Hair, skin and size: a sociopolitical mapping of turmoil, reconciliation and triumph.

 Identity politics. Two sister-terms that only attained sisterhood in my life as I neared my late twenties. To me, once upon a time, my identity wasn’t political, and I thought politics was limited to partisanship and some electoral garbage in between, and was I ever mistaken. There’s glory and grace in finding culturally-imposed restrictions and overcoming them, breaking them apart then choosing what matters. My adulthood was mainly about challenging the things that I’d always been told, but refused to accept. From an upbringing engulfed in colonial influence, to my career choices, my educational sphere and my social practices. Each one of these elements was both the building block and the destruction force I needed to form an identity that I embraced wholly. And an identity that’s inarguably my own. The multitude of crises around that process never end.

THE POLITICS OF HAIR.

Not only was I raised to believe it, but I was taught to see my hair as problematic. I was told that my ‘difficult-to-manage, kinky, weird and  not-very-elegant’ head – in other words – that my naturally growing hair can’t be a source of pride. In fact, I was expected to see it as a pain that required elimination by straightening, controlling and concealing. In my community of family and family friends, subtle and seemingly humorous remarks were made about my messy hair, my not hireable appearance, and about the classlessness of my curls. And it was all said as explicitly as possible. I was told to straighten my hair for anything that required formality; weddings, graduations, jobs … anything that mandated “acceptance”. In more ways than one, it was an emphasis that my identity at its realest was informal, inauthentic and probably undesired.

That line of thought had no alternative in the world where my family grew up, especially when their country proudly acknowledged women who are white-passing at best, and olive-skinned, “gently” tanned at the least. Egyptian society was loud and clear in what it saw fit to be beautiful, irrespective of its non-white, African history.

That illusional spectrum of beauty was one where my family and myself had no place, certainly not as a minority group of darker-skinned southern Egyptians. As a result, the only standard of beauty was that of the straight-haired, fair-skinned Arab women, which my family and myself obviously were not, but were taught to try to resemble in any capacity. By straightening our hair, and by dying it as a means to give it some twisted, western appearance of elegance, and even as far as changing it if by any chance it happened to be in its natural state, the so-called “holding it together” before it goes crazy. There are women in my family who refuse to show their hair anywhere or to anyone unless it was flattened to a so-called “perfection”, there are women today who still think that who they are needs correcting. And that’s a heartbreaking truth especially when these women share my blood. It’s a systemic paradigm I am fighting to crash to its death, albeit the fight alone is a hard one.

It’s a fenced-in notion, an outcome of years of  colonial influence and a socially upheld practice that tells you that you need to work against your nature. Despite the identity that you own, it tells you to love yourself conditionally, misguiding women to believe that aesthetic  “betterment” is a process of self-erasure. That practice is so permanently destructive … so regressive, that those who had to live through it and understand its dangers spend their lives fighting for their truth, for the integral wholeness of their identity, for the power of their appearance, and for their hair to be as loud, as space-occupying and as non-conformist and resistant to “straight and linear” lines of thought as possible. That’s why my hair is a political statement long before it becomes a fashion statement. Plus, it was mine before any false notion of acceptability. That’s why identity politics are as essential as breathing to me. I had to learn to love my identity, when many innately embraced it,  and this is despite always wanting my identity to be mine.

While it’s a movement in progress (more so in the last decade), the influence that plagues whole societies and countless generations  in North Africa and elsewhere needs demolition. It’s a phenomenon that taught women that the aesthetic proximity to whiteness is the acceptable practice, in fact, the only practice. It taught them to ascribe to a systemic binary opposition that places straight hair in framework of superiority, and as a falsely created ideal of beauty.

DARK SKIN, WHITE RHETORIC.

For the majority of my life, my identity, the Black-Arab-and-Arabish-Black female , was placed somewhere far enough in my mind that it never needed addressing, but close enough that it remained in a twisted, comfort zone of understanding (not embracing).

In other words, I never had to identify myself or explain much; because I spoke enough Arabic, looked African enough, lived long enough in Canada and seemed to function “just fine”. My conscience had more questions though, and it was a matter of time before my identity erupted into being. That old place of basic functionality that I created was an unsafe place, it was a system of evasion within the confinements of whatever was familiar enough. I thought, “I know who I am, but do I really need to talk about it?” and that statement became the placeholder for most of my worries and my crises, which as a I got older, exploded into existence.

So yeah … yeah: I do need to talk about it, and I won’t finish talking about it for a very long time.

The constructing of my identity required the act of dismissing everything I had been taught about whom/what I was. In other words, unlearning. I had to acknowledge that I was the product of a community of women and men who were heavily twice manipulated, once by colonial influence, and then again by Arab influence. In their own home, they are considered a “sub” group in a country battling a crisis of authenticity and that projected that onto them by nicely telling them that they didn’t exactly matter, that they were the additional ethnic group, to a “beautiful, diverse, historically rich” nation — a false promotion of inclusivity. They were told that they’re cute and foreign, that they dance nicely and speak an interesting language, and that Egypt “so kindly” granted them a space at the very south after displacing them four times. It gets worse: not only should they be thankful to have existed after displacement and after the erasure of their language and history and their reduction to a minority, they have no room to appear in the forefront of their country’s image. In some cases, the southern Egyptian male gets a patronizing “donation” of worth, that same worth where a black man is traditionally liked enough and exoticized globally but where the woman of any shade of dark is virtually invisible. I mean, non-existent in film, politics and in social discourse. Not one lead actress (only the nanny/maid, still talking about Egypt by the way … ), no southern Egyptian/Nubian woman in a place of political leadership, and not a single dark-skinned news anchor or host on any station. And how the hell do you tell your daughter that she’s beautiful, and real, and authentic, in a realm where she cannot – and does not exist? That’s why the influence on my family/community and the consequences of that miseducation became so apparent to me.

So for a long time, I didn’t know who I was, the reconciliation process took an immigration journey, countless fights about societal miseducation, a handful of reality checks plus a few good rounds of identity crises. I call it reconciliation because I knew I existed, I just didn’t exist loudly. But I’m here, and I’m glad, and I’m pretty loud too. I don’t need to be an Arab, but I can drop a great Arabic-one-liner ripping someone to shreds if any lines are crossed in any way, or if/when it comes to the authenticity of my being Egyptian. My blackness is as present and as powerful as it can be, and I will happily regulate anyone one who tells me to stay out of the sun, even if they share my DNA.

SIZES THAT MATTER.

I left this for last because it’s as global and as it is harmful, also because this is a conversation that many women can lead better than myself. I’ve been relatively consistent in size, although I’ve recently shed major weight because of an array of issues — that’s weight I plan on gaining back. Weight can be a win, growth is a win, abundance is a win, and self-love is a victory. It’s a triumph in a terrible world where size is somehow a calibre of value.

I’ve also been taught (and unlearned thankfully) to abide by a system that celebrates only small sizes, the same system that fat-shames and tries to dictate who and what size is beautiful, the same patriarchal system that polices women’s bodies and tells them what is and what isn’t enough. I really dislike the word enough when it has a societal expectation attached to it and no individual choice.

I have family members: sisters and cousins, and cousin-sisters (that’s a real thing) who have been verbally mutilated, and told over and over that they’re not attractive enough because they’re not skinny, and that their size is a problem because it poses the risk of never being in a partnership — wrongfully suggesting that it’s never about what they love, but always about who can love them, a terrible, toxic circle of deservingness in exchange of acceptability (or vice versa). I’ve always been on the shorter end, and fairly curvy, and for most of my teenaged years, all the way to my early twenties, I hid my dark knees, avoided short skirts, and ran away from any attire that attracted attention because I (mis)/believed that exaggerated sizes needed to be reduced. That was a short-lived misapprehension that my journey of self-love shattered out of existence. On some days, I can still hear the walls of societal deceit collapsing. You should see my collection of very ripped jeans, high-waisted shorts and short dresses now.

Size is greatness, it’s an importance people don’t want to accept, and it’s a loudness no one wants to hear, but my goodness, it’s a glorious abundance, and one that needs to be screamed into fruition. I’m certain that I’m not the only female who’s had to hear some numerical measure of what size I needed to be, based on the (fabricated) fact that my aunts, mother and grandmother were a fab 48 kilos when they were my age. I work in pounds by the way … so 48, 50, 70, 100 kilos mean nothing to me. Whether that number is true or not, no one’s size or image is measure of my aspirations of weight or appearance, I grow and I shrink into what makes me happy, that’s all of me, any day, and in any shape or form that I love. Point à la ligne.

Tales of Toronto: Sid Naidu

Periodically, I will feature people and places that I believe have played a part in making this city magnificent. Sid Naidu is the first one.

I remember being extremely lost on my first week of university – that was TEN years ago.
For many reasons, I felt like I wouldn’t belong in a place that I told was made for a special class of people. I, like thousands of others, have experienced a sense of unpreparedness for higher education, because of the financial privilege it requires, because intellect is often a racially defined concept and because we are taught that success is a form of superiority. Failure is unfortunately a sidelined concept in life. The truth is, many of us don’t fail enough.

During my first month of school, all these preconceived notions of university started being redefined, mainly because I met  Sid Naidu. I remember being at Ryerson’s cafeteria/hub space and seeing Sid handing out flyers for a hip-hop event at the pub and I thought  to myself:

“Hip-hop? At a university?”

I didn’t think there was room for anything extracurricular, let alone anything that interested me. I met specific people who told me where they came from, Sid being one of them, and who made this new chapter feel less foreign to me.

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What Sid was doing was making the university a space for people, not just special people, not just seemingly smart people, not just the obedient ones and not just those who were looking for praise. He was fighting exclusivity and making sure that not one person was more deserving of being there than the other.

Sid told me that he was a second-year student in Arts and Contemporary Sciences and was hosting what he described as a “revolutionary” event, and told me that I should tell all my friends about it. While revolutionary may have been an adjectival term then, it’s now built into everything Sid is. He’s a Scarborough kid, which meant that back then he was commuter, which also meant that he understood that the university dynamics needed to change (not everyone there came from luxurious places) and that post-secondary elitism it all its forms needed to go. He believed in changing anything that didn’t feel right. He wore a ponytail and a baseball hat, and despite how strange it sounds to say it now, back then you could count how many men walked around a university looking that different and feeling 100% comfortable. He explained that “because of how racialized we were, we couldn’t look ambitious.” Cultural diversity may be a Toronto highlight today, but those who are in their late twenties know that racial diversity made its way into academia much later in Toronto’s history.

VoteYesKid

Immigrants’ children know this: they live with a constant pressure to succeed, in order to compensate their parents’ hard work, yes, but also to challenge the notion that immigration is synonym to social inferiority. It isn’t, and one by one, second generation immigrants have shattered the idea that being sons/daughters of taxi drivers, caretakers, construction workers, store clerks and cooks is a limit, and instead proved that it’s a motivation folded into pressure.

“I was raised with the idea that race classified the world”, from Bahrain to Canada, Sid looked for a sense of belonging and had to build it from experience. Some east Indian, twisted into some Arab culture, flipped into some Scarborough … but the picture is still being pieced together. Sid’s search for self is far from over. For him, getting lost in the search is a lesson, not a challenge.

HKLWeMadeIt

Being the son of Indian parents and having had a culturally and religiously mixed childhood means that Sid Naidu doesn’t believe in simplicity, in limits or in anything conventional for that matter. He founded the Urban Hip Hop Union, which grew to be a hub for the music, culture and dance enthusiasts. He ran for the students’ union and left a pretty heavy imprint at that school. While many people settle now, and look for ways to be stable and reasons to be content, Sid doesn’t, he believes in the power of telling stories, so his art shapes his vision, he believes in the magic of connecting (those who know him, know he loves that word), so he’s on the go, all the time. He doesn’t believe in comfort zones. He had heard – many times – that he wasn’t deserving of success so he now molds it with his own definitions. And because he’s story teller, he makes the success story his own.

Short attention spans are good for you.

I don’t know how to pay attention. I cannot pay attention. I have had this problem since I was a child.

I can’t multitask, I can’t study with music, I can’t sleep (well) with sound or people in the same room and I can’t watch television if someone is speaking next to me. I get distracted extremely fast. If I don’t like something, I can’t read it, I can’t watch it, I won’t listen to it or even understand it.  I interrupt people constantly because I don’t know how formulate thoughts as accurately as others. What people learn in an hour, I take days to process. As an adolescent, I couldn’t get myself to listen in a classroom or in lectures. It was impossible for me to focus. For years, I assumed it was a learning disability, or some sort of a challenge, but with time I discovered that it was something manageable.

This is the most appropriate time to bring this up because I think that I’ve finally managed to solve this issue, or at least better understand it. It only took me 28 years. It has troubled me for ages and it was the reason I often failed in school when I was younger. There are too many people who discover this issue well into their adulthood and who are simply deemed by others as being inept academically or intellectually. People’s capacities vary; we all know someone who is very well-spoken but who is  horrible at spelling, or another who is extremely achieving but not very social or others who are highly social but who always academically under perform.
We all function at our best in some situations and not so much in others.

This is not an uncommon thing, short attention spans are something  lot of people battle and their magnitudes vary from one person to another. I am not going to scientifically break this down because I have no theory to back any of this up, but I think I’ve discovered a way to deal with it rather than eliminate it – because I don’t actually believe that it’s a problem.

Narrowing down the things that you like so you can better understand them.
You don’t like reading the paper? then don’t read it, listen to the news instead. Podcasts!

You don’t like numbers? Screw them! Audiobooks are a fair alternative if you can’t concentrate while reading. If you can’t listen to a lecture, try reading it instead. There are hundreds of solutions out there. If what you like helps you better navigate your attention, then stick to the things that help you better focus, not the things that wear down your attention span.

Maximize on your creativity.
Being easily distracted means that your brained is constantly wired, that you’re very perceptive and often better at absorbing ideas. You think all the time, even in your sleep (light sleepers, I feel you). Take note, jot things down, brainstorm. Short attention spans are often caused by frequent light-bulb moments, keep note so you can revisit them. A creative idea will dissolve if you don’t nail it down and archive it. Sketch it, sing it out loud, tell it to someone. Don’t let ideas disappear.

Isolation.
Read in solitude, work in silence and limit teamwork time. If you’re extroverted like myself you are most likely more focused on conversation rather  than work. Interact less with people when working if it infringes your concentration and diminishes the quality of your work.

Manage your energy.
Sleep. And I mean actually sleep. Don’t skip breakfast. Walk all the time.
Talking to yourself is not unhealthy, it’s actually beneficial.
Stress is the worst thing to combine with a short attention span, it actually destroys concentration.

I was relieved to discover that the right habits help me retain information better. I never multitask and it saves my life (literally, my phone is turned off whenever I drive a car). I don’t do work with friends, because I can’t handle distraction. I don’t force myself to resort to ways I don’t enjoy (I won’t sit through a lecture with a monotone presenter). I ask questions, over and over and over. This is not a problem, it’s just a different ability to process information. I don’t lose sleep over it anymore (I mean that in more ways than one).

m.

The Global Dialogue, episode 2. International development week

Episode 2 of 5 of The Global Dialogue podcast.

Hosted by my colleague Trinh Theresa Do and myself.