Back Straight, Head Up!
by Leonie Badger
I do not know how these things happen simultaneously. At the exact moment that an evil itch begins to take over the crevice behind my ear, a tiny but vicious red ant slowly drops its head and injects poison into my stubby little toe. What I discover is that trying to scratch both ear and toe, as well as manipulate my half-open school bag, is no easy task. I realize that it’s actually quite a stupid attempt as my loose papers spill onto the muddy pavement blocks. Amidst groans and self-deprecatory comments, I lower myself onto the ground and frantically attempt to salvage eighteen hours spent on calculus. When I finally manage to get up, armed with a fully zippered bag, the last bell rings, announcing that I am officially late for my last class of the day.
At first I don’t hear the shrill voice calling my name. Apart from trying to escape the harsh glare of the afternoon sun, I am now totally focused on covering as much ground as possible. The last thing I want to face to conclude an already less than desirable day is an angry Madame Trumper.1
A woman's movements had to be metaphors, giving insight into the inner workings of her mind.
“Ms. Badger!” Mrs. Brew-Appiah shrieks again, reaching up to pull the back of my shirt. “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” I spin around, perhaps with my eyebrows a bit too close to my hairline, and try to re-arrange my shock into a respectful smile.
“Good afternoon, Madam,” I sing.
“How many times do I need to tell you to straighten your back when you are walking? A young lady does not bend her back! You need to exude strength and confidence! Go back and walk across again. I’m watching you,” she sputters in annoyance.
Walk back? I think, sneaking a glance at my watch (already ten minutes late!) and looking back at the distance I must traverse again. Why do older women worry so much about my appearance?
* * *
This is definitely not the first time I’ve had to deal with an incident like this. Here in Ghana, the values of the past still clash wildly with those of today. In the time of women like Mrs. Brew-Appiah (who would only have been about six or seven years my grandmother’s junior), girls were not trained to use their voices. A woman was viewed as more of an accessory to a man; naturally the best kinds of accessories were those who were most beautifully groomed. What a woman could not express using her mouth or her opinions, she had to try to show through her style of dress, the way she stood and walked, and even in the way she flavored her delicious creations in the kpatashi.2 Her poise had to tell everyone what she might have yearned to say. A woman’s movements had to be metaphors, giving insight into the inner workings of her mind. The way she carried herself had to mark her power in the same way that a man’s intelligence might.
Minding these norms, my grandmothers would relentlessly scold me on every single fault they could find, sometimes even on details that I did not have the power to change and of which their genes were probably to blame. Nanaa, my father’s mother, would quake in frustration as she complained about my walk --“A lady does not throw her legs!” Her friends would also shamelessly comment -- on how my nose was a bit too wide or my hands a bit too large for a lady. Even sitting in the supposed comfort of home with my own family, I had to make sure one leg was tucked neatly behind the other and that my back was parallel to the back of my seat. These customs may all seem irritating and archaic to the young. Yet the deeply rooted norm of giving total reverence to the whims of the elders means that no matter how unreasonable their requests or opinions may seem, the elders must be respected.
* * *
So, with a poor attempt at stifling a sigh of exasperation, I drop my bag and begin to walk back quickly, painfully aware of every single second that passes. It’s hard and uncomfortable trying to keep my back straight while walking. My mind is so set on pleasing Mrs. Brew-Appiah that I think about what I am trying to do too intensely. My back overshoots the vertical and I end up walking with my back at a very strange angle. Not to mention the slight pain in my shoulders and at the very base of my spinal cord. Am I doing it wrong or does every straight-backed person endure this just to look right? Who says I am lacking confidence anyway? And if I do feel this confidence, is it absolutely necessary that everyone around me knows it, too?
Fortunately or not, those thoughts stay in my head this afternoon. As life goes, what the older woman says I must go through to look right, I, as the young and inexperienced, must accept. After all, Mrs. Brew-Appiah has already established her position in society. As a young woman, she probably had to endure more severe grooming pains than she’s putting me through, and so now holds the right to be the one to be heard and obeyed as opposed to the one who must hear.
It is true. Whenever I do remember to straighten my back as I walk, I do feel a lift in my sense of self.
Ruminating on this expe-rience, I begin to realize the wisdom of Mrs. Brew-Appiah. In all honesty, despite the innate stubbornness of youth that inspires me to believe that there are always better, more efficient ways of doing things than the methods of older women, I must admit that I do understand where Mrs. Brew-Appiah is coming from. In the modern world, the predominant view of young people is that we are the masters of our own lives. As a result, we believe that we know better than societal conventions and norms, that we hold the right to be exactly who we want to be and to live in a way that declares our independence. And it is this feeling that may drive you to buy a blue scarf instead of a purple one, not because you genuinely prefer blue but because everyone else has purple scarves. We strive to separate ourselves from the masses, to find our own uniqueness. As a direct result of this, an independent woman of today is encouraged to live for herself, despite the expectations of society. If she is to put on make-up, it is more honorable if she does so because she likes the look of rosy cheeks, not because she is desperately trying to fit into the projected ideal female image. If I want to adopt a rigorous workout routine, I should do so because I feel an adrenaline rush that uplifts my day after each workout, not only because I want to look like I was born with a perfect balance of muscle and fat.
Despite this strong need to rise above the narrow expectations of society and be a pillar of individuality, there is an undeniable amount of truth to what they--the older and more experienced--have to say. The values that they so painstakingly uphold may be more than just antiquated requirements for us females.
Still calculating my steps and pointing my shoulder blades to the skies, my now ambivalent train of thought begins to fit into a more logical frame. It is true. Whenever I do remember to straighten my back as I walk, I do feel a lift in my sense of self. Even right now as I walk, the elongation of the spinal cord somehow heightens my confidence, and banishes personal insecurities that cause feelings of inadequacy, just as the old profess that it would. There is something about lifting your head and meeting people straight in the eye, on a one-to-one uniform level that transcends prior feelings of relative incompetence. In taking longer and more powerful, calculated strides, I do feel as if I have more of a purpose and this, in turn, instills in me a sense of fulfillment.
My thoughts are suddenly interjected by her signature high-pitched voice, “Ei! Awuraba!3 Be quick! I have students waiting for me!”
Immediately I pick up my pace and quickly slip my smile under a more serious expression, just in case she mistakes it for cheekiness, as everything that Mrs. Brew-Appiah has been trying to make me see becomes so clear. There is definitely an inextricable knot tying the way we carry our bodies to the way we feel. It’s psychological in a sense, because we start to feel the way we act. At the end of a long academically challenging day, aside from the bittersweet pain that shoots up inside of me, walking with my back straight and my head high reassures me that I will be able to get through it all.
When I finally get to Mrs. Brew-Appiah again, my thoughts are almost all positive and I have to resist the temptation to pull her into a tight hug. The image of that almost makes me laugh out loud; I sensibly decide that she would not understand that gesture. Instead I pick up my precious multicolored satchel and bleat out the requisite “Thank you, Mrs. Brew-Appiah.”
Had I known earlier that Mrs. Brew-Appiah’s relentless hammering about the way I slump every other day was not primarily about an image that she was trying to construct, but rather instead about a greater sense of self that she was trying to inspire within me, this entire episode would have been unnecessary. Many people mistake walking with confidence with pomposity and self-importance. Now I know that its real significance lies in its ability to cultivate a genuine sense of confidence.
1 Madame Trumper was my high school French teacher.
2'Kitchen' in Ga - a local Ghanaian language.
3 'Lady' in Twi, another local Ghanaian language.