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BEAUTY

Enough With The Shame

Meet the women embracing body-positivity

BY Joan Thatiah

Mar 13, 2021, 07:07 AM

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When she was 10, Shelmith Mukami wanted to be a flight attendant, wear fancy suits, and travel all around the world. When she said this out loud, she was told that she couldn’t. Maybe if she lost a few kilograms. She gave this dream up.

“It was tough being a bigger child. I remember being made fun of in primary school, being the butt of those mchongoano jokes,” the now 23-year-old Shelmith recalls.

This taunting, bullying, and the resulting self-doubt went on through high school. Then she joined the university to study journalism.

“In uni, I was tired of hiding and trying to fit in. I woke up one morning and decided to be myself. I realized that no one was going to do this for me,” she says.

This change wasn’t overnight. She didn’t go to bed one night and wake up oozing self-confidence.
Shelmith Mukami
“I decided that enough was enough and began the journey of making a conscious effort to love myself just as I am every day,” she says.

“Before all this, the only message I saw on mainstream and social media was that thinner people are happier, healthier and that they are more likely to find love. Suddenly, I was hearing a different message. I was seeing curvier women loving their bodies, flaunting them, being happy in relationships,” she says.

So she decided to be the woman she needed to see when she was a little girl and formed her body-positive community on Instagram with 34,500 followers.

Depending on who you ask, being body positive can mean accepting all your flaws, being aware of your flaws, and loving your body despite them. It can also mean, being defiant. Flaunting your thunder things, your cellulite and stretch marks. 
Shelmith Mukami
For Shelmith, it means accepting that while her body is not perfect, it is wonderful.

"It’s a process. I am not confident every day. There are days when I wake up and I don’t like how I look. On these days, I will have someone walk up to me on the street and tell me I inspire them and I will remember why I do what I do,” she says.

The Changing Standards

There is scanty hard data showing the Kenyan woman’s relationship with her body. To get a feel of the situation on the ground, we conducted an online dipstick survey of 20 Kenyan women aged between 20 and 44. All of them but two expressed dissatisfaction with their bodies. One has had a cosmetic procedure to change a part of her body. Twelve answered that they have in the recent past felt more confident in their skin influenced by the online body-positive movement.

The African woman has had an interesting relationship with her body. The ideal societal standards keep shifting. Just as she begins to embrace this part or the other, the trend will change and she has to start the process all over again.
"The Kenyan woman of the pre-colonial period seems to have been more content with her look."
The Kenyan woman of the pre-colonial period seems to have been more content with her look. Then colonization came along and she began borrowing standards of what she thought was ideal from the West.

 In the late 90s and early 2000s, the ideal female body was slender with narrow shoulders and a high waist. This was the era of the supermodel. With the thin bodies also came obesity. Then Beyonce put the big booty in fashion so it became fashionable to be curvy. But only if your face was angled and your waist wasp-like.
As obesity rates surged the world over in the last two decades, the media perhaps in good faith would try to encourage healthier living by showing photos of lean people as healthy and use photographs of bigger women while talking about obesity. Subsequently, the woman began seeing herself through this lens where she would see herself as thin, happy, and healthy or bigger and unhappy.

A woman’s relationship with her body doesn’t just stop at how she feels. It directly affects whether she actively embraces self-care or not, it affects how cautious she is about her health, it flows into her fashion sense and her confidence levels.

Add this to the changes that happen to a woman’s body when she carries a pregnancy, has surgery, or ages and there is little to keep her from beating herself up for her body not being able to snap back.

Why We Need This Movement

In recent years, the definition of what an ideal female body looks like has continued to expand challenging how society has viewed the female body and making space for all types of bodies. Women who for their lifetimes have never seen a woman who looks like them in an advert or as the love interest of the hot guy in the movie is now included. Allowed to be just themselves.

29-year-old Nyawira Mumenya is leading the pack in this ‘we are all beautiful’ online movement. The self-styled fluffy queen uses her resources as a style influencer to foster love and acceptance of all bodies.

“I love working out and leading a healthy type but when I create content, I am consciously trying to show women that you do not need to look only one way to feel good about yourself,” she says.
Nyawira Mumenya
This body-positive movement is making seems to be loud enough because some brands like Bittiner Wear and Nivea seem to be listening embracing women of all shapes, helping change the perception of what a beautiful woman looks like.

Still, there are people especially in online spaces who will taunt and name call plus size women. Nyawira, who is not afraid to share photographs of herself in all situations including at the beach in a bikini, has had her fair share of these.

"If you come at me on Instagram, I will block you. I protect my energy at all costs. If I go to a place and there is negative energy, I leave," she says.

Much More Than Just Looks

Seeing how much a woman’s relationship with her body is interconnected with other facets of her life, this body-positive movement is welcome for many reasons.
"The body-positive movement could very well be the bridge between the gender pay gap."
First, it acknowledges the fact that a woman’s relationship with her body is not just that. It is much more. If a woman has a terrible relationship with her body, this has deeper running effects. It affects a woman’s mental health leading to issues like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

The other thing, a woman’s relationship with her body is often directly related to her self-worth. How she looks in that black little number is often intertwined with how much she thinks she is worth. All this leads back to the big problem for today’s woman – gender inequality. The body-positive movement could very well be the bridge between the gender pay gap. 

"Think about it. If you are not too confident with yourself or how you look, you will try not to draw attention to yourself. This means you will be reluctant to speak out during meetings, you will not brag about your achievements and you will be reluctant to enter the boss’ office to negotiate for a pay rise. The gender pay gap will stay wide open."

Amidst the body-positive vibes, there has been the misconception that uplifting women of bigger sizes is body shaming slender women. This means that while we are already having these conversations, we still have some way to go with regard to appreciating bodies of all sizes.

If you are not careful especially for the younger, impressionable women, it’s easy to get carried away by the ‘beautiful, in ‘we are all beautiful’. Begin thinking that this is all a woman is about. Make the body the most important part of the perception of self. This movement can make this everything, ignoring other important things like character and personality.

Read: The Real Reason Women Wear Makeup