Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
This week’s #ZikokoWhatSheSaid subject is a 24-year-old Nigerian woman. She talks about feeling uncomfortable in her body at 16, getting a breast reduction and what makes her feel attractive as a woman.
I guess we’ll start with puberty. What was that like?
As a child, I didn’t exactly like the idea of becoming a “woman”. And starting out earlier than my mates made me feel uncomfortable with my body. I was 9 and just getting into JS1 when I had my first period. Other girls in my class weren’t going through the stress of wearing a sanitary pad or getting stained, at that time.
What was the biggest change for you?
My breasts getting bigger. They made me feel uncomfortable for a long time.
First of all, they got huge very quickly. I was already one of the youngest in my set, and then, I started wearing a bra in JS2. I can’t remember the cup size I started out with. But while I was dealing with that, everyone else was putting on bra tops or sports bras.
At some point, I started wearing a bra top and singlet over my bra to make my boobs a little less obvious.
Was there any incident that made you so conscious about your body in secondary school?
No. My secondary school was just for girls. So at that point, I mostly disliked how big it made me look. When people were getting uniforms, I couldn’t get a proper size. They’d either fit my boobs and be too big for the rest of my body or the other way around.
Exactly. So by 13 or 14, I was a size 14 because of my breasts.
Did you tell anyone at home how you felt? Or banter with friends who were probably going through the same thing?
At school, I stuck to making them as less obvious as possible. If the clothes weren’t baggy, then I’d put on as many things to flatten them. Being the kind of girl who wasn’t exactly girly made people think I was trying to be a tomboy. You could’ve called me a “bloke” in secondary school. But it wasn’t intentional.
Feeling awkward with my body made me want to hide all the parts that were meant to suddenly make me a woman. I preferred being just a girl. I didn’t want such humongous boobs.
No one ever asked why you were wearing a bra, then a bra top and singlet?
No one really cared about that in school. And I don’t think anyone at home ever knew. My older sister was away at school whenever I was home. And my younger sister definitely didn’t understand what was going on with me at the time, so no. Plus, I was the sibling who preferred to be alone. They would’ve never guessed how much I was struggling with loving my body.
My mum was the person I opened up to about everything. Whenever I got the chance, I complained to her. And in uni, I started having chest pains. I think I’d fully settled into a D cup by this time. Imagine my mates wearing a B cup and I was almost double their size but one of the youngest in my class. Just think of the load.
I’m curious. What was uni like for you? Because everyone had caught up with puberty by then, right?
Things felt the most awkward after secondary school which was an all-girls school. It was the first time I mixed with a lot more boys. I’d lived in an estate and had a couple of friends. But when I got into Babcock University, it was completely different from what I was used to. I felt the boys were attracted to me because of my boobs.
Why did you think that?
I’m very direct, so I asked one of the guys who wouldn’t leave me alone, why he was so attracted to me. And he plainly said, “Your breasts”. I didn’t think it was different from the rest.
How did things progress?
My mum saw how uncomfortable things were getting in my first year of uni. I was 16 at the time and still struggled with chest pains. She eventually asked if I wanted to have them reduced. But not through the typical methods.
Did you fully understand what that meant at 16?
I didn’t really understand how a breast reduction would happen. I was just happy at the possibility of getting the load off my chest. She mentioned her sister had done the same thing too.
Why didn’t this come up earlier?
She felt I couldn’t cope with the pain from the process.
And your aunt, had you ever spoken to her since she went through the same issues?
Nah. I’d never even heard that her boobs were big. We weren’t close. And it wasn’t the type of thing I wanted to talk about with anyone other than my mum.
Fair enough. So you decided to go for the procedure?
Yes. We had to travel from Abuja to Ayama-Ebeni in Bayelsa state. It was my mother’s village, where her sister had done her breast reduction, but I’d never been there in my life. Meeting her whole family and seeing how she grew up was a new experience for me too.
I imagined it would be more like a village, with scanty houses and untarred roads. But Ayama-Ebeni was filled with huge houses. When we arrived, my aunt called the woman and asked her to come the next day to carry out the procedure. It was a traditional thing, so the whole thing happened in my room.
She was an elderly woman who’d been helping women in the village for years. No one knew exactly where she’d learnt the practice from. It was just something everyone in my family knew her for.
Yeah. My mum and aunt were comfortable with it, so I didn’t feel nervous. Think of those people who are called rainmakers in the East. No one knows how they do it, but when you have an important event, you pay them to pray and hold the rain for you. It’s just a long-standing tradition. There was no need to ask many questions. My only concern was for whatever she did to work.
So what did she actually do?
The first thing she asked was what she should draw on it. And that’s because the process leaves a black mark, almost like a tattoo. I asked for some kind of flower design at first.
I couldn’t handle the pain. She tied seven needles together with a thread and dipped them into a black concoction my mother later told me was blended leaves. But that was the least of my concern with the pain I felt during the process.
The concoction shrinks the breasts, but she had to cut me to get it in. So the woman pricked the upper part of my breasts with the needles she’d dipped in the concoction, similar to how tattoos are applied. But imagine the pain a million times more with no anaesthetics.
I had to tell her to forget the flower and draw two lines.
It was too painful.
But it worked, right?
Hm. At first, my breasts were twice the size. I remember crying to my aunty about it. But she asked me to give it a few weeks. In three weeks, the mark began to peel off like when a tattoo is healing. The swelling eventually reduced and so did my breasts. I went down from a size 14 to 12.
But three years later, I started to gain weight all over again and they got bigger. My periods were also irregular.
LOL. Yeah. I found out I had PCOS in 2020.
What did that change for you?
I did my research after the diagnosis from my gynaecologist and realised it happened to a lot of women. There was nothing I could do about it. And it dawned on me that puberty never really ends. Your body just unlocks new levels at every stage.
We started the conversation with you feeling awkward about those changes. How do you feel now?
I’ve learnt to appreciate myself a lot more. The attention I get from men and women these days is what I find interesting. My insecurities kick in once in a while, but I’ve realised that my body, as a woman, is attractive. And I love how I feel about that.