Last week as I was walking into the office on a particularly sunny and cheerful morning, wearing one of my favourite patterned shift dresses that hits just above my knees, a strange man who I’d never spoken to before got right in my face and told me to make sure to wear a dress that draped down to my ankles. “Kesho uvae nguo inafika hapa,” he said, gesturing to his ankles. A million thoughts raced through my mind at that moment as I wondered how I would respond. I wanted to curse him out and tell him that he had no business commenting on my body. But a small part of me feared inciting rage and I had a vivid imagination of him lurking in the shadows waiting to corner me alone in the hallway after work. I had read too many accounts of femicide to relegate my fear to simply paranoia. I considered laughing him off and thought about all the times I had used humour to shrug off incidences that made me uncomfortable. Ultimately, I just ignored him and walked past him without acknowledging his rude disruption. That has always been my modus operandi in the face of street harassment. Ignore and keep walking.
The following day, wearing a midi-length black skirt and statement t-shirt, a male colleague walked up to me and asked me if I was going to a church event after work. His tone implied that my dress-code on that day which could be interpreted as modest was an anomaly from my usual risque (his opinion) style. Again, a million different responses raced through my head from a tentative chuckle to indignant objection. Again I chose to ignore the grossly misogynistic undertones that he made in what could be argued to be a seemingly innocent manner. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
As young girls, you learn early on that your body is not your own. Everyone seems to have an opinion on everything, from your weight to your clothes to your hair. It gets even more uncomfortable once adolescence hits and you start being subjected to the lascivious male gaze. You find yourself subconsciously re-modelling yourself; your dressing, your walking style, your mannerisms, all in a futile attempt to escape the stares and leers and the dirty feeling of shame it induces. Until you realise that there is no winning. The game is rigged and your only way out is to opt out of playing.
The only way to win is by being yourself. Being your whole, authentic, unapologetic self. Not letting any single person dim your light and burden you with their expectations of what they want you to be. Your life is yours to live. And YOU get to choose the terms and conditions.
[Affirmations c/o Alex Elle]