Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Leave My Nyash Alone

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Welcome back to the Learning Curve, a monthly column where we unpack the complicated experience of accepting your own body in a world that doesn’t seem to want you to. This month, associate beauty editor Annie Blay digs into the experience of being an African woman in America and how the differing beauty standards between Africa and the West can create disorienting feelings about body image and cultural authenticity.

“You have a big butt.” They’re words you don’t often hear out of the mouths of babes, but they glided right off the tongue of an audacious little boy in my third-grade class back in 2007. It had been about a year since I moved from Ghana to Westchester, New York and the differences between me and many of my classmates weren’t hard to pinpoint. My hair was coarse and stiff rather than long and flowy, I spoke with a distinctly un-American accent, and — according to that observant young man — my backside was noticeably bigger than others’.

At that age, I didn’t know what to make of such a statement, but it was one of my first awakenings to the idea of body image. Growing up in Ghana, the women around me were mostly shaped the same: wide hips, big chests, and, of course, big bums; to me, this was normal. Relative to these women, the butt that little boy thought was remarkably big was actually rather small. When I moved to the States and started playing sports alongside girls with whom I couldn’t share clothes and reading magazines and watching movies in which the stars were much thinner than my mom and aunties, my brain assumed that to be Ghanaian was to be shaped one way and to be American was to be shaped another. This conclusion — and the fact that my body didn’t fit neatly into either category — brought up an internal dilemma that later down the line would take up more of my time, money, and identity than I could imagine.

While their experiences may not be identical to mine, many West African women in America deal with body image issues in a way that directly impacts their perceptions and understandings of cultural authenticity. I had never been able to sum up my own feelings about this until speaking with Teen Vogue executive director Dani Kwarteng, who grew up in Florida and is also Ghanaian-American. She perfectly encapsulates the matter at hand: “For the majority of my life, I’ve always been trying to figure out how I show up in spaces to other people.” For many African-American women, our own needs and self-worth get left by the wayside as we prioritize how people from either culture perceive our bodies.

To Be An African Woman Is, Apparently, to Be Curvy

“Nyash” is the African slang term for butt, ass, derrière… whatever you want to call it. For African women — West Africans in particular — there’s an expectation to have an abundance of nyash. A big, rounded butt (with accompanying wide hips) is regarded as the crowning glory that makes you an African woman. This idea is highly emphasized all up and through African culture, especially in our music. Modern African music is rife with language that defines body standards for African women while also objectifying this “ideal” body shape.

As Nigerian Afrobeats artist Wizkid says in his song “Balance,” for example, “Shey na for Ghana wey you carry this waist,” which roughly translated from West African Pidgin English means, “You must be from Ghana the way your body is shaped.” Another Afrobeats artist Rema says it like this in his song “Carry”: “She carry front… she carry back…she get hip, and her belly flat,” meaning, “She has a big chest, she has a big butt, she has hips, and a flat stomach.” As you can tell from this profound lyricism, there’s a clear expectation for how African women should be shaped.

When the African songs that are more popular in America (such as the ones I just mentioned) center on the voluptuous shape of the “classic” African woman, it only makes sense that the people who engage with that music would expect every African woman they encounter to fit that mold. As an adult, I’ve frequently sensed this in my day-to-day interactions, especially with men. As soon as I mention to one that I’m Ghanaian, they stretch their eyes (and sometimes necks) past my shoulders to see if the back matches the ethnicity. When that would happen in the past, I couldn’t help feeling as if the reality didn’t live up to the expectation.

“There were a lot of times where I compared myself to other Ghanaian women and my confidence would take a hit,” says 24-year-old Ghanaian-American Nicole Sarfo. When I met Sarfo during my freshman year of college in 2018, I silently nicknamed her “Naomi” because she has a tall, statuesque figure similar to Naomi Campbell’s. While she’s often admired for her slim figure in America, her body shape created a sense of internal estrangement from her African culture, especially during her teenage years. Being thin in a West African home in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem created a disorienting dual reality: In American social settings, her thinness was celebrated; at home and during visits back to Ghana, aunties made comments to the tune of, “Are you eating?” The latter caused an insecurity about her cultural authenticity. “I would think, ‘Am I ever going to … become this girl with the big butt and the small waist? Is that what it’s going to take for me to be the quintessential Ghanaian?’” I found myself heavily nodding as Sarfo shared those words over the phone because this was exactly how I felt back when we met.

Nicole Sarfo

In those days, I wasn’t as thin as Sarfo, but I also wasn’t the coveted level of thick for a Ghanaian either. I had just started embracing my Ghanaian culture and feeling a deeper sense of belonging within it by way of meeting other first-generation Africans at school. Though that felt great in many ways, it came with even more self-critique of my body. Back in high school, my butt was considered big in comparison to my mostly white peers, but in college, where I was one of many African women, my body shape scaled small in comparison. For the first time in my life, I found myself wanting a curvier body for no reason other than to appear more African. It didn’t help that around this time, American culture began to idealize and appropriate Black body types. Getting on Instagram every day and seeing countless BBLs on Black and non-Black women alike only emphasized this toxic drive to force my body into this mold and consequently achieve a higher level of desirability.

Both Sarfo and I went to great lengths (down the street to CVS and the local Planet Fitness) to achieve the shape we felt we should’ve been naturally blessed with. “I would buy bulks of Ensure [a nutritional supplement shake], drink it every single day, just so I could get thicker, and it didn’t work,” Sarfo recalls. “I started breaking out, and that’s when I decided to stop.” Even as someone who has never been excited by the gym, I regulated myself to three days a week (minimum) of squats, deadlifts, and any other exercise the internet said would give me a bigger butt and wider hips. I thought if Burna Boy, Wizkid, and every other African man wanted nyash — and if God didn’t give me that much of it naturally — maybe I’d have to grow it myself by any means necessary.

Africa’s Curvy Body Ideal Is Still Policed With Fatphobia

It’s easy to think that the celebration of curvier bodies in Africa negates the existence of fatphobia, but allow me to burst that thought bubble. Fatphobia is alive and well in Africa; it just has different, more subtle branding. Carolyn Asante-Dartey’s upbringing is a great example of this. The 23-year-old (who happens to be my boyfriend’s cousin) grew up in Ghana and moved to California in 2019 to study at Stanford.

Asante-Dartey got her hair braided every Sunday when she was living in Ghana. En route to the braiding shop, she would pass an elderly woman in her neighborhood who would always make comments about her body. “She sat on the corner and everyone knew her and would greet her,” Asante-Dartey recalls. “When I would walk by her, she would always say I’m overweight and I should watch it so that she can tell her grandson about me and one day we’ll get married — but for that to happen, I needed to lose weight.” Asante-Dartey was about six years old at the time.

Implying that someone’s weight could affect their future ability to find a partner is a more socially acceptable thing to say to someone in Ghana in comparison to America. And because it came from an elder, in this case, uttering anything in defense would have been seen as disrespectful. At that age, Asante-Dartey was confused by what this woman’s comments even meant, but she did know that it didn’t make her feel good. That subtle shame would later grow into a full-blown insecurity.

While the glorification of curvier figures might make African body standards seem more inclusive than that of the West, they’re equally as restricting — and there’s history behind that. The idea of the quintessential African woman’s body is rooted in classism with a sprinkle of colonialism. Historically, being heavier or curvier was once a symbol of wealth and prosperity in certain parts of Africa because poverty and food scarcity were the norm. So it makes sense today that many African cultures continue to praise curvier body shapes (especially in women) as a residual effect of that mindset.

But when the British and French started to colonize parts of West Africa in 1821, they asserted their ways of being — including their genetic body types — as superior. West Africans began to grapple with a shift in their understanding of elitism, which birthed a new body standard that incorporated the Western emphasis on thinness. We’re left with the modern African body standard that is rooted in cultural pride on the surface but when picked apart has more negative origins.

Carolyn Asante-Dartey

As she went through puberty, Asante-Dartey got taller and her proportions shifted, so her body shape changed into something more socially acceptable by African standards. “It was just very interesting to see the switch in how [people] would comment about my body… it’s like, now there’s something that appeals to you,” Asante-Dartey says.

African Women Must Tiptoe Between Curvy and Fat to Fit the Ideal

Many of our moms, dads, aunties, and uncles who have immigrated forth and back still have the same mindset as the elderly woman that Asante-Dartey encountered every Sunday as a child. To them, being curvaceous is in line with African identity, but they’ve witnessed enough fatphobia in the States to fear being perceived as fat. So we, as their children, are expected to live on the thin line that separates bodies that are perceived as curvy and those that are perceived as fat.

Simi Moonlight

Twenty-nine-year-old first-generation Ugandan content creator Simi Muhumuza (aka Simi Moonlight) is well versed in having to walk that tightrope. For Muhumuza, growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with parents who’d recently migrated from Uganda meant existing in two realities: a Ugandan one in which her body shape was celebrated (and often hypersexualized) and one American one in which her body was often shamed (and yet hypersexualized all the same). Muhumuza resembles her mom in that they both share figures with wide hips and small waists, the coveted African shape. Muhumuza recalls a time when her mother gained weight and her father became very fatphobic toward her. After that point, there was always an understated effort from both of her parents to regulate Muhumuza’s weight so she didn’t tip over from curvy into fat. “My dad was a very active person, so he’d always suggest I go running with him,” Muhumuza recalls. “I also did martial arts when I was a kid but not by choice.” In her household, the consensus was, “don’t be too fat but don’t be too thin.” This is the exhausting reality with which a lot of African women living in the U.S. have to grapple.

In the extensive amounts of time Muhumuza spends on social media as a creator, she’s privy to lots of conversations that seem to celebrate African women for their body shape. “I recognize that those sentiments are essentially a way to combat the discrimination that we might face, and I empathize with that,” she says. But whether African women are praised for their curves or shamed for them, this ultimately boils their societal worth down to what their bodies look like.

Our Bodies Do Not Determine Our Cultural Authenticity

Afrobeats artists probably won’t stop making music that objectifies women’s bodies, and there’s always going to be one auntie or uncle who says you’re too big or not big enough. Getting to a place where you can largely ignore those comments requires an internal rejection of cultural norms. “In any culture, nobody should be trying to utilize body shape as some sort of marker for why they are more valuable or why they should be considered valuable,” Muhumuza says.

For myself and these four women, it’s taken years to even begin achieving a mindset in which we don’t attach our body images to our worth, cultural authenticity, or anything else for that matter. “I think now in my 30s, I don’t even give a shit,” Kwarteng says. After having a baby and becoming pregnant with her second, Kwarteng celebrates her body for its strength and ability to create and carry life.

For Sarfo, a big part of developing body confidence has been learning to not be flattered by compliments about her body, especially those from men. “I’m in a position of privilege in this country because I’m thin, and I don’t ever want to play into the fact that it’s flattering because I don’t see it as being flattering,” Sarfo says. “I feel like when you have that privilege, it’s your job to not be flattered from things like that.”

As someone who does fit the ideal African body standard, Muhumuza feels the same way. In her travels across the continent, Muhumuza felt her body was most accepted in East Africa. Although it was affirming, she’s “tried to move away from desiring affirmation that is shaped around my body.” That mental and emotional practice hasn’t been easy, she says, but it has been beneficial. “I think that was something I had to let go of entirely for me to really heal from all of the fatphobia I’ve dealt with in my life,” says Muhumuza.

As for me, detaching my identity as a Ghanaian woman from my body is an ongoing practice. Admittedly, I’m not quite there yet. I still feel a boost of confidence when someone comments on my curviness because my brain is still attaching it to my culture. But speaking with these four women made me feel seen and gave some much-needed validity to my experience. I’ve come out on the other side of these conversations with assurance that as I continue to live and grow — and do the internal work of affirming my self-worth — I’ll eventually reach a harmonious balance.

Our bodies will change over time, but our cultural identities won’t. When the two are so inextricably linked, it feels as though you have to keep your body looking a certain way to feel that validation. “I don’t want any of us [African women] to feel that way,” Muhumuza says. “I try to encourage us not to get too caught up in that hype because you’re more than your body. You should always be reminding yourself of that and giving yourself love and validation.”

When you put all the cultural things aside, the thing that makes us most authentically African is that we’re ethnically from Africa — nothing more and nothing less.

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