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 week’s #ZikokoWhatSheSaid subject is a 31-year-old Nigerian woman who’s had almost a decade of therapy to heal from food and weight anxiety. She talks about being fat-shamed in boarding school, still feeling fat at 61kg and why eating makes her cry.
What’s your earliest memory of food?
I have two conflicting early memories; a happy one and a painful one. Sometimes, it feels like I made the happy one up in my head.
Tell me about that one first
It’s this blurry image of myself in my maternal grandfather’s village house in the east. I must’ve been three or four years. Someone served me eba and okro soup in a big bowl. Sometimes, I remember the smell of the food. I remember life being simple, breeze blowing in from a big window and me happy to see the food, not thinking twice before digging in.
And the bad memory?
I remember my aunties on my father’s side teasing me about my weight. They used to talk about how pretty I was, a future beauty queen. Then it became, “Don’t get fatter than this o” or “Ahn ahn, what are you eating?” One day, when I was about eight, momsi made beans and then another pot of spaghetti because popsi wanted that.
Because those are my two favourite meals, I couldn’t decide which one I wanted for dinner. So I ate my plate of beans, then went back to momsi in the kitchen and told her I still wanted to eat spaghetti. One of my older cousins’ wife was there with her, and she exclaimed about me eating two plates of food the whole time my mum was dishing. I really wanted to taste, and I honestly just had small portions of the beans and spaghetti, but I felt so ashamed.
When I brought the empty plate back to the kitchen, she was like, “Ah! And you finished it. Na wa o. So that’s how you’re just eating everything you see?” Momsi was quiet the whole time. She never ever defended me when she heard people fat-shame me. She always just stayed painfully quiet while I was dying inside.
Did you ever talk to her about it?
That’s the painful part. I asked her about it right after I graduated from uni, and she just said she was never aware of it. That made me feel like I’d been exaggerating the amount of teasing I got in my head. I still don’t know for sure, but it really did feel like I was always singled out and unfairly shamed.
Were you fat as a child?
I thought I was. But I’m amazed when I go through old photos from school because it was more like I was big and tall for my age, with round features and chubby cheeks. I wasn’t slim, but I wasn’t fat either. Since I was a size ten up until 300 level, I honestly don’t understand why people fat-shamed me so much. They were always shocked I could fit into certain things. I just had the type of body that looked fatter than it actually was. Growing up, this made me so confused about how fat I was and caught up on it all the time.
I was always thinking about how much I was eating. I was constantly not eating, and when I ate, I’d take Andrews Liver Salt, which was my best friend throughout boarding school. But then, I’d turn around to order a box of pizza and finish it all in one sitting during the holidays. Then I’d cry for hours and hate myself.
I was constantly checking the scale. I’d wake up in the morning, and the first thing I’d do before getting out of bed was put my hand around my upper arm to check if it was smaller. My classmates would tell me today that I was losing weight, and the next day, “Your face looks puffier.” And I’d spend the rest of the week wondering which one was correct.
Did you ask your friends?
My friends teased me a lot. They’d say I had a mini potbelly or my face looked bloated “like someone pumped it with air”. Someone once told me I talked like I had hot yam in my mouth. One time, a teacher, who’d been transferred to the primary school and then transferred back, saw me on the school street and was so shocked because she thought I’d have gotten much fatter than I was.
I’ll never forget the day I was having a casual conversation with a friend in another class — this was in SS 2. I don’t remember what she said that made me answer, “I’m not that fat.” And someone in the seat behind her just randomly said, “Not that fat?” with the loudest voice ever. I don’t even remember what happened after that because my comment and the other girl’s response are the only words seared into my mind from that scene.
Did you eat a lot in school?
Don’t know o. I even used to give out all my meat during lunch and dinner, never asked for more food and never ate breakfast because I always bought two galas and one Pepsi or Viju Milk during short break.
But I hated myself so much that after they distributed yearbooks in JSS 3, I cut my face out of people’s copies any chance I got. My classmates started thinking someone else was doing it and used that as a new reason to make fun of me.
Oh wow. What was it like in uni?
By uni, I was very selective of food because I noticed people were highly critical of me when it came to food.
For example, at the start of 100 level, when we were all just getting to know each other and making new friends, I started talking to this girl whose room was next door to mine. She came to my room one day, and was standing beside me as I was going through my provisions closet. I picked up a jar of Nutella, and she just exclaimed, “You have this thing? No wonder. You’ll just blow up.” I was so confused and ashamed because I really thought I was the slimmest I’d ever been at that point in my life.
That was uncalled for
Throughout uni, I only ate once a day and never in front of people. There was an entire semester when I lived on a pack of small chops without puff puff — two spring rolls, two samosas, a piece of gizzard and barbeque chicken — a day. Then I started hearing, “Don’t get slimmer than this o”, “Your chubbiness fits you”, “You won’t be fine if you were slim”, from friends. It was all so confusing.
And I used to lie stupidly about food a lot. Like when I told someone I hated small chops — I was ashamed to be eating them because of how greasy it was. But then, the person caught me either struggling with other students to buy a pack, or eating one, or telling another person that’s all I ate. I can’t really remember. All I know is next thing, he said, “I thought you hate small chops.”
They sha caught you in a lie
Yes o, red-handed. I found a way to deflect. But I cried that night. I felt so foolish.
I’m so sorry. What has your relationship with food been like in adulthood?
Well, for NYSC, I served far away from home. I brought a packet each of Minimie chinchin and Ribena with me to orientation camp. That’s all I ate during the three weeks there, one pack of each a day. I don’t know how I survived. But as soon as I entered town to begin the service year proper, I started stress eating. I was anxious about figuring out my life and career. I stuffed myself with so much food, I got properly fat, about size 14, by the time I returned to Lagos. And knowing my body structure, I was so round. That’s when things took a turn.
I developed a kind of phobia for food I’ve still not gotten rid of today. Back in Lagos, fat and without a clue what I wanted for my life, I genuinely felt like nothing during that period. Like I didn’t have any value. So I fasted for days and prayed and cried and begged God for forgiveness for being such a glutton. I just stopped eating. When I was so tired and weak I had to eat something, I’d start crying once I saw or smelt the food.
Crying? Like, shedding real tears?
Yes. I wished I didn’t have to eat at all so I could just lose weight and people would see me as a person. I thought all people saw was a fat girl constantly in the process of getting fatter because she was always eating. At one point, all I could think about was food and how I could eat it to feel better.
That sounds scary. How did you overcome this?
Therapy. I couldn’t get a job and was withdrawing from everyone. I couldn’t even date because, I was terrified of getting married and having to get pregnant. Every pregnant woman I knew at the time doubled or tripled in weight. I even saw celebrities on IG whose faces and legs literally stretched out for their new weight.
When I say I was terrified, I mean I’d start shivering when I saw pregnancy photoshoots or even thought about it. I had to talk to a professional; there was no other solution. My cousin, who’d started seeing one after experiencing post-partum depression, referred me. I started therapy twice a week in 2014. Now, it’s once a month.
How did it go?
Very well. As soon as I started my sessions, I was ready to share every single thing I was going through and offload all the conflicting thoughts in my head. I really wanted it to work, so I put a lot of effort into it. I’d think hard about every question I was asked and consider every answer or suggestion I was given. I took all the prescribed medication too.
I tried not to do like the people in movies who deliberately make it hard for the therapist by hiding things and being cynical. Learning about food anxiety and body dysmorphia helped. For some reason, hearing logical explanations for some of my struggles took some weight off my chest.
But I weigh 61 kg today, and I still feel huge. I’ve made peace with the fact that I probably can never rework my brain to process myself as slim.
How are you now, though, with almost a decade of therapy?
I smoke weed, so I don’t overthink things or care at all about people’s idle words.
However, I still feel uncontrollably sad when I see food that’s supposed to be for me. Tears fall down my eyes when I’m eating sometimes. I even cry when I poop out the food. Although, at this point, it feels more like I’m sweating through my eyes than crying.