When I was younger, from what the pictures show, I was that cute chubby baby. Not even bragging I was adorable. I grew to be a chubby child too. I had big legs, big cheeks, flabby stomach and arms, and big thighs. Big everything! Of course, this did not bother me when I was young. I liked fries and bread like every other kid and whenever I wanted to eat; hungry or not, I was fortunate enough to have the food on the table.When older folks came to visit, they would always declare their love for me by saying how beautiful and big I was. To them big or should I say [fat] meant a healthy baby.
When I grow older, I got bullied for my weight constantly. I was called ugly, incompetent and constantly othered. I was usually the kid last picked for almost everything; I was made to feel unwanted everyday. Boys made fun of me, saying how no guy would ever want me as a girlfriend, they would make “fat” people jokes. Every time we played “Yo Mama” games, because of the lack of creativity, my weight was always the go-to.
In seventh grade, I moved to a boarding school. This was the first time I was going to leave home and live on my own. This was not fun either. As much as I got special treatment for being the only Rwandese in a Ugandan school or the only form seven girl with long hair in a “everybody-cut-your-hair school”, I still got bullied for my weight. Most of the things that made me feel uncomfortable were the references my friends made about other big girls. Even though these comments were directed towards other girls with similar sizes to mine, they reminded me how my friends viewed me.
Like I mentioned, it was my first time in boarding school, I did not know how to navigate my way around many things so I suffered from stress. I did not realize this but because of this stress, I lost a great deal of my weight. When I first came to the school (at 12 years) I was 72kgs (158lbs) and after a year I was 59kgs (129lbs).
When I moved back to Rwanda and back to the high school I had attended, the people’s behaviors towards me changed. I suddenly felt like I fit in better. People constantly CONGRATULATED ME ON LOSING WEIGHT and always told me I had become beautiful. This process of interchanging beautiful and skinny got into my head. I became attached to the idea that I was beautiful because I had lost weight and my biggest fear became that I would be the same size as I was before. I did everything possible to ensure this did not happen. I ate less and did sport; a combination that is dangerous. Due to this diet, I found myself sick regularly and fainted quite often. I was doing 2-3 sports and eating only once a day; diner! Whenever I had more than one meal, I would become depressed and my anxiety would triple itself at the idea that I was suddenly the same size as I was when I was a child. This weakened my immune system tremendously. I fainted a lot during sport practices and when I stood for a long time I got dizzy. My parents wondered what was wrong with me and I always pretended to wonder with them but deep down I think I knew. In 10th grade (at 15) I was down to 51kgs (112lbs). I know this because I had to weigh myself all the time at the hospital.
Besides being depressed, I was also confused. I was confused because the idea of what beauty was in my community, was contradicting in all ways. Moreover, the Afrikan cuisine did not complement the modern day Afrikan beauty standards; if anything this will always be the biggest paradox.
On one side, the old folks would say a beautiful Rwandan woman is thick and they always encouraged me to eat. However, their words changed depending on different circumastances. When talking to me, the would emphasize the idea of a beautiful thick woman but if they saw two people in the street; one thick another thin, they always talked about the beauty of the thin one. On the other hand, young people’s beauty standards were very much influenced by the western media. This means it reflected both size and color preferences.
These different views always messed me up. When I was in school, I would always compare myself to other girls. Asking myself or my friends who was skinnier between me and somebody else. If one person said they had lost weight, I would feel like I was not doing enough and I would not eat for days. So basically from 8-11th grade, I suffered from anorexia and undiagnosed depression.
I graduated, praise the universe! I went to college and discovered the theory of freshman-15. I was welcomed with a gallon of anxiety at the thought of gaining weight. Needless to say, I gained weight by the end of freshman year. I went back to Rwanda and people started commenting on it; “warabyibushe”; everyone said. And whether or not they meant this as a compliment, every time someone said it, my heart sunk and my depression increased. I stopped taking pictures of myself for a while because I never liked the way I looked in pictures (but I posted throwback pictures so people would not know I was having issues).
Mid-freshman year, I got obsessed with the gym. I worked out twice or three times a day but still hardly ate. But in my second year of college, I had gotten tired of always feeling dissatisfied with myself. I used to cry everyday and feel defeated all the time. I no longer wanted to feel like this. So I tried to teach my mind to love my body and took a break from the gym. That is how I got to learn the importance of representation. I started tailoring my social media space to reflect my identity; my skin color, my immigration status, my mental health status and my body size. I got to see beautiful thick women like Iskra, fit thick women like Lita Lewis but most especially confident, self-loving thick BLACK women like South African Lesego Legobane known as Thickleeyonce. I wanted to see and love myself the way they loved themselves. Matter fact, I tried so much and failed and ended up envying them at some point. I began to teach my mind that thick thighs indeed save lives. I repeated it to my brain every night and every morning.
I had different ways to remind myself of this constantly like writing body positive notes on my mirrors, walls, made it my screen cover on my laptop and phone, so I never could have the space to think otherwise. However this was hard because some of my family members were EPs (enemies of progress). I had begun to teach my mind to focus less on the physical appearance and address my mental health issues first. But I would go home and all people talked about was weight and more weight and a tad bit of colorism.
I hated it and begun feeling uncomfortable within my own family, begun avoiding them and eventually quit going to certain functions and refused to go to certain homes. This was me cleansing my space because a lot of these places were toxic to me.
I was looking at myself in the mirror a few days ago and I was wondering what was wrong with me. I can look at a thick woman and acknowledge her beauty and fierceness but that thinking is difficult to translate to myself sometimes [most times].
The initiative I took to unlearn beauty standards and social constructions was beautiful to me. I learned to clean my spaces of toxic people, to be creative with my healing process and be more supportive to my black sisters. Even more, I learned more about mental health in the Black and Afrikan community, which are two communities that HARDLY EVER recognize them.
This is why I say gaining weight was the best thing that ever happened to me.Gaining weight not only meant I gained curves; the ultimate blessing but it also challenged me to reflect on the things that weighed heavy on heart. Now, am I better mentally? Absolutely not. Do I look in the mirror and see myself as beautiful everyday? Rarely. Do I think being skinnier would be good for me? everyday I think it. So I am not completely healed and it is okay because I am still healing slowly but healthily.