By Tutu Zondo
We were around 12 or 13 when everyone started dating. I remember when Valentine’s Day got a little more serious, people started receiving and sending roses, chocolates and teddy bears. On the weekend when we went to movies, people would be holding hands sharing hugs that lasted a little bit longer, sneaking kisses when they thought no-one was looking. It was also during this time that I started looking at myself more, studying my body. Hoping that maybe, just maybe if I was a little more desirable I also could have my turn at the lengthy hugs and secret kisses.
The truth is puberty was a minefield to navigate because all the images I saw of what was beautiful, masculine and desirable, looked one way. Whether it was on the billboards I drove past when going to school or all the Men’s Health magazines that lined the shelves of every supermarket I went into. Hell, even the porn I would download on our slow dial-up internet would enforce that I needed broader shoulders, narrower hips, taut muscles that can only be achieved with an expensive gym membership and most importantly, white skin (or as light-skin as possible).
When I looked in the mirror I didn’t see any of these things. Instead I saw a young lanky dark skin boy with pimples. I saw someone who needed braces and a haircut. I would always see someone who needed a better outfit, someone who needed to change. I was so conscious of how I looked that I subconsciously developed a complex. I began a 10-year journey of constantly trying to “fix” myself.
I tried it all. I changed my relationship with the food I ate, counting the calories, supplementing so that I could have more protein, more muscles, more definition. I tried to exercise more, running kilometres and kilometres as if trying to outrun the ideals that had been put on me. Became obsessed with fashion and clothes (I knew every sale in every shopping mall) I had to always look my “best”.
The deep complexes I had around my body and the way I looked were only intensified once I (eventually) started dating. It didn’t help that I started dating around the time that social media was introduced. Even today navigating Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is a difficult experience. You have to be as close to perfect as your filters can make you and the number of likes you get directly affect your self-esteem, even if you don’t want them to. Then there’s the logging onto apps like Grindr and Tindr that constantly remind you that being “fat or femme” is just not hot.
The moment I stopped trying to constantly fix what wasn’t broken came just after I turned 21. I was dating a man I thought was absolutely perfect, he had a flawless ‘Colgate smile’, was always impeccably dressed and had one of those magazine bodies (he might’ve actually been on the cover of a magazine). I went to his house for the first time and his “routine” took me by surprise.
He, like me, spent way too much time trying to be perfect. He would wake up and workout, leaving him close to exhaustion, eat bland food that would ensure his body looked exactly how he wanted it. Lined in the shelves of his bathroom, were expensive products that promised to keep his skin flawless. Like me he spent too much time picking an outfit that would bring him a step closer to looking like a dream.
It was through watching this very familiar routine that I realized there is no end, there is no final destination. Even when you’re at the top of the mountain you will still feel like you haven’t made it. Because the simple truth is, we were all put into a system that’s designed to make sure that no one wins. We’ve been led to chase a standard of beauty that does not and should not exist. A standard that’s impossible to reach.
The only way to override the system, to break the standard is to start embracing the beauty and wonder in our diversity and differences. The idea that we all have to be tall, slim, muscular with abs is one that we have to unlearn. Our relationship with the food we eat needs to be different, we need to get back to the understanding that we eat to nourish our bodies, give them energy so that we’re able to live the glorious lives we do. Our approach to exercise needs to focus on health, strength and feeling good. And looking in the mirror needs to be an exercise in focusing on what we love and not just highlighting the parts of us we wish were different. I stopped the journey of trying to fix myself and began the one of learning to love myself just as I am, and I’ve never been happier.