Once upon a time I was an Oprah Show fan. One of the shows that remain vividly in my mind is a show where Oprah was interviewing celebrity women about what they would say to their younger self. Most of the women were gorgeous and had successfully hidden any signs of aging—they were in their glory years, 50s and 60s and looked as though they were in their 20s! One of the women that struck me was the woman who played Bill Cosby’s wife on the Cosby show. In my 16 year old eyes she was beyond beautiful without a shadow of doubt in herself. She knew who she was and she had a place in the world. Through the superficial interactions on television, her presence said, “I am here and I’m not apologising for that”. During the Oprah show she spoke about how she was insecure as a young women who felt that she had nothing to offer the world and that she would have told her younger self to be kinder to herself.
This snippet of the show remained with me and now I am in my 20s and it resonates even more. Since I was 21 these words have meant something real to me as I realised that I live in a world with tensions between the person that I am, the person others think I am and the person I would like to be, and navigating these tensions implies I need to be kinder to myself (the irony being that my name suggests a soft heart, kindness). I didn’t know what this looks like and most women in my life have the ability of convincing me and the world that they are kind to themselves, but this is not the case.
Having a legacy of strong yet struggling women who have had to keep working in order to have food in the house and clothes on the children’s backs, the idea of stopping to rest is an anomaly. Futhermore, going to a performance driven school where accolades were everything meant that rest was another word for being idle. As a result I too devised ways of having the picture perfect public persona—the good student who never missed a lecture (I can count on one hand how many lectures I missed during my undergrad and I have a ‘valid’ excuse) and tries to attend evening public seminars where people discuss philosophy and ideology, the good daughter who always spends New Years Eve with her mother watching others on SABC1 having parties, the sister who tries to keep everything together, the friend who is always available, the nice and good girl who doesn’t know what it means to be a woman and suffers from a chronic case of the disease to please.
A friend of mine always reflects on the burden of the young, black and tertiary educated (at post-graduate level) woman in South Africa (which I seem to identify with)—the world doesn’t know what to do with us and we are in a liminal position where we are constantly trying to juggle many balls that the opportunity to simply live is one we have to fight for. We are working too hard and trying to prove to the world that we have what it takes to be here, the world belongs to us too no matter what we do to assert this fact—and underlying this assertion is anger and frustration of having to work harder for the world to recognise our value. There are few things we cannot do, we can make choices our mothers were never able to make but we are constantly reminded to be grateful for this opportunity, as though freedom of any kind is a favour for black women. This finds its expression in popular media in magazines such as Destiny Magazine, “powerful, beautiful you”, True Love Magazine, “all a woman needs” where the woman on the cover has a “weave”, pristine make up and perfectly photoshopped and somewhere in the back pages in fine print there will be five points on how to love yourself more. This prototype is apart from the good church woman, the Proverbs 31 woman, or the ideal African woman whose desire is for her husband and her home and does not dare disturb the patriarchy in the Xhosa culture (in my case).
In my life these identities were also masked by the incessant need to keep busy, to the point where I am guilt ridden when the thought of rest comes to mind. And I am only 23. The tensions intensified when I started pursuing activities that did not involve my friends or family in any way and missed birthday parties and attempted suicides. I poured myself into my work because I knew I was good at that and my assignments cannot talk back to me nor tell me how selfish I am with my time—the more time spent on an assignment, the better the results. At the end of my Honours year I was convinced that the best was yet to come. I had received numerous awards confirming this, I had formed a reputation for myself on campus and I thought I understood what it meant—I enjoyed the attention I was getting from the hours of work that involved little of myself and the things that made me smile.
2010, the year of milk and honey began and I kept the same pace starting academic work as early as January 4th. My mother was the only person who expressed her concern as that meant my holiday was shortened so we would have less time together at home. But she justified this drastic change to the fact that I was starting my Masters so there was a greater responsibility to my work. And then one morning, mid-January I didn’t feel like getting out of bed and I was scared. I have never been in bed later than 9am unless I am hopelessly ill; my normal time for waking up is between 5am and 6am; by 8am on most days (including holiday time) I have been for a walk, had breakfast, washed and reading a book—unless it is raining outside and this disrupts my day. But this wasn’t the case on the mid-January morning—the weather was bright and blindingly beautiful, the kind of day Mama wakes up to do the weeks washing which dries within the hour and has been ironed by lunchtime. I pretended to work by cleaning the clutter in my room, but I had a nagging voice telling me I needed to do serious work, like reading something intellectual. Fortunately I had a meeting later that day discussing research opportunities for students and academics in my field of interest which meant the day ended with some productivity. But the alarm had gone off, I had realised that I needed to be kinder to myself, to love myself and simply BE and there was no escape to this realisation.
Because I am a believer in taking action, after the epiphany I conducted a personal intervention strategy where I’m making peace with my complexities—I still work as hard as I can by reading a journal article every morning during the week for my research and the afternoons I reserve for work related to others and meetings and the evenings are mine and weekends are mine. And I’m okay with confessing to people that I don’t have all my ducks in a row despite how convincing I can be when they see me in my well-put-together outfit with matching shoes and handbag.
Writing this suggests that the guilt has dissipated but it hasn’t. It’s a process that has begun and I’ve been told that being kind to oneself and loving oneself without being on auto-pilot or an engergizer bunny mode is a process that many women are still trying to get right. When I was 21, the best way I could articulate my complexities was that I was trying to find my feet and it took a man to tell me that one day I’ll discover that my feet have always been with me. I don’t want to be the older women who would tell her younger self to be kinder to herself, I would like to be the older women who reflects upon her younger self and laughs a beautiful laugh that says it’s okay to BE.