I grew up in a male-dominated household, but I had one female cousin who is four months younger than I am. I considered her my best friend. We looked forward to sleepovers at each other’s houses, secret adventures during family gatherings and even cried every time we had to say goodbye.
“My mother and your father were this close when they were young!” she used to remind me when we fought, tightly holding up two, sticky fingers. So, we counted the days when she would join me in the exciting, grown up age. We both even approached puberty a few months apart. And as a sign from God we vowed to complete the rest of our lives just like this- side by side. But life paused and flowed differently for us and the distance of four months stretched between us into a lifetime of difference. We couldn’t catch up to the change of our minds and bodies. Or was it our bodies and then our minds?
Before we doubled in age, I was aware that despite being the older cousin, I was significantly smaller. My body covered less space on the bed we shared, and my stomach took in less food.
“Eat more, you so thin!” was usually the response of every elder when they saw me dribbling morsels into my mouth. My cousin, Ayanda, was able to eat more and was taller and stronger than I was. But no matter how hard I tried, I was always sitting at the table long after it was cleared with an unfinished plate reheated more than once. I would swing my legs alone before a side-gaze from my father or the appearance of my mother would quickly prompt me to scrape the food off my plate.
“Ayanda won’t play with you if you don’t finish your food,” I was warned when she came to visit. And on those days, I was jumping off the table with her, clean plate in hand.
“Thando, come see what I bought for you!” uBabekazi cooed to me after supper. “I told your mother I would bring you a nice pair of pants. Go try it on quickly! I want to see how it fits.” I fitted on green corduroy pants that fell under my feet as I stumbled to the audience that waited for me.
“Aah, it fits just right, you can just cut the bottom. I had bought it for Ayanda,” she shook her head at my mother.
“Can you see how pants are supposed to fit, Ayanda?” My best friend Ayanda sat on the floor of her mother’s legs preoccupied with her finger in her nose. The hard corduroy was making my legs itch so badly, I took off the pants right there. I ran away giggling.
It was the December before our periods arrived, and there was a wedding in our family. Ayanda and I loved to wear matching outfits. UBabekazi usually planned out every last detail, starting from the shoes, stockings and alice bands. We were bridesmaids dressed in white. We stood poised for photographs, our eyes squinted in the sun, our hands interlocked, white frills on our arms and knees made noises when we moved.
“Ayanda suck your stomach in like how I showed you!” UBabekazi’s voice rose behind the cameraman. Ayanda’s hand felt wet and hot. UBabekazi pushed her way towards us and I let Ayanda’s hand go. She fussed over her hair, wiped sweat from her face and before she left, she rested her hand over my waist.
“You are looking beautiful, Thando,” said uBabekazi.
“Thank you, Babekazi,” Ayanda said, flashing a smile.
“Okay ready girls? Smile!” Ayanda and I smiled for the camera with our hands at our sides.
When we entered our mid-teens, we stopped wearing matching clothes and instead planned secret outfits revealed only on occasion day. I couldn’t find skirts that would sit at my waist and not fall to the floor. My height did not change much from Grade 5. One day, Ayanda and I were getting dressed to go out and we both stood in front of the mirror adjusting our clothes.
“I wish I could wear skirts like you Ayanda. I just can’t find my size,” I envied.
“It’s because you are too skinny! Look how nice it looks on me.” And that is how my heart broke, my body image shook in the mirror and my self-esteem fell to the floor. My best friend became cousin Ayanda, sleepovers together stopped and crying alone began. One wore pants and skirts.
Perhaps Ayanda had felt the same way before I did and long before I had realised I was the unintentional cause of her discomfort. Perhaps that’s how resentment grows – quietly and strongly. Or perhaps we were children who didn’t need to feel our bodies were not perfect. Most importantly adults need to stop comparing their children to others.
Tell us: What do you think of people who body-shame others?