My brother taught me how to swim when I was about 6 years old. Water scared me a little so my parents sent me to lessons, though I never felt quite as comfortable around the instructor as I did with brother dearest. Now, when you’re learning to swim, there will be many a time you almost drown – but that’s never a reason to quit. Despite my poor performance, I loved the feel of the water on my skin. One day I begged him to teach me some more, so we went to the pool and he threw me in. I think his hope was that I would float to the top and use the skills I had been learning with the instructor. Well, I didn’t. I was frantically flinging my arms around under water, eyes squeezed shut, my heart pounding hard because I feared I may not make it to the surface. I panicked. What I hadn’t realised is that he had jumped in right after me to see if I would be alright. He saw my panicked reaction under water, grabbed me by the waist and swam to the top with me. Once I could hear again, I heard him say, “You’re alright, I’ve got you. Breathe Vimbai, breathe!”
That is my earliest memory of not being able to breathe easily, while doing something I enjoyed. We take breathing for granted. Unless we’re in a yoga class or running or swimming, we don’t think about our breathing. To breathe is to live, and unless our breathing is threatened by an activity or external stimuli, we breathe fairly easily. But if to breathe is to live, then to live is to breathe. Living in the body of a black African woman however, makes breathing a little more difficult than I had anticipated when I was learning how to swim all those years ago.
I live to breathe easy.
Our society (and many others in the world) is very patriarchal. Patriarchy and misogyny weave their way through our perceptions of beauty and sexuality, our understandings of parenthood and marriage, our experience of spaces of work and education, and the expectations placed on us in cultural settings. Women are hailed as mothers, but only if they’re married, their children are well behaved, they love unconditionally and never complain about the exhausting work that is motherhood. Women are hailed as givers – as people who were born to give and constantly sacrifice their needs for the good of the men or family in their lives. Women are hailed as both sexual objects used to please men, but only in certain spaces and at particular times. Outside of those times and spaces and we’re seen as delinquents or whores. Through all this, it’s difficult to breathe easy; to simply live without negotiating the power dynamics and different forms of violence you face by just walking down the road.
I live to breathe easy, and while I wait for the day this happens, I have learned a few things that act as my proverbial sibling, swimming me towards the surface whenever I feel like I’m drowning in patriarchally-treated water.
From a young age, I’ve been taught how to take care of people around me. I’ve been taught to clean and cook and serve older men and women (mostly men) and to do it all willingly and with a smile on my face. My mother used to tell me that the reason my food wasn’t great growing up was because I didn’t like cooking. I was supposed to enjoy these boring, menial tasks that were primarily for the benefit of others. I have learned to be responsible for my actions, but even for the actions of men around me. If a man harasses me, it’s because my skirt was too tight or my top too low. If a man cheats on me, it’s because I didn’t treat him well enough or my body isn’t banging anymore or I’m boring in bed. If I didn’t get a job it’s because I came across as too forward, or not assertive enough, or my make-up wasn’t quite right, or my hair wasn’t “neat” (read treated) enough. If I’m unlikeable it’s because I don’t smile enough or have enough male friends who can confirm my ‘coolness’ and say things like “I’d hit that” to make me seem sexually appealing and therefore someone worth noticing. I have had to unlearn all of these things. I have chosen to take responsibility for myself and my choices and my dreams and actions, but not for other people’s. I refuse to ‘mother’ every man I date, I refuse to be held solely responsible for the emotional development of a relationship. I have spent too much of my life ‘preparing’ myself for servitude, and I’m changing that slowly. I’m putting myself first, and I’m not apologising for it.
On loving my body
For years, I struggled with being a dark skinned black woman in a world where light skin equals beauty automatically, and dark skin has to be qualified in some way in order to be seen as beautiful. I have a pretty athletic body (I still hate the definition of my arms), my hips are almost non-existent, and boobs and ass are pretty average. My nose is slightly bigger than I would have hoped for, and my legs are short and a little stubby. When I decided that it was time to embrace and not shun all these qualities, I made myself a promise. I would stand naked in the mirror (typical) and smile. I would tell myself I was beautiful, no matter what kids at school said about dark skin, and no matter how many times I had tried to lose my thighs. I would laugh and enjoy my nudity, twirl around, dance, brush my teeth, read a book, and just experience being naked and vulnerable and proud of my body. I consumed more media that celebrated my kind of skin tone and body type, and that embraced the sexuality of women as agents. I learned to love myself. And that helps me tremendously in breathing easier.
On Ambition and having “high standards”
I have always been ambitious. I’ve always wanted to have a wildly successful career, to make a difference, to be known for my craft, and to be sought after for my skills. I am never satisfied with one achievement, and I’m always looking for ways to better myself and make myself more marketable. I work hard. I read a lot, I am critical and I am fiercely hungry for more and more knowledge and life experience. Now all of this sounds amazing when coming from a man’s body. From a woman’s body, it comes across as me being stubborn, difficult, having impossibly high standards, not being domestic enough, not being motherly, not caring enough and not being responsible for the well being of those around me. I have been told that I ask too much of the men who enter my life because I expect regular communication, intentional love and unshakable commitment (all of these by the way, that I’m willing to reciprocate). I have been told that I’ll never be able to have a family if I really want to make a difference professionally, despite that that’s bullshit. And to all of this I say, live your truth. My standards may be high, but lowering them means lowering my expectations, which means accepting that I don’t deserve the love, dedication and diligence I give in my work and relationships – I can’t accept that. And so I live in my truth now, as much as I can. And I give out to the world what I would expect the world to give back to me.
I haven’t fully mastered the art of breathing easy. There are days when I hyperventilate and need to call on a proverbial sibling to swim me to the surface. There are days when I’m even tired of breathing, because it should never be this hard. But days like today, when we’re celebrating women from all over the world – these are the days I remember the sacrifices that were made by other women to help us breathe a little easier. Days like these I look back at my journey of womanhood and I smile at the amount I’ve managed to unlearn. It’s days like this that I fiercely demand that we all live to breathe easy in a world that would rather we drown.
Happy Women’s Day, all. It’s alright, I’ve got you. Breathe!