Students in Nigerian universities have stories to tell, but hardly anyone to tell them to. For our new weekly series, Aluta and Chill, we are putting the spotlight on these students and their various campus experiences.
Our subject this week is Martha Obike, who is in her fourth year, studying political science at University of Uyo. She shares her struggles with finding a place in a school and society that have a different idea of how her body should look like.
Why did you apply to study political science?
This wasn’t the original plan, actually. I applied for law but my scores didn’t meet the required cut-off. I had no choice but to take the supplementary form and go for political science which I got. I wasn’t so enthusiastic about it, but I gathered my stuff, left Aba, Abia State and made for Uyo.
Was the lack of enthusiasm because you didn’t get Law?
Yes. One of the reasons I went for Uniuyo was because I heard they had a good law department. It sucked not to get it, but I had to get this university thing over with.
Fair. How did you find Uniuyo?
It was very quiet and strange and the social life was almost non-existent. From the first days, I had an inkling that I might not fit in immediately. As I said, I got in after I applied for the supplementary form, and academic activities had already started before I resumed. I was practically the new kid on the block. The wildest thing about this was that the first semester exams were only three weeks away.
God, the stress! I had to sort out all the paperwork and register for courses as fast as I could, and the system didn’t make it easy. I was being yelled at everywhere. At some point, I was ready to give it all up and defer my admission till the following year, but my mum talked me out of it. I sat for the exams, returned for the second semester when everyone did and wrote the exams too, and I didn’t do badly – I made a 2.1.
Did the stress reduce after that?
Not really, but I guess that’s how the Nigerian university system works. I couldn’t have totally avoided that. To be honest, the academic part of this university wasn’t even what weighed me down in my first two years. Settling in and finding my place here was what proved to be a herculean task.
What was that about?
I always knew some of the things here would be strange and require some getting used to, especially the food and language, and I was right. I could have managed if that was all, but the people here are also strange, and for some time, they got to me.
It started with stares in my first year. I didn’t know what it was about me that called attention. But almost everywhere, people were looking at me with something close to pity in their eyes. I didn’t know what it was about until they started talking about it.
What were they talking about?
My body or the lack of it. The first set of people who talked about it to my face were girls from the hostel. They quizzed me about my physical appearance, asking me why I was skinny, as opposed to thick.
Uh, why was that a problem?
That’s the question I kept asking myself too. I realised that there is a stereotype that has been internalised here — the women have to be thick. And that discovery made me question my place here; I didn’t fit into the standard.
How did you feel about that?
Terrible. It was as though I was under scrutiny. These people questioned everything I did — my lifestyle. To them, I was not eating enough and it was a shame that I didn’t have all the physical attributes they had. I got this treatment everywhere in school — the hostel, classes, and most of the places I went to. I just couldn’t get a break.
Was it the regular banter or it’d crossed the line to bullying and body-shaming?
At first, I thought it was pure jokes. And I like to think that I have a sense of humour, so I didn’t pay attention to it. Then I started dealing with people who told me to stick to wearing trousers because skirts didn’t look good on me. Or about how I wouldn’t be able to handle sex, being skinny and all.
These experiences weren’t a one-time thing, and when they persisted, I didn’t feel safe and comfortable in my body. That complicated a lot of things for me.
What do you mean?
This sort of thing makes you lose control. And when you lose control over such an integral part of yourself like your body, you start to make decisions that eventually take their toll on you.
Oh my! What did you do?
Well, I went on this eating spree; I ate everything I could find just so I could add more flesh, get some curves and break free from the clutches of social ridicule I was subjected to. You would think that was all I put myself through, but it wasn’t.
No, man. I started doing squats. No pain, no gain, right? I did that for a few months, but it didn’t work. When the exhaustion hit, I knew to stop. I couldn’t kill myself.
Did you try talking to them?
I couldn’t make them stop; if I confronted them, they would dismiss my concerns or even get defensive. I couldn’t do anything about it. I was completely and utterly helpless.
So it became psychological?
Sort of. My confidence and self-esteem were in shambles – like really low. At this point, I was certain that I was imperfect, and no matter how hard I tried, there was no way I was going to fit in. And it affected my relationships with many people, especially my friends who partook in this. Do you want to know the most painful thing about all of this?
The bulk of the body-shaming came from girls. You would think that girls should understand how damaging this is, but nah. God, I was so resentful.
Do you still feel that way?
No. I had to take care of myself eventually – mental health inclusive. I needed my peace of mind, and I wasn’t going to get it if I held on to that kind of anger. What mattered the most was to learn how to love my body, be at peace with myself, forgive people and move on. I made this resolution towards the end of my second year.
What was the process like?
I started a blog where I wrote about my struggles with body image, among other things, and by a stroke of sheer luck, I got a lot of responses, most of which were positives. That did a lot for me. I remember a guy reached out to me on Facebook and told me he understood what I was going through and that there was nothing wrong with my body. Not that I needed the validation, but it helped. There were other positives like that. I’m glad I wrote about it. Writing can be so therapeutic.
It started to get better in 300 level, and I haven’t slowed down or looked back since then.
Sorry you had to go through that.
It’s fine. I’m here now, living my best life. Hehe.
Did this experience have any effect on your grades?
Not exactly. I kept to my normal routine; I went for lectures and did every other student thing. Nobody would have guessed that something was wrong with me. I did a good job of concealing my troubles. The realisation only hits when I’m back home and alone with my thoughts. Despite everything, my grades didn’t falter. I’m still holding on to my precious 2.1.
It’s lit that you moved beyond that. Now, what do you think about the physical standards people expect women to aspire to?
It’s pure bullshit. Nobody has control over how they look. The need to fit into these standards explain the insecurities girls have over their bodies, and they go into a fit, finding coping mechanisms to help them feel better about themselves. There is really a lot of unlearning to do to get rid of this body-shaming culture.
What have you made of the whole experience and how do you think it will help you going forward?
Well, I know that not everybody will like me for who I am, and it’s up to me to do that and cling on to every shred of my sanity. Now, I derive some joy from the little things – like the tall trees lining the sidewalks of the school, and how it’s pleasurable to take walks past them in the evening, especially when students from the music department are practising.
The most amazing thing about this is how I have learned to move on as fast as I can from any unrealistic social construct designed to bring me down. We continue to move.
Can’t get enough Aluta and Chill? Check back every Thursday at noon for a new episode. Find other stories in the series here.