And the speaker, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, says in this TED speech that “These women lived in the ‘and.’ You could be fierce and feminine.” As I listened to this TED talk about a band of female soldiers who served on the frontline of Afghanistan even as there was a ban of female soldiers on the frontline, I thought about the many ways women have to live a dichotomous lives. Women live in the ‘and’ everyday in the choices that we make. Sometimes the ‘and’ is a function of cultural of expectations of what womanhood is. To be soft AND firm. To elegant AND strong. To be quiet AND heard. To navigate a tightrope between womanhood and the desires to be more than the prescribed bounds of woamnhood.
For me, the ‘and’ is something that I have struggled with all my life. I was thinking back to my teenage years earlier today before watching this TED talk. One of the things I am trying to come to terms with is the abuse that I inflicted on my body via an eating disorder. Surviving an eating disorder is something that has shaped my view of my self, body and my place within the world. I have come to realize that there are times when I try to make myself smaller because I feel ashamed to take up space. When I was in secondary school in Lagos, I remember that one of the pleasures of having an eating disorder was the eating less. Being less at something gave me lots of pride. The look of surprise from classmates when they realized I was eating just a small portion of food. The ability to be more with less. The surprising part of the less obsession was I couldn’t see myself shrinking. Even in my memories of myself in that phase, I still see myself as being large. It is only when I see pictures of myself that I realize that I was shrinking.
This many years later, I can say that I am past the worst of my eating disorder. I think of myself in the terms of a drug addict. I am always going to be in recovery. It is this acknowledgement of my continuous struggle with my body that allows me to be conscious of myself. I am able to look at my approach to life and reel myself in when I am about to make crazy extreme decisions. In the past decade, I have been unable to maintain a stable weight. I have been big and I have been small. I am, and I have been, on a journey to understand what it means to exist within my body.
I am learning that it is possible to be a lot of things in one body. I can be fat and graceful. I can be skinny and love food. I can be sad and happy. The sadness and the happiness is one that took me a long time to learn. I can be strong and I can be weak. I am somewhere in the spectrum of being an introvert and an extrovert although I identify more with being an introvert. Wanting a different life that my mother imagined for me does not make me less of my mother’s daughter. I can be some of who she wants me to be and I can be somewhat different that she imagined I would be.
I can be pure AND own my sexuality. One of the things I struggled with through my early adulthood was that idea that it was okay to be desired and to desire others. I was one of those girls who reached puberty really early physically but mentally I was still a child. Having older men lust openly after my body and make insinuating comments to me made me feel ashamed. In a lot of ways, I wanted to shrink and disappear. Also growing up in a society in which women who appeared to be sexual desirable where considered cheap and tainted made me feel ashamed of my body. I hid myself from the rites of adulthood by being oblivious to appropriate advances and making myself unavailable for the dating rites.
When I started choosing to live in the ‘and’, I gave myself permission to live a life that is authentic. This is why I relate to those soldiers’ lives. In the story that Ms. Lemmon tells, there runs a line of authenticity. A line where being a soldier on the frontline does not mean giving up the feminine. By occupying a space that is considered masculine in a way that celebrates the ‘and’ these women where able to create authentic roles for themselves and many other young women.
In what ways are you living in the ‘and’? Let me know in the comment section.