Creating a culture of self-love: Loving my body wherever I go

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When I was living in Saudi Arabia, I was between a size 6 and 8. Being relatively thin, I was less concerned with how much I weighed and far more occupied with how I looked. I was an ultra-conservative dresser—even under my abayah. I wanted to be a virtuous girl and woman; this would be achieved through my choice of clothes, which would influence my actions and ultimately, how I was perceived.

When I arrived in the U.S. I became more aware of my body type. For the most part, I continued to dress conservatively. With the cultural shock of living in the U.S. after a lifetime in Saudi Arabia, combined with a familial incision, I began to eat differently. Increasingly, I found comfort in foods that I had rarely consumed. By the end of my freshman year, I was a size 10.

My eating habits made me more conscious of my body. I think this is a point largely missed by others: It’s not that I was eating because I didn’t notice my body or take pride in how I looked.  I was acutely aware of my body and how it was changing. In fact, I was obsessed. I felt powerless in swapping my current habits for healthier ones. As I continued to lose autonomy, I relied more on food to distract me from my growing discomfort with myself.

This experience was aggravated by mass consumption of the female body in the U.S.  I couldn’t escape the reminder that thinner was better. As a naturally curvy person, even in my smaller-sized days, watching hip-less, flat chested, thigh gapped women be portrayed as the only type of beautiful woman was difficult and fueled a more destructive view of myself.

There were pauses in my self-hate though. When I visited Ghana in the summer, I could temporarily abandon the idea that skinny was better. Not because Ghana didn’t celebrate her thinner women but because it mattered less whether I was thin or not. In fact, it was a wonderful thing that I was curvy. My body type was desired and celebrated to an extent. Interestingly enough, when I visited Ghana in the summer, I could lose up to 20 pounds without any effort or intention to. My mind was healthier in Ghana and I was kinder to body.

But as I continued to gain weight, being in Ghana become a painful reminder of my weight gain. If you’ve read my post The Trouble with Words (Part I), at a point, it became increasingly difficult for me to be in Ghana because I despised being called obolo. If I knew I would be traveling to Ghana, I would schedule the latest possible departure date so I could give myself more time to slim down—this never worked.

Being away from my family and the constant feeling of displacement, are two of possibly four reasons I have continued to gain weight. Different events in my life have fueled my reliance on food as a coping tool and I’m currently wearing a size 12.

I realize now that I am the worst person to be mean to myself. I never give myself a break; I am always present and ready to take myself apart.

I would love to have the body I had in Saudi Arabia. But I was so disconnected from my body then, so ashamed of what society said it could do, so afraid to use or portray it incorrectly that I did not love my body. Even though I am less satisfied with my body now, I think I love my current body more than I ever could have in Saudi Arabia

Bottom line: A nomadic life style has exposed me to different ideas on what defines a woman’s beauty. These ideas have either been uplifting or burdensome. Despite the richness of variety, my happiness and self-confidence should not be subject to locale. I was late in coming to the realization that regardless of where I am, I am always with me. My body is the place where I live. And maybe, in that sense, the relationship I have with my body is actually a culture. So, I could construct a culture that positively influences my body. I can create my own beliefs, behaviors and values towards my body. I can even choose foods that celebrate and encourage my well-being. I have adopted different cultures anyway, what’s one more?

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An adventurous and quiet introvert

A life of adventure, overseas travel, comparing your high school student body to the UN General Assembly, coveted trinkets from around the world, multi-lingual, frequent flier before it was even a thing—yes, the glamorized life of Third Culture Kid (TCK). At first thought, it may seem odd to be a TCK and an introvert. How would an introvert manage the constant change and chaos, engaging with different people and cultures?

In my view, there is an expectation that TCKs are extroverts.

I am a TCK and I am an introvert. I have no reservations about identifying as either, especially being an introvert. I’m more reserved than I am shy, more contemplative and observant than I am talkative. I’m less likely to say what I really mean, and more likely to correctly express myself in writing. How does that fit into being a TCK?

Being an introvert means that I am very close to a small circle of people. It means you either know all of me or you know nothing at all. It means that if you want to go out tomorrow at 11pm, I need to know a week in advance—preferably. It means that when I agree to go out, I’m already looking forward to coming back home. It means that before I go out, I’m mentally preparing to have conversations I don’t really want to have. It means that being around ‘too many’ people exhausts me, and that however loud the room is, in my mind, it’s louder.

Being a TCK means that I know it might be several years before I see friends and family again. In the case of Saudi Arabia, being a TCK means that I know I might never see many of my friends again. It means that each time I move, each time I make that decision, I am consciously risking friendships and relationships. It means that I will make that tough decision knowing it will hurt me, hurt others, break me, but I will make that decision anyway. It means that I can be incredibly mature. It means that I am very empathetic; that sometimes I understand others more than I do myself; that I can associate as quickly as I can dissociate; that sometimes staying is just as hard as leaving; that my parents are my anchor; that I have had mid-life crises in different area codes, that it’s sometimes easier to pack than unpack, that I’ve had to learn and unlearn who my race is; that the U.S. is a foreign and exotic country, that I sometimes have to be content with not being understood; that I have to put effort into making myself understandable, that the first time I heard someone say don’t throw the baby out with the bath water I wanted to call the police.

I think sometimes it’s hardest being a TCK when you’re introvert. It’s not like I can throw myself out there and easily get to know a whole other group of people again, and again. But I can, I do, and I have. As an introvert and TCK, I create meaningful bonds with my environment and as often as I have had to break that bond, it’s never easy. With each environment, I am immersed into a culture, a way of thinking, a new lifestyle.

I am highly perceptive, hyper-flexible and while it might take me longer to form intimate relationships with people, I can adapt to new surroundings. I’m more than just a perpetual traveller; I can go beyond participating and observing surface culture to truly understanding and even adopting different facets of deep culture.

In revising this entry, I have questioned whether to post this at all. It can read as being extremely arrogant. But I think that is because I still have an incorrect definition of introvert hiding in some unreachable corner of my mind. I am not weak because I am an introvert. I’m not socially inept or lonely. As an introvert, a sense of adventure is not absent within me. It’s there—it’s a quiet curiosity that poses questions and carefully sifts through observations, and experience to get answers. In this way, I don’t over-burden the people I encounter with questions to make them appear exotic and foreign; I don’t exemplify the differences, I discover as what makes ‘ them, them’ and ‘me, me’. I engage with the people I meet and speak with them as I would others—their nuances; whether personal or cultural, are naturally revealed. And for me, I have found that too often TCKs, non-TCKs, attribute tangible differences to culture, rather than a person’s being.

Me, my mother and my Turkish friends in front of our house in Saudi Arabia.

Me, my mother and my Turkish friends in front of our house in Saudi Arabia.

Bottom line: Being an introvert is not a setback. Neither extroverts nor introverts are better at being TCK; we are equally aware of the blessings and challenges of being TCK. Being TCK means that I don’t have a better half, I have better halves and they are scattered all around the world. I am product of different cultures and I am extremely grateful.

The Trouble with Words (Part II)

Obroni is the Akan (or more specifically, the Twi language) word for foreigner, literally meaning “a person from beyond the horizon”. It is often colloquially translated into “white person” or “white man”.

I lived in the Middle East for 18 years, submerged in a culture and environment completely different from that of my parents. I was not born in the Middle East and I was not born in my parent’s home country of Ghana. I was born in the United States. It was not until I left the Middle East for the University of Michigan, and a couple of years into my college experience, that I became familiar with the concept of ‘third culture kid’ (TCK). Finally, one word that explains almost everything without embarking on the tiresome story “Well, I grew up here, my parents are from over there yonder, but I was born yonder, and then my parents up and left there to go there.”

There is the view that TCKs are spoiled, well-traveled nomads with trinkets of their global experience as themes in their apartments. This might not be a completely erroneous view, however, it is glamourized. There is another side of being a TCK that is lonely and lit with confusion. You can be reminded of your TCK-ness when there is a 4-7 hour time difference between where your parents are and where you currently are, when you haven’t seen your childhood friends in over a decade, and your best friend in six years, and you see your boyfriend once a year for 4 weeks. Once you’re hit with the TCK bug it’s with you for life: a battle between your accustomed sense of ‘adventure’ and your desire to develop a sense of home/belonging/peace.

Acclimatizing to a new culture is generally an easy process for the TCK. Most of us have developed an anthropological mindset; we are problem-solvers, observers, listeners, empathic, inspired and innovative. To be thought of otherwise, told otherwise, is a very difficult thing and dare I say, insulting accusation.

When I visit Ghana, which is where I am from most of the time, the last thing I want is to be pointed out as someone who doesn’t belong. And that is what being called obroni does for me. Much like obolo, there is little hesitance to call someone obroni and little you can do about it.

Something I am frequently told is that I can’t be Ghanaian because my parents did not teach me ‘my own culture’. I have been told this within 10 minutes of encountering another Ghanaian. First, that is a horrible accusation of irresponsibility to direct towards my parents—forget that it is ill informed! Certainly, my parents did not raise me to be American (whatever that means). In fact, any Ghanaian child who was raised in the US probably heard variants of “We aren’t American”, “We will not tolerate any American behavior in this house”, “All the children on Full House are rude!”.

I’ve been called obroni by family, during an internship by colleagues and office superiors and as I walk casually from point A to B. In fact, humorously, complaining about being called obroni will certify you as obroni, having preference on what you will eat will make you obroni, having an opinion that differs from the group you are with—obroni, asking that a colleague not call you ‘sweetheart’ or ‘my wife” –obroni, looking like you could be obroniobroni. Anything that you might say or do that deviates from ‘the norm’ and you are bestowed with obroni.

Before writing this post, I did some reading on the etymology of obroni. I’d encourage anyone interested to do the same. My post, however, is based on my personal experience with the word. And for me, obroni has less do with being white (I am black (and proud)) and is more a poorly informed belief about another person, an oversimplified understanding of different cultures, and an abrupt rejection of an individual’s duality.

For example, rejecting the idea that I could be both Ghanaian and American because the two are mutually exclusive, that adopting all or some of one culture is a complete rejection of the other, that I cannot prefer pizza to waakye and say I am Ghanaian (humor intended but I have been told this).

I don’t wear traditional wear often. I’m more of an emo spirit and I like navy blue, black and gray—these colors are not readily featured in our cloth. My apartment is not filled with Ghanaian art and craft. I don’t have the flag of Ghana on my porch, although I do own the Ghanaian flag and it is the only flag I own. I don’t know how to do any Ghanaian dances although I have attempted Azonto. I don’t like gari (dried cassava), I will run away from anything that has palm nut oil, and I will not, I repeat, I will not eat fufu!

But is this what makes a person Ghanaian? If it is there are some Peace Corps people I need to sit down with. I don’t want to be judged by outwards displays of culture. Not only because I think it is unfair towards me, but because it is disservice towards our culture because it ignores the sophistication of what makes us. What makes deep culture? Attitudes towards elders; approaches to problem solving; notions of courtesy, manners, friendship, leadership; concepts of time, fairness, justice; communications styles and rules like facial expressions, tone of voice, personal space, conversational patterns in different social situations.

Bottom line: I am Ghanaian. It is not up to anyone to decide that for me. The fact that I have been exposed to different cultures does not make me less Ghanaian, it makes me more Ghanaian in the best possible way. My exposure to cultures only helps me appreciate and understand the finer details of my Ghanaian culture. My choice not to eat fufu on Sundays does not make me less Ghanaian in the same way that wearing navy blue and not pink does not make me less of a woman.

The Trouble with Words (Part I)

Definition. Obolo: A person who is fat

Have you watched the movie The Invention of Lying? An offensively brief plot summary is the characters live in a world where lying has not yet been ‘invented’. Everyone is subject to the truth—hearing it and speaking it. From my interpretation of the movie, consequences of lies like being hurt and offended would also not exist. In the movie, people are subject to the truth and equally compelled to respond truthfully. Quite unlike the movie is the recipient in his or her inability to respond or react, truthfully or otherwise.

I am Ghanaian, plus-sized and I have been called obolo more times than I can put effort to remember. To be called obolo feels like being a character in The Invention of Lying where whatever someone sees and thinks about you, he or she comments immediately. On the name caller’s part, there is no consequence—the ‘truth’ literally speaks for itself.

‘Obolo’ is a type of mockery that is socially accepted[1], recognized, very difficult to avoid and nearly impossible to protest. I once made the mistake of telling someone that it was neither appropriate nor kind to call me fat. I call it a mistake because of the verbal execution I thereafter received. The verbal backlash centered on my being obroni, another problematic word for me.

A few things for contextual purposes: I was born in the United States, my parents are Ghanaian, I lived abroad for 18 years though not in the US, I have spent 90% of my summers in Ghana.

Someone near-and-dear to me shared a blog post from That Hayet Rida, “Growing up Fat in Ghana”. Hayet writes about her experience as a plus-sized woman growing up in Ghana. Her narrative resonated with me. Rida says, “Sadly, I grew up in a culture that considers feelings and emotions exclusive to white people”. I must choose my words carefully because I do not intend to disagree with Rida’s observations. I am relieved to read Rida’s perspective and as evidenced from the comments section, discover that we are not alone.

I would not say, however, that most Ghanaians view feelings and emotions as exclusive to white people. Feelings and emotions are not white inventions, but probably a cocktail of chemistry, biology, environment, etc. I do think that it is more the case that different societies/cultures place varied emphasis on feelings and emotions, and this importance influences the role feelings and emotions play. Does that make sense? When I think about Ghana then, I think of a society that grieves together, laughs together and celebrates together—in my view, Ghana is an extremely affectionate society.

Ghanaians are observant and Ghanaians speak freely, for the most part I believe. No one has ever skirted around the issue of me being obolo. “Obolo” marks the beginning of social interaction in my experience. It is said as easily as “Obolo, how are you?”. “Obolo!” can also mark the beginning, end and sole purpose of interaction. Frankly, however it appears, it is horrible. For some reason, I feel compelled to add that in the same way I am called obolo so too am I called beautiful, eii sister wo ho y3 f3 ohhh. Obviously being told that I am beautiful (swirls) stirs up different emotions than obolo (cringes).

This is an important distinction for me because I think it might be saying something important about Ghanaian society and culture that is easily overlooked. And I will try and illustrate it this way: I have lived in the US for a decade now and I can’t recall being called beautiful by a stranger in public. Strangers have offered ‘compliments’ that made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. I have never been called fat by a stranger in America either, but I have received all sorts of unsolicited counsel on how I can lose weight, eat better, dress for my weight, etc.

In America, I think we have developed a library of politically correct terms because we readily acknowledge that words can hurt and because our society is richly diverse. But is it okay that I think someone is stupid as long as I address him or her as ‘less intelligent’? If I see someone and I believe they are fat, as long as I address him or her as curvy, am I good?

What we say are leaves whose roots are our thoughts. But does that mean we should say exactly what comes to mind…? I guess not. What I am saying is that I didn’t consent to being called fat or oboloo. I similarly did not consent to ‘thick’ and ‘curvy’ or ‘plus sized’ but these terms have been deemed to be more respectful and maybe they are, unless it’s a new leaf for the same thought.

Personally, I do not appreciate any differences between fat and thick, or fat and curvy, or fat and heavyset or big boned. If we were to group people by their size only, would the groups ‘fat’ and ‘skinny’ have any more value or use to us than ‘curvy’ and ‘thin’? For a moment there, I even struggled to find the politically correct term for skinny—what are these terms? Why aren’t they at the tip of my tongue? Have you looked at the definitions of fat and skinny? The definitions are not favorable to either category in my opinion! Take a look at the synonyms too.

The issue is the social value or lack thereof we have bestowed upon ‘fat’ and ‘skinny’. The evidence that one body type is valued over the other is abundant.

As I write this, I am in Ghana. Yes, I have been called obolo. My response is to smile (or smirk) because if someone is calling me obolo they will not understand my protest. I can only hold them accountable for being an active participant in one facet of their culture. If they did understand my protest, they wouldn’t be calling me obolo, I hope. I have also reached a point in my self-growth where thoughts of self-hate and unloving descriptions of my body are slowly and surely being replaced with self-love, praise and just general amazement with everything my body enables me to do.

Bottom line: The consequences of a lack of consideration for a person’s feelings and the seeming hesitance, reluctance or refusal to scrutinize and question certain facets of one’s culture all create a terrible burden for the recipient of name calling and inevitably for the society itself. Maybe we wouldn’t need an archive of politically correct terms if we our interactions did not dedicate so much value to physical attributes.

[1] I am saying it is socially accepted because it is wide practice to call men and women oboloo. Of course, as it is the purpose of my writing to point out, this ‘acceptance’ is limited and partial.