You will look back and see yourself, from outside yourself. An awkward-looking not yet awkward-feeling young girl, all teeth and pudgy limbs, barefoot on the carpet, swirling on tip toes, feeling her dress swish and swoosh. Hips, shoulders, arms, neck, wrists; moving, flailing, jerking, gyrating, flicking, twisting, swaying. Pupils dilated in the pleasure of the moment, music surging through the body. A pair of drum sticks at rhythm’s bidding. She of the big-toothed smile, slurping up the adoration of adults gathered around, revelling in the experience of them enjoying her, enjoying her self.
Then it will change. You will remember the feeling of confusion, but not how the message was relayed; that it wasn’t appropriate to be dancing for the adults anymore. It will come as an inwardly radiating awareness, that there existed a self to be conscious of. A self that existed outside of you. A self that could affect others. A self that could offend others. A self that could arouse others. A self that had to be curbed, constrained, controlled to save others from feelings that they may not be able to curb, constrain, control. A self that was your responsibility to mold into acceptable acquiescence, because others could not be expected to be held responsible for the way their selves behaved.
You will start to understand the code. That your body is not yours to do with as you please, willy-nilly.
This will have happened around the same time you learn that bare shoulders are threatening objects that must be covered in public. Your grandmother will have told you this. The same grandmother who was an English teacher in Kenya in the 1940s, who urged you to become a lawyer.
“They can take what’s in your hands, but they can never take away what’s in your mind,” she will tell you.
“But they have taken my body,” you will want to scream.
You will learn to stifle your hips on the dance floor at weddings, tame your body, suppress its expression, choke it back like a sneeze. You will appease propriety. Then, when you are home, you will lock the door, turn the music up and make up for the half-hearted swaying of earlier. You will explode. You will dance… I mean really dance. It will erupt in a frenzy, a gushing of movement, uncontrolled and greedy, until you collapse, sweaty and satiated, your cheek seeking out coolness from the hard wooden floor.
You will feel like yourself again. In that moment. In the privacy of your bedroom where your body is not responsible for the reactions it elicits.
You will live the code. Your body instinctively remembering what it has been taught, even as your mind forgets.
You will see your young cousin with her armor of make up, and you will see yourself in her. Where her lips are forcefully pouty and chest is thrust out, your lips were pursed and shoulders were rounded in. Where she makes her body shout out Take me, you made your body shout out Don’t take me. But you will realize you are the same. That you both believed somewhere inside that your worth as women lies purely in fulfilling a man’s needs. It will make you weep. It will shock you, because by now you will be an educated, accomplished, rebellious, confident woman with a glittering web of support woven around you by the incredible women in your life. You will wonder how this seed managed to plant itself inside what you thought was an inhospitable host.
Then, one day, many years later, you will hear a powerful woman talk about her shame. A woman who you admire deeply; a woman whose friendship warms your soul. You will be filled with wonder, that such a confident, accomplished, assured woman once felt shame. Maybe still feels shame. You will recognize yourself in the loud pauses between her words. You will marvel that now you have a word you can sink your teeth into, a name for something that in the past existed only as shadowy mist swirling in your veins, and that now feels crunchy, breakable.
Shame is a controlling animal. It demands. Don’t be fully you. Be less.
It will strike you as odd, how this message of shame is often enforced by women. This will niggle at your brain, and you will pick at it, like a toothpick probing at the bright orange mango stuck in between your teeth. You will talk about it with your mum, hands cupping hot mugs of masala chai, deeply inhaling the familiar comfort of cardamom. You will realise, women have taken this role on, the education of shame, as a survival mechanism. They know that women have to look out for women, teach girls how to behave in a man’s world. Shame is self-defense.
Then you will hit 30.
You will wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and notice that your features aren’t where you left them at night. It will take your eyes, lips, cheeks longer to remember where they sit, for your face to settle into the memory of itself. That this bothers you will surprise you. You would have never thought you would be unsettled by age. Yet in the shower, you will notice the muscles in your legs are softer than they used to be, the sweep of your waist more hesitant, your shoulders less defiant. Later, you will dig up old photos of yourself to try and measure what aging looks like for you.
With wet hair dripping onto the paper, you will marvel at how hot you were when you were younger. How vibrant. How you glowed; how the stomach that you pinched at then was flatter than it may ever be. You will feel stupid that you wasted those years, feeling unattractive, when you could have been enjoying your body. You will not allow yourself at 50 years to look back and feel regret at wasted pity.
You will spit on the message that you only deserve to enjoy your body if it looks a certain way. You will refuse to force it to behave a certain way.
You will look in the mirror and see fleshy lips, mischievous eyes, big ears, chicken pock-marked forehead, crooked nose, long eyelashes, and a hint of cheekbone under full cheeks. Mostly, you will see a woman who has lived.
Now, you will take pleasure in being upside down in a headstand, blood rushing to your head, seeing the world all higgledy-piggledy. You will stand on stage, in front of hundreds of people, and appreciate your knees for being solid, for not buckling under you. You will wrap your arms around people you love, and be thankful for this body that can give and receive love. You will curl up in bed at night, left leg askew, and be grateful for this body of yours that gives life to being alive.
You will take your body back from the world. And you will dance… I mean really dance.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.