You Have The Power To Create Your Own Reality. I Did.
As a misfit who was deathly afraid of public criticism, I was always trying to please people. Despite all of this, I never truly won the approval of others that I so badly wanted. When I realized that I was not responsible for others’ views of me, I chose to create my own narrative and ruthlessly carve out my identity. In a world where Black women are always viewed through the lens of promiscuity and over-sexualization, I realized that I had the power to create my story and that is what set me on the trajectory of self-discovery.
Growing up, I was what some would call a “square peg in a round hole.” I wasn’t fully aware that I was “weird” until I went away to boarding school at 11. Unsurprisingly, kids can be unabashedly cruel, and it wasn’t long before I was singled out to be a misfit. Somehow, I didn’t quite fit into Nigerian boarding school, but at the time, my peers couldn’t quite place a finger on it. Over time though, it became glaringly clear: I did “otherworldly” things like write in my diary about guys I had crushes on, and the mundane everyday challenges of living away from my parents for months on end.
At that time, those were not things that my peers openly did. It was absolutely unacceptable for a girl to even admit in the most clandestine of ways that she liked a guy. Girls at my boarding school, many of them mostly from Northern Nigeria, grew up in Islamic backdrops where it was better for girls to be coy, demure, and pretentiously puritanical. So, even though my diary entries were purely the innocent musings of a girl approaching early teens, when my female classmates rummaged through my locker, retrieved and read them, I was “punished” for even daring to think about boys that I liked.
After they jeered and called me names, I had permanently earned a reputation as a “hoe.” Although many of those girls eventually openly started dating guys in junior high and high school, they never stopped viewing me as a hoe, an immoral misfit with a penchant for debauchery, even though there was never any debauchery.
Coming to America
Years later, when I moved to McBain, a miniature town of over 600 people nestled in Northern Michigan, the eccentricity followed me. I was 16 at the time and the only Black girl in that town, and that alone, set the tone for how people treated me and, ultimately, how I started to view myself. It became evident that for the second time in my life, I was in an environment where I was essentially a “fish out of water.”
At the Christian school where I was an exchange student, I noticed that my white classmates would wear short shorts, mini skirts, and crop tops. It seemed to be the norm, and I liked that the puritanism that I had experienced all those years ago in Nigeria didn’t seem to exist in America. The next time I went to a thrift store with my host parents, I bought two short skirts and a pair of regular-length shorts. I figured that I could wear them to school just like my white classmates could, but as a foreigner who had no idea about racism and the sexualization of Black women’s bodies, I was in for a shocker.
A Rude Awakening
When I wore the skirt the next day, an “authority figure” in my life at the time told me to “go change” because I “looked like a hooker.”
I spent the rest of that week wondering why I couldn’t dress like my classmates and why the rules were different for me. That is when I started to realize that racism was a thing, a dark, evil thing, that had not yet been erased from America’s consciousness, especially an America like the town I was in at the time. Slowly but surely, I began to push back in defiance. I realized that I did not want to be without a backbone, and I refused to be treated like an animal on multiple occasions. Of course, this earned me many unseemly names like “bitch,” “angry,” and “ungrateful” for the “opportunity to be in this country.”
Later during my time as an exchange student that year, I pierced my nose, cartilage and added two extra piercings to my ears. To any regular American, that would have seemed like a fairly normal teenage thing to do, but for me, it was my way of carving out an identity for myself without fear of recourse. When I returned home to Nigeria that year, I got a lot of exclamations from friends and family members about the new holes in my face and how “ungodly” they were. People commented that I wouldn’t ever get married and that my new look wasn’t befitting a girl from a decent, Christian home. With the way people complained, one would think I had returned home with more piercings than Dennis Rodman.
A New Identity
The old me would have been shrouded in shame from the disapproval but after many years of people calling me a “hoe” and other names, I had grown thick skin in that regard. Because my classmates in secondary school called me a hoe after reading my diary, I became curious about writing and eventually started writing more. Because someone in McBain called me a “hooker,” I was able to find my voice and ultimately advocate for myself against rampant racism as much as I could.
Although the words cut deep, I realized that I had to dig deep within myself to define who I really was on the inside. I knew that I was not sleeping around and had never prostituted a day in my life, so I had to use a great deal of mental energy, introspection and strong will to discover underlying positive themes that were hidden behind why people were calling me those names.
As a people pleaser who was always seeking external validation, it was hard to find myself. A lot of people around me were telling me that I was a certain way, and on many occasions, I believed them. However, I ultimately made up my mind to take those deeply hurtful comments and use them as bricks to lay foundations that would serve as tenets for my personality and career. The piercings, flamboyant hair, anklets and other accessories that would be considered “unbecoming” in my conservative African background were tools that I used to create my aesthetic and live life on my terms. These things don’t define me, but they do remind me of my journey and all I have overcome. They remind me to continue to be a nonconformist and to refuse to be bullied out of my element for society’s comfort.
Three years ago, I visited Nigeria, and someone asked me why I looked like an “ashawo” despite being from a religious home. In Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s languages, an “ashawo,” means a prostitute. This person asked me this because I was rocking a platinum blonde buzz cut, and they proceeded to give me a sermon about how decent men love to marry decent “homely” women and how I needed to change the error of my ways. It took me a while to realize that as a woman and especially a Black woman of conservative, African descent, everything slightly different I did was always going to be sexualized by outer society, consciously or unconsciously. It was irrelevant whether or not I had ever carried myself disgracefully in public or not. It didn’t matter whether I was kind or respectful; my appearance and their impression of me were always going to be the premise for their judgment of me. Making peace with that was the greatest thing I’ve ever done for my self-worth, mental health and psyche.
Triumphing Despite The Odds
If you’re reading this and you have ever been in the same shoes, you are not alone. There is a way to spin the narrative and use it as ammunition to create your narrative. Sometimes, it is no use to prove yourself to society when everyone is bent on misunderstanding you or putting you in a box. No one has the power to create their narrative as you do, and that in itself is power. Sometimes it’s tempting to bend over backward to make people feel comfortable. I have been there and it sucked the soul out of me. As long as you are a good person who is decent to others, there is no reason to care what others think. This is a slightly unusual route toward self-empowerment, but if it worked for me, maybe it can work for you too.
I recently perforated the other side of my nose and decorated it with a dainty diamond stud, and unlike what many people predicted; that I would never get married because I “looked” wild and “unwifely,” somebody’s son did, in fact, eventually marry me, and we have two amazing kids together, to their horror.