When it comes to our physical attributes, there are battles we all fight every day. These battles could be just about anything. From hair length or texture to breast and penis size, weight, height and complexion, most of us are self-conscious about something. Even when you try not to think too much about it, there are people who make it their point of duty to remind you, complain or give advice about what they think is wrong with you. Let us call them the Body Shamers’ Club.
Alberta Alisah-Sagoe knows this all too well. She is a Ghanaian actor and talk show host who has lived almost all her life in Nigeria. She is fun, bubbly and easy-going. As a student of Ahmadu Bello University, she was one of the ‘it girls’ at school. They were beautiful, fashionable, trendy and brilliant and everyone wanted to associate with them. Then Alberta put on some weight.
“It wasn’t such a bad thing at first because, as a kid, I use to be very skinny. I was excited about my weight gain because people would at least stop calling me ‘broomstick’. I added what people refer to as ‘nice weight’ in Senior Secondary School.
“Then when I entered University, I added some more weight and my older classmates who saw me as the baby of the class started complaining about it. They even went as far as suspecting I was pregnant.”
You see, for the Body Shamers’ Club, it was always one thing or the other. Thanks to the unwarranted verdict that she was ‘too skinny’ and looked like a ‘broomstick’, Alberta desired to be plumper. Then, when she put on the weight she supposedly lacked, she had to be pregnant!
However, Alberta’s experience of body shaming didn’t start there. It went way back to primary school days. As a self-confessed tomboy, Alberta recalls being an athletic child who loved sports. Dresses weren’t really her go-to outfit at the time. Then, her sister’s friend made her an offer that seemed insignificant at the time.
“I never liked the idea of wearing dresses at all. It was so bad that when I was about seven years old, my elder sister’s friend promised to give me sweets the day she finds me in a dress. So the next time I saw her coming to the house from afar, I ran to change into a dress.”
By promising Alberta sweets if she changed her look, she subconsciously told Alberta that getting gifts required changing her personality. It is a message many might inadvertently be sending to young carefree kids like Alberta. With such negative reinforcements, is it any wonder that women face so much pressure to impress people with their looks?
Speaking of looks, complexion is a major feature which can be a sticking point for many women. Alberta doesn’t quite fit the random stereotype that expects Ghanaians to have quite dark skin. Negative connotations associated with deeper toned complexions actually make Alberta thankful for her skin tone.
“Some kids used to tease me about how the Nigerian weather had ‘tried’ for my skin because I’m not as black as people from my country. But I never took them seriously. Well, I must say I was actually glad that I wasn’t so ‘black’ as to be found unattractive. This is because I might not have found it funny at being the butt of the joke all the time.”
In a way, this is quite sad. No one should feel ‘glad’ to be one complexion instead of another, but Alberta is only human. No one wants to be made fun of and made to feel unattractive. So if society says one colour is better, it makes sense to be happy to reflect that colour. Little reinforcements like this have shaped many women’s attitudes towards their appearance.
Alberta began to emulate her four older sisters by dressing and acting more ‘like a girl’. Coupled with feeling unattractive thanks to her weight, she decided to lose ‘just a little’ when she was in her final year at university.
“Towards my final year, I decided to make a conscious effort to lose just a little weight. Then I fell ill and lost more than I wanted to and that also became a reason to talk about me. These people went as far as sitting my friend Chiamaka down to ask her if I had actually gotten pregnant and maybe went to abort; hence my drastic weight loss. It wasn’t a nice experience at all because even after losing all that weight, I was still very insecure about the way I looked.”
And though she going through all of this, many people didn’t know just how bad it was for her. She was, after all, a popular girl and those girls don’t seem to have any problems. Sadly, that insecurity transformed Alberta from a happy and bubbly personality into a recluse.
“Honestly speaking, I didn’t feel good in anything I wore. So I didn’t really like to go out much. It didn’t affect my relationship with my family or friends but during that period, my relationship with someone I loved ended and that really added to my insecurities. It was a sad time.”
None of this sounded like the vivacious character I was having a great conversation with. I wondered how Alberta managed to not only overcome such a low point in her life, but rebuild her bubbly and out-going personality.
“When I saw the light, I decided to focus my energy on building my career. So gradually, I began to go out more and, trust me, hearing the sweetest compliments from family and friends every now and then goes a long way.
“At first I was obsessed with finding out ways to gain weigh,t but along the line I started dressing more for my body type, working out from time to time, replacing worry with positive thoughts and I started to see how great I looked as days went by.”
With time, the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach worked.
“You know how you’d look at yourself in the mirror and be like ‘Okay! I look gooooooooood!’? Well, I started to do that more often!”
Today, Alberta is a confident glowing professional who is excelling in her field. However, if body shaming was ever a concern, her chosen field doesn’t help matters. Show business, and acting in particular, is built almost entirely on vanity. People will assess you based how you look, what you wear and how you carry yourself. Anyone who has ever been to a movie audition in Nigeria knows that even before talent, casting directors almost always look for a striking face, sexy body or known brand that can sell their products. Alberta agrees.
“I studied Theatre and Performing Arts in school and I must say, it’s not been easy so far. Breaking into the industry is harder than I anticipated due to a lot of industry politics and crazy competition. But I’m not about to give up just yet so keep your eyes glued to your screens.”
While this may be put down to optimism, Alberta is working towards breaking into the industry. With the pressures that come with being in the public eye, I wondered if she was ready for the rigours of an industry that thrives on microscopic assessment of her looks. Her answer was simple, and delivered with a soft laugh. Yes.
“I’m working with a production house called VillageBoi Productions in Kaduna State and I host the talk show Memo. We’ve only just recorded a couple of trial episodes where I interviewed Audu Maikori, the C.E.O. of Chocolate City, Kevin Chuwang Pam who won Big Brother Africa in 2009 and a host of others. We are still working on improving our content and eventually airing it.
“I have also done some movies like “Done and Out” directed by Orunchukwu Elueche – a student project for an acting course I did with High Definition Film Academy, Abuja, “The C.A.” directed by Emeka Loveday where I starred alongside Nollywood actor Ujams Cbriel, “Diary Of the Triplets” directed by Bright Wonder Obasi which starred Nollywood actors like Kalu Ikeagwu, Chucks Chyke, Iyke Adiele, Osas Iyamu, Maksat Ankpe Adiele and a host of others. I also do Radio drama with BBC Media Action (Story Story) where I play the character Nana.”
Clearly her hands are quite full! Alberta still wants to use her body shaming experience to help children through child psychology. She remembers how loving her family – her father, mother, brother and four sisters – were when she was battling some of these issues and wants to replicate some of that love for children going though one or more of these body shaming problems.
Most of us never take a minute to wonder what those statements about people’s looks do to their self-esteem. Maybe if we took that minute, we would understand what it means to deliberately cause someone pain and really consider the consequences. Not everyone can recover from those consequences like Alberta did. For those still experiencing those low moments (women in particular), she had a few words.
“Every girl needs to accept themselves for who they are and know that they are beautiful just the way they are; no matter what anyone says. And so long as you have life, you can be and do whatever you want.”