We run round and round my grandmother’s big, whitewashed house, shrieking ourselves hoarse, sweating, panting with the boundless energy that only children have. My cousins and I play police and thief, climb up the guava tree, eat off the berry shrub. We are a unified unit. I am all bones, but no one says anything of it. None of my cousins makes fun of me. I am a very happy child.
When I was a baby my parents complained to the doctors about my size. “Look at the two of you,” said the doctor, before shoving them out of his office with a telling-off ‘to leave me alone with their own skinny selves’.
At home, my sister & I, and the children of our parents’ guests are outside, sitting at the table my father had the local carpenter build. We are under the lone coconut tree that bears no fruit. Inside, cigarettes and whisky mingle as the adults go on and on about Ghana’s political parties—the NPP this, the NDC that. If we know the children, we take a long walk to Bake Shop Classics for cupcakes or play by the little brook that runs behind our house, where the area children catch minnow and lizards abound. Anything to get away from politics. If we don’t know the children, we talk about school and I often bust out paper and colored pencils and have us draw or write stories. I am not shy at all. And if they are younger than me, more reason to be the one running the show.
I love school. I have two or three best friends. I do well there, always first or second. I am small and like to sit in front of the class. I take notes better that way. Sports is my least favorite activity, especially volleyball, and Mr. B is not the softest of teachers. I would rather be reading. I would rather write. I write a lot of essays. I cry at the drop of a hat, especially because of sports.
I take an exam and get into an exclusive boarding school. I am thrilled. In this school, you share rooms with only three other people, and in your last year, you get your own room. The food is good. The teachers actually know what they teach. And it gets us all into good universities.
THE JOKE FELT FOR YEARS
Everyone in this new school was either first or second where they came from. We size each other up, the way teenagers do, forming alliances, seeing who is cute. I fall in love the first week. And almost every week thereafter. But no love comes back my way. The girls who have already been grabbed are curvy, with breasts and buttocks, and long hair. In the mirror, I see a small, skinny, flat-chested girl, with short hair. In other words, I see a little boy.
I keep a diary. I write about the brush I had with a crush. How he sat behind me and how his leg kicked my chair, sending a jolt up my heart, and how he tapped me and said sorry, he hadn’t meant to. Two years have gone by and I still haven’t been plucked. My breasts are tiny buds, I have grown out my hair, I am still as straight as a pole. The Figure One, my father calls me.
You should become a model, are the words I hear outside the school walls. ‘Face of Africa’, my father says a lot. “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers,” says Roald Dahl, one of my favorite writers. “Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” Obviously, I don’t listen to my father. Inside the school’s walls, inside of me, I don’t feel pretty. Why don’t I have a boyfriend? Why does no one look twice at me?
Then one day in English class, my crush du jour, flanked by two others, beckons me over. Yes, I ask, what’s up? With nonchalance and cool. He looks off to the side dramatically. His friends—I like them, they are sort of my friends, too—give him moral support. The girl’s hand on his shoulder, the boy grunting words of encouragement. It’s OK, you can do this.
“Ayesha, I like you,” he says.
The concrete under my feet shifts.
“What?” I say.
“Let’s talk after class.”
The classes that follow, lunch, sports all proceed in a blurry train. Finally love requited! I begin to paint all sorts of scenarios: us walking to school together hand-in-hand, us convening at the wall where students aren’t supposed to meet, us dancing together at the Saturday night jams, cheek-to-cheek. Warmth fills every pore of me.
Finally, I pin him down and can’t wait to hear the rest. When did these feelings sprout in him? Has he known I’ve liked him since the day he tried carrying me (to prove he was stronger than his lanky frame suggested)? Does he know what a great couple we’d make?
“What were you saying in English class today?”
“Oh, nothing,” he says. “It was a joke.”
The world under my feet crunches back into place, jerking me awake. I didn’t think him cruel, or his friends. A joke?!
I do well in school. I fall in love again and again, but shrink back ever so. I have friends who are boys, but they are usually just borrowing my notes from Biology. I have a group of girlfriends that steadies me, with whom I get into all sorts of funny scrapes. Mostly, though, I just concentrate on schoolwork. I am very quiet. In the mirror I am taller now, still straight as a pole. My hair is permed, but uninteresting. Am I doomed to stay unloved.
COLLEGE, AMERICA AND BOYS
I am now in a women’s college in wintry Massachusetts. It’s where I got the most financial aid. Also, their Biology program is one of the best. And no, I don’t think I subconsciously chose it to get away from boys. I have cut off my perm and grown out my natural hair. I start taking writing classes in addition to my biochemistry major. Surrounded by women, I feel safe and warm and begin to grow into my skin. In my sophomore year, I meet a boy from a great school nearby. Like me, he’s a science geek. Nothing much comes of it, but it’s a start. I also realize that year, that what I want to do is write. I have always written. I start writing pieces here and there for the school paper. I take a semester abroad in France, where the men scream, “Je t’aime!” I always look back to see who they are talking to.
New York City.
Graduate School of Journalism by day, by night (even a week night), my best friend and I hit up the dance spots in the city. We are rail thin, tall and boobless. We are perfect by New York City’s standards. My friend and I even call boys, “toys.” If I hadn’t been so thoroughly scared by pregnancy and AIDS advertisements during my adolescence, I would surely be a wild child. At this point, feeling on top of the world, I want to travel back in time and tell my high school self, it is OK. You will get so much attention you won’t know what to do with it.
And then, I find myself in a serious relationship, one in which major steps like living arrangements and meeting the parents and having babies are considered. And when it goes downhill, I am told by the man who said he loved me, “It might be I am just attracted to a different kind of body shape.” Suddenly, I am thrust back to fourteen, pining for breasts and hips and buttocks. It doesn’t matter that I have already published a book and I’m working on my second. Suddenly, I am not good enough again. His words slash back the layers, violently peeling each one I’ve built up so well, and I realize I am still no different from when I was fourteen. The problem is that I have never believed I was pretty, I have never really believed in myself. Suddenly, the relationship feels no different from the joke my crush played on me.
THE POWER OF THE POLE
I am in a pole dancing class. My instructor, the Diva, is not a small woman. With ease and bundles of sexiness, she slides up and down the pole, screaming words of encouragement to us. It’s all women in this class and we come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, each of us toting our own reasons for being there. Mine is to build up my confidence again. We do ridiculous dances on the floor. “YES! YES!” screams the Diva. Every time I attempt to climb the pole, I rebuild something inside myself. This is not for any man’s gaze. This is for me. I may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I am beautiful. I am adequate. I am enough.
Apart from the process of self-acceptance, pole class lets me know something else: how unfit I am. I have been riding the skinny wave so long; I haven’t bothered to take care of myself. Just warming up is enough to give me a stitch. I begin to think of myself differently. I am how I take care of my body, I am what I put inside of me, I am what I think about. Exercising, drinking water and eating vegetable-filled meals, meditating, all begin to make me feel better about myself. What I learn is, this isn’t really about how I look. It is about how I feel. And I am starting to feel great.
Now, when I look at myself in the mirror, I am still the Figure One, but pinched with a curvy backside that the fourteen-year-old inside of me is desperately clinging to. I see a woman, who wants to keep writing stories that will inspire other people, and especially, girls like me; I see a beautiful African woman who has been blessed with so many rich life experiences; I see my parents and how hard they’ve fought for me. When people tell me I’m beautiful, yes, I still sometimes do a double take to make sure they are not talking about someone else behind me. But the moment is fleeting, gone in a flash. “Yes,” I say, “thank you” and smile.
— AYESHA H ATTAH X UDD
I am able to put myself in other people's shoes and see where they are coming from.
The path to womanhood can be a complex, confusing and wildly exhilarating journey. There’s something powerful and simply beautiful in discovering one’s femininity. With it comes a confidence, wisdom and an unbridled passion: your sexy. And although I’m still getting the hang of this myself, giving myself permission to be a woman has been liberating!
Yes, it can be a little scary—after all, with this comes great responsibility. You now take full ownership of the consequences of your actions. But the freedom to choose your thoughts, your way, and be who you want to be? Priceless. And then there’s the physical aspect—to look in the mirror and fall in love with what you see—the sway of your hips, the pout in your lips. Well...sexy!
Ayesha Attah is an internationally acclaimed writer. Her works speak on social and political issues that affect her generation. She gives herself permission to be bold and uncanny in her writings. She reflects the times. But so many of us can still feel incomplete despite our success—Ayesha was no different.
Like her works, Ayesha boldly found herself—her beauty—in the most unlikeliest of places: a pole dancing class. There she gave herself permission to fall in love with herself. She realized she is adequate. She is enough. She discovered self-acceptance. Ayesha has gone from the Figure One to being her No.1 — prioritizing her happiness and wellbeing above all others. She’s found completeness.
To that I say, “All hail the pole!”
Does this story resonate with you? We’d love to hear from you, too. Share your thoughts or your own stories and let's start the conversation.