I am a plump child afflicted with a skin disease, which doctors cannot diagnose. Only their repetitive advice, “Stay out of the sun!” brings me temporary relief. Regardless, I am beautiful. But I don’t hear much about my beauty from my parents, instead from relatives and strangers. In fact, my beauty often compels strangers to plant kisses on my cheeks without my parents’ permission. As young as I am, I can see a twinkle of pride in my father’s eyes and a hidden smile dancing on my mother’s lips.

As a teenager I add to my plumpness, eyeglasses and bookworm tendencies. Because I have no interest in sports, my body size makes me look older than I am. In addition to residual dark marks and scarring on my legs and arms from the skin disease, I start battling severe bouts of acne. In spite of everything, my beauty status doesn’t change. At boarding school, boys my age compete for my attention. At home, my mother starts to fend marriage proposals from villagers, who want me as their daughter-in-law. I’m only thirteen years old.

This attention starts to get me confused about what beauty really means. Because I certainly don’t feel beautiful. Yet I can’t dismiss compliments from people who see me as such. I don’t bother to ask others what exactly makes me beautiful because comments about my beauty are varied. But I begin to imagine it might have to do with my soft eyes, which allow me to hold things at the center of my gaze while I remain aware of everything that goes on around me. Perhaps, it’s my affiliative smile from which people expect to see dimples. But I don’t dimple.

In late adolescence, I learn my body loves to move. This is a coincidental discovery as I take up tennis only to imitate my older sister, who is a professional player. While I find slight enjoyment in being confused for her in tennis circles, even though we don’t resemble each other that much, I branch out to find my own identity. And it’s at the university great hall, in my sophomore year, I first become aware of the power rested on my hips as I learn to cha-cha dance.

While I’ve completely shed my baby fat, my pear-shaped body struggles to find a good fit with clothes. I take to making my own or buying clothing to refashion it in order to feel comfortable in it. Wearing skirts and dresses doesn’t make me cool among my peers, who have discovered the appeal of sexy jeans. I don’t despair much because I find my memorably beautiful and unique friends. 

As a young woman, I learn to walk on stilettos. But I’m hopeless as I teeter on uneven pavements in a big city with blisters on my feet. Hence, when I land my first job, I add a gym contract to my monthly expenses to strengthen my muscles. My determination pays off. I measure this by a turn of heads each time I approach. Unfortunately, disdainful catcalling from men who have hopes to own my body also ensues.

I’m told about the power of women appreciating one another but in the same sentence, I hear about women who envy appearance. That’s why sometimes I can’t distinguish between appreciation and envy. So, I learn to tread with caution as I navigate mixed looks I get from other women. Sometimes these looks are decidedly lustful across the board, something that makes me feel awkward and leads to avoiding social gatherings. Regardless, I am a success as I sashay my heavy thighs and curvy hips around town.

Suddenly I’m a plus-size, my shopping experience in ages. Who designs these customized size charts, anyway? As a grown woman, I wish I could say I don’t really care. But the industry seems intent on making us hate our bodies. Nonetheless, the fact that I am beautiful holds true now as I mature to myself with heavier arms, disappearing waist and a derriere that needs firmer support. Because when you’ve been told all your life that you are beautiful, it’s really difficult to see yourself otherwise.

My beauty was never perfect. Along the way, I learned my beauty has little to do with my physical appearance or age but a sense of self that was instilled in me from a very young age. In a society hell-bent on qualifying and quantifying beauty as it offers an array of invasive and expensive promises for youthful beauty, I simply smile. Because my middle life crisis is strapped on my hiking boots. This too is a journey of constant self-affirmation.

Khaya is the third-place winner for the 2022 Body-Positivity Essay Contest.

Khaya Ronkainen is a South African-Finnish writer of poetry and prose. Her work is largely inspired by nature, often examines duality of an immigrant life and also explores themes on aging. To learn more, visit her site Khaya Ronkainen: Life in Verse, Prose, and Visuals. Follow her on Instagram.