches; I did all those—in my dreams.
In the 90s, as a teenager, I was as self-conscious as any other teenager as my body changed with puberty. My lower tummy looked as if it held sachets of water. Most people in my age category had slim waists; I seemed like the only exception, which bothered me a lot. I loved the slim, compact midsections of television icons and fashion models. Then in 1998, a teenager was discovered on M-Net ‘Face of Africa’ modelling contest. Oluchi Onweagba won the modelling contest, and it was all over the news. The glitz and glamour that accompanied that winning made a lot of us teenagers dream of becoming models. The thought crossed my mind many times, but I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a model. Then in my third year at the University, Agbani Darego won the Miss World beauty pageant. It was 2001, and I can still remember the terrific feeling it gave me that an African was on a world stage. Whenever I looked at the flat stomachs of the beauty queens in bikinis, it called to mind how much embarrassment mine gave me.
Action movie characters and fashion models were the people I wanted to be like. I wanted to fight like Cynthia Rothrock, and I desired a runway model’s slim waist and flat tummy.
Funny how I never encountered martial artists during my undergraduate days, but that isn’t surprising. I hardly took that route when I spent my four years studying for my first degree in philosophy on the university campus. I was what you’d refer to as a ‘square student’ at the time—from my residence to the lecture room, to the library, to a religious gathering (popularly called fellowship). Those were the places you would find me, depending on the day of the week and the time of the day. I took almost the same route, and I wasn’t inquisitive about other places. My uncle came to see me on campus once and the GSM, as we called mobile phones then, wasn’t within the means of most students, except those from rich homes or with wealthy boyfriends, so he couldn’t get in touch before coming over. I was in a reading room at my hall of residence when a face peeped in and called my name. I stood up in surprise and she said my uncle was looking for me at the porter’s lodge. It was a weekend, and since the major library didn’t open during the weekends, I usually read in the reading room. I was that predictable. I didn’t have any close friends because I was a private person, and at that time in my life, I took people’s opinions about me personally. If I had encountered those martial artists at that period in my life, I doubt I would have given any thought to joining them.
That day, I saw them kicking in unison at the command of the instructor. They were all in white uniforms with different colours of belts holding their wide, long-sleeved, V- necked, hip-length top in place. The instructor had on a black belt with black trim at his cross-over Y-necked uniform, and the image of my action heroine icon came to mind.
I remember my first training. As ‘babies’—white belters—we were first taught the techniques and procedures of the front kick after a grueling warm-up that left my legs shaking. The front kick was one in which the knee of one foot would be raised to an angle (to form the shape of two incomplete sides of a square), and the toes arched downward to be lifted with power to kick. The instep—the outer upper surface of the foot—was the connecting point to the kicking pad. What was most difficult was the slight raising on the ball of the foot on the ground to propel the one about to kick. And note that the arms would be at defensive positions (closed fisted arms held out with the slightly held-up elbows guarding the chest and stomach region) as the foot is kicking. I survived the two-three hours of training and managed the strained walk to my room. It was in the morning of the next day that I confirmed that all the muscles in my body were connected. The back muscles seemed to be pulled by the side ones. My thighs hurt, and my feet were heavy to lift off the bed. As I struggled to stand up that morning, the question that came to mind was, “what have I gotten myself into?”
I went for the next training, and the one after that, and the one after that. I never stopped going for my practices.
The basketball court was where we practiced, opposite the zoology department. The faculty of Social Sciences was very visible to its right. We would practice at that open space four times during the week and on Saturdays. I practiced five or six times during the week because I wanted to learn all the kicks pretty soon.
Then the attacks began. We had just finished practice that day, and I had to pick up something from a colleague in another post-graduate hall. Ascending the stairs rapidly, an elbow suddenly wound tightly around my neck, pulling me aggressively back. It was for some quick backward paces on the half landing. I was choked, my neck pulled backward, my spine arched. I tried maneuvering to a side with my hands on the curved elbow; I couldn’t. Suddenly the hand let go of my neck, and I staggered forward, trying to catch a few breaths. I turned, and there was this guy I’d never seen before. “Aren’t you a martial artist?” (I can’t remember his precise words, but he mentioned the words ‘martial artist’ in his short statement). He had a smirk on his face with his hands at an akimbo.
I was heading out to the Kenneth Dike library another day when a guy accosted me. ‘Do you want to be beating your husband when you get married?’ He and his friend laughed, the loud mocking laughter. Hah hah, hah, hah, hah hah.
A coursemate said my legs were getting bowed and my practice kicks had made me start walking like a man. He added that anyone who hadn’t seen me for quite a while would know I was doing martial arts because something significant had changed my physical appearance. He said this in the most jovial manner. He even had a polite smile.
It was hard going against the flow of what others expected of me. It was tough because I didn’t know what form the next attack would come—verbal or physical.
I did understand what the antagonists were trying to do. It wasn’t common culture to see a woman do what was termed ‘masculine.’ It was like a jab at the thin egos of those men who saw any female with defensive skills as automatic competitors. An effrontery to their space. An offensive boundary-crossing. A non-permissive inversion of the masculine territory because of the preconceived notion of what a woman should do and how she must look. To them, I was a woman and should be soft. My body should be soft to touch and look at. My backside, undulating vigorously as I walked. My shoulders, fleshy and rounded. My face, smiling at all times. To them, it was sacrilegious to see a woman throw her legs in the air, one on the ground and the other stretched out and up, exposing the curved middle part of her. The middle part that housed her feminine essence even though the area was well covered. It was unattractive to see a woman shriek from the physical pressure of highly mobile sports. Women are supposed to be the queens of walkways and runways, not twisting their mouths in ugly pain, with their faces squeezed in horrible contorts, as they punched and kicked. That, to them, was unwomanly. They didn’t associate being physically strong with being beautiful.
What they didn’t know was that martial art gave me a liberation that was more mental than physical. Taekwondo disciplined my mind before it did my body. It increased my concentration level, which invariably affected my studies positively. It gave me confidence beyond what I had ever imagined. The change in physical appearance was the icing on the cake. Within a few months, tight clothing items became loose, and my arms became square, toned, and bony. The lower belly pouch disappeared. I was proud of myself.
“If you want to lose that mummy tummy, you should take this herbal tea twice a day. It’s world’s best-revealed secret,” the advertorial read. The texture of the pragmatic work of what the tea could accomplish in the woman’s body was fantastic. The pictorial pieces of evidence of those who had used and testified of its result, unbelievable. I was sitting in my brown flush cushioned dining chair that Thursday morning with my son sleeping on my lap. I had been re-reading an old favourite book when the image of a bulky belly in a slim pencil skirt swam around my head. I pictured the shape of a rounded middle on a longitudinal line. According to the acceptable culture of my Yoruba tribe of the South-Western people of Nigeria, there was nothing wrong with that look. It was pride. Your body had carried children; it must show the triumph of your womanhood. I didn’t like that particular pattern of thinking. I knew I needed help, but what I was getting didn’t seem to agree with my logical and analytical mind.
The year was 2015, and I had become a stay-at-home mum with a baby. After my post-graduate degree, I stopped learning and practicing taekwondo as I secured employment with a financial institution on the busy Lagos Island commercial metropolis. The demanding professional work consumed most of my time with barely enough for other important aspects. I started doing cardiovascular exercises on weekends, running and skipping, so I still kept up with my fitness plan.
After marriage and childbirth, another facet of my life with unexpected and unforeseen changes occurred; I knew I had to make significant adjustments to my thought patterns and routines if I wanted to keep my sanity as a new mother. At that time, I had resigned from my paid employment, so I had enough time for my activities but still couldn’t control the incidences because of the new baby I just had. I experienced several bolts of helplessness and anxiety concerning different aspects of my life spiraling out of my control. I had a newborn that I had to care for all round the clock: which was a new experience; I couldn’t do the things that gave me joy, I didn’t know what to do to be financially secure, and I no longer liked how my body felt and looked.
With the encouragement of my spouse, I started learning how to embrace the new me that was emerging. He would come back early, most times from his business outings, and take over the care of the baby while I had some time to be alone and think. It was at that time that I realized how much I’d missed thinking things through without interruptions. With time, I adjusted to being a mother, and I started reading and writing again. While I tried to adjust to who I was becoming because of my new maternal status, I couldn’t bring myself to accept the new body that I had after my C-section delivery. I was scared because I didn’t see many physical examples of mothers who regained their pre-baby bodies after deliveries. Still, I knew achieving a flat stomach after giving birth was possible. At least, I saw celebrities and wealthy women, who have had deliveries, have flat stomachs, even if there were rumors of body enhancement surgeries trailing the bodies they flaunted online.
One day, I stumbled on a female fitness page on Instagram with the identification—fitness models. It was mind-blowing to see women, of different ages and sizes, with so many visible and pronounced muscles. What was so mind-blowing was that some of them documented how they progressed in their fitness journeys. Going through the wall of some that I admired, I saw condescending comments. Then I realized that the insulting remarks weren’t relegated only to my side of the globe. People all over the world have ideas of how a woman must look. Some people don’t believe weight lifting is for women.
This time, my fitness journey was slower, more difficult, and very confusing. I had physical guidance when I did martial art, but I didn’t have that privilege with weightlifting. I started with a pair of 1.5 kilograms of dumbbells and did some exercises that I saw online. Because I didn’t understand the techniques of lifting different weights and the circumstance under which it should be done, I made mistakes. I remember collapsing for a few seconds while doing weighted jumping jacks. A jumping jack is when you jump with your legs wide apart and at the same time lift your hands over your head. Then in the same rhythm, jump back to the initial position with your feet together and your hands down by your sides. These moves, you do repeatedly, in quick successions. I did that move with my 1.5kg dumbbell weight in both hands, and I was in black shorts with a black top, with the curtains of the room pulled down, with just an oscillating standing fan. I suddenly found myself out of breath as I slowly crumbled like a sack of potatoes. I felt heat emanating from my pores and sweat pouring off my face. I was in that position for a while before pulling myself up. I knew I was doing something wrong but couldn’t figure out what it was.
The most challenging aspect of my fitness journey was what to eat and what not to eat. Because my focus was largely on getting a flat tummy, I was desperate for quick results. I assumed carbohydrates with fats and oil were the enemies, so I took those food classes out of my diet. I did away with almost all processed foods and carbonated drinks. I was hungry most of the time, but I persevered. A look at a picture gave me a brain reset.
“Look at this.” He showed me the review screen of his professional camera that evening. I was shocked. My husband, a photographer, snapped and showed me the photo. I was in a short-sleeved, grey-coloured round neck top, and in my low haircut, looked emaciated and tired. My chest bones stuck out, and my hands dangled loosely by my side as if they were hanging onto the rest of my body for their dear lives.
“Please add some flesh. You look like someone who her husband is maltreating,” a relative told me when my family went visiting. I was changing the diaper on my toddler when I heard the door close behind me. The slow creaking of the closing door with cautious footsteps indicated private conversations. She said that it didn’t speak well of my husband if his wife looked so slim. I knew she was just being polite about my gaunt look but didn’t want to be direct and offensive.
At about that time, an old acquaintance saw me in a sleeveless top and implied by his comment that I no longer looked as attractive as I was. I saw him look at my shoulders with slight disdain. Irrespective of the comments, I knew a lot of things were wrong with what I was doing. I decided to follow dietitians and nutritionists on social media. In time, I got what I was looking for. The restrictive diets I was taking were the reason. I reintroduced all the classes of food and my body weight increased, but I still couldn’t figure out why I was gaining weight at my lower abdomen so fast. During my limiting diet, the small rounded lower abdominal pouch disappeared but came back when I reintroduced the restricted foods.
When my son became a bit older and started going to creche, I had a bit of time for my activities. I went online to search but with more purpose and precision this time, on anything that pertained to weight lifting. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I would know it when I found it. I found it on the page of an American fitness model. She said lifting small weights cannot give one a toned body. She said ladies would have to lift heavy to get the muscular toned abdomen and added that women shouldn’t be afraid of lifting heavy because it wouldn’t make them look like a man. Instead, it would tone their bodies to give them a shapely figure. I also learned from that page that nutrition was an important part of the process and restrictive diets weren’t sustainable. She advised that processed foods with fizzy drinks should be limited to their barest minimum and the other classes of food eaten with moderation.
I found the important keys that were missing. I downloaded free videos of instructional weight lifting workouts and got heavier weight. It took about four years to get to the look that I desired, and along the way, I learned a lot of other essential things. Chief amongst those: always exercise in a well-aerated space. That is a lesson I can never forget. My toned body is now eliciting admiration from a whole lot of people. I have had more guys ask me how their wives could get back to shape after pregnancies. As much as I can, I’ve told them what I’ve done: lifting heavy weights and trying as much as possible to eat healthily.
“Since when are women allowed to renounce their sex and become men?… (Nature) has told women: Be a woman. Childcare, household tasks, sundry motherhood cares, those are your tasks.”2
The above-quoted statement was made by the French Revolutionary leader, Pierre-Gaspard Chaumette, when “actress Rose Lacombe, president of the Society of Republican and Revolutionary Women, along with a delegation of women forced the door of the Conseil Général.”3 Of significant note is that his views, as written, could have been inspired by St. Paul and St Thomas, both Christian patriarchs and saints.4
Religion had always been a tool of suppression and subjugation. Man has often used the fear of divinity to impose concepts on others that would make them powerless to do what they have the might, ability, strength, and wherewithal to do. There was a time, Christianity, my faith, was under heavy attacks because some leaders in the faith circle were using doctrinal methods to limit women as a class of people. The women in some sects of Christianity are not allowed to attain certain ministerial roles. In some other sects, the women are supposed to be dressed a certain way, while some clerics believe that the woman’s place is in the home and anything outside that could be heretical. Interestingly, every doctrinal belief of every Christian sect has established its base in the Bible, which points to one fact—anything can be justified using the bible. While the principles, values, and wisdom that emanated from the bible are evident to those of us who have found ourselves and our faith in that religion, it can also be twisted to mean something different and devoid of the tenet of the faith: love.
So based on the wisdom and practicality of Christianity, I can boldly say that the teachings therein are liberating and allow the freedom to be the best of whom I can be. There is a quote, “I can do all thing through Christ who strengthens me”5 which breaks every limiting barrier put on man by his fellow man. So irrespective of gender, race, and marital status, I can do all things, be what I can be, and live life to the fullest. I do not need the permission of debilitating mindsets to become what I want to be. While I lead my life within the liberating principles and deep values of my faith, I question things, taking my conclusion from things that are true and acceptable to me. So, in the words of the Cartesian Philosopher, François Poulain de la Barre, I refuse to believe the incapacitating views about me as a woman. “Everything that men have written about women should be viewed with suspicion because they are both judge and party.”6
When I was a kid, I wanted to be voluptuous. I was the rail-thin, spectacle-wearing, brown-coloured teeth girl that was self-conscious of her physical appearance but blinded to her unique potentials. I remember sitting at the back of my mother’s white Subaru as she drove us from primary school that day. I was about seven or eight: not sure of my exact age. However, I was certain silk material was in vogue in my hometown of Akure. Again, I’m not sure if that fashion vogue was prevalent in the country or not; I was too young to know such detail. Two women were walking towards the junction of the road where our car would make a left turn. They were in iro and buba sown with white silk material. Their buttocks were undulating in admirable motions that I deeply desired to be voluptuous. People with big behinds were greatly admired. Their bodies were the bodies of beauty.
I had heard “this one is too thin, she doesn’t eat” many times from elders who came around our home. Those words somehow lodged themselves in my memory. I had associated being beautiful with being big especially when one has soft juggling buttocks.
As I’ve grown, I’ve changed my thinking about the definition of beauty, how my body should look and if I want big juggling backsides. I am so sure I like myself with the firm, strong body that I’m proud to carry now. I love my toned arms and slim back, though I won’t mind having flatter, more defined abdominal muscles. I look at my reflection and I love what I see. And that is good enough for me.
- An excerpt from ‘A letter from Abraham Lincoln to his teacher’s son.’
- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, Random House/ Vintage, 2011. Pg. 129.
- Ibid. Pg. 129.
- Ibid. Pg. 129
- The biblical book of Philippians chapter 4 verse 13. New King James Version.
- Quote derived from the dedication page of the book, ‘The Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir. It was written, ‘To Jacques Bost.’
About the Author:
Oluwabusayo enjoys writing realistic fiction and personal essays. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Writers Space Africa, The Kalahari Review, and Northern Anthology of Short Stories. She loves the serenity of any open space because it affords her the open-mindedness to conceive ideas of stories in her head. She can be reached on Instagram @oluwabusayowrites.
Feature image by ractapopulous / Pixabay