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Changes Bodies Series: Afua Hirsch

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Annie [00:00:07]  Hello and welcome to Changes. It's Annie here, delighted to have you with me for the third and final episode on our bodies mini series. We started with the popstar CMAT on body image and weight. Last week we had the incredible Dr. Jen Gunter answering your questions about your bodies in a unique Q&A style episode, we'd never done one of them before on Changes. We covered sex, periods, menopause, and loads more. So many of you got in touch on our Instagram posts and on our email to say thank you and to leave your comments. So thank you, I love hearing from you! Keep it coming. Hello to Ruth Swartz who said 'brilliant podcast, so informative. I'm nearly menopaused out with all the info that's out there, but Dr. Gunter is the boss of women's health. This is a podcast for everyone who knows a woman. Thank you Annie'. Thank you Ruth! And hello to Elizabeth Jones who says 'this is the best listen, I've shared it with my sister and my aunties. It's a must listen'. Thank you Elizabeth, I will take best and must, I will take both of those things. Really appreciate you getting in touch and I'm really excited to bring you this final episode of our bodies mini series. Today we have the journalist, broadcaster, and bestselling author Afua Hirsch. Afua is at the forefront of discussions about race, history and culture in Britain today. She originally trained as a human rights barrister and then began her journey into journalism. She's presented documentaries for the BBC, been a regular contributor to Sky news' debate show The Pledge, and she's contributed on current affairs programmes including Channel Four news, Newsnight, Question Time and CNN. She's also written for multiple prestigious publications, including British Vogue, where she most recently was flown over to the States to interview Rihanna. That gives you a little bit of an idea of the gravitas of Afua's writing and how in demand she is. Afua's first book was called British, with the 'ish' being in brackets, that delved into the uncomfortable truth about race and identity in Britain today and was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Prize. But it's her latest book that makes her perfect for this mini series on bodies. The book is called Decolonising My Body and it's about Afua's personal journey unpacking Eurocentric beauty standards and unlearning some of the myths around women's bodies. It's a really dynamic read which explores multiple topics: puberty, periods, body hair, ageing, death, each by looking at the differences in the way they are treated in different cultures. I can honestly say that in reading Decolonising My Body and speaking to Afua for this episode, I have learned so much! What we know about women's bodies, what we have learned, it's so narrow. I can't wait for you to hear this conversation. So I started by asking Afua the reason why she wanted to unlearn and then relearn everything when it came to understanding her body. 

Afua [00:02:59] All my work, really, has one main aim and that is to reach my younger self. And I say that because my younger self was a young girl, she was growing up in a world that has so many toxic ideas and messages about women's bodies, about gender, about sexuality, and then also being a black girl of mixed heritage there are all these additional messages about what it means to be African, what it means to be black that were very negative and damaging in the way they were portrayed at the time as well. And so the younger me perceived that but didn't have a platform to speak about it, didn't have even a language to articulate or navigate the way these messages were affecting me. And I feel so privileged that as I've been educated, as I've self-educated because I think our education system still failed to really equip us to understand these things, and as I've grown in confidence and develop my voice and my art as a storyteller, I feel able to now craft these messages and explore these issues in a way that I think the younger me would have really needed. So that is, in a way, the change that I went through when I went through puberty, when I became a woman, but I think it's a lifelong change, like you never stop going through new eras and iterations and periods of your life. And the book is also, I guess, about initiations, about stages of life, about transitions and how we can navigate those in a way that has a deeper meaning. 

Annie [00:04:29] There was one instance that really did kind of alter your motivation, I suppose, in terms of trying to evolve as a woman and that was when you went and met Oprah one night- in terms of like changing perceptions, I suppose, of how you can better yourself. Would you mind telling me about that and what did Oprah say to you? 

Afua [00:04:52] Oprah staged an intervention *Annie exclaims* at a very important part of my *laughs* my life and my, my career but also my journey I guess, and it wasn't just work related, but I went to a film premiere that she was at and I asked a question, and it was at a moment where I was still working in the news. I was a news reporter, and I was finding it really hard. It was at a time when, I mean we're still living through this, but when populism had really normalised ideas that had previously not had a really legitimate space in our discourse, you know, really racist, xenophobic, misogynistic ideas were suddenly up for discussion and I felt that as a woman of colour, as a black woman in that space, I was being expected to defend why those ideas are bad. It was very dehumanising, I felt like I was being asked to draw on my very deepest experiences and traumas to justify my humanity and that that was becoming part of my job. And I- and when I went to this event with Oprah, I found myself asking her how to do it and how to balance the idea that I feel like it's important that our voices are represented, but also just to be honest with myself that I was finding it very draining and dehumanising. And her answer was just the exact message I needed at that time. She said to me, 'stop thinking about what society needs of you, what you think you should be doing, what other people are saying, what narratives are circulating in the news and start building yourself'. She said 'you need to be spiritually ripped. You need to build yourself spiritually so that you have muscle, so that it's not even a question of what you can cope with or what you can withstand because you are so strong in your knowledge of who you are and what you stand for, that it's effortless'. And it was just such a, a profound message for me to hear at that time, it just landed so deeply with me. And I realised that all my energy had been poured into what was happening in the world and trying to be a voice of the left, or of equality, or of progress and I wasn't really thinking about how to build myself, how to build spiritual muscle as she put it. And it was funny because I asked her that question in this big auditorium, you know with maybe a thousand people there, and then there was this afterparty that I went to for the film premiere and she tracked me down in the afterparty! I felt this like, tap on my shoulder, and there was Oprah and she wanted to continue the lesson that she'd been giving me. It was just- I felt so seen in that moment. She's someone that I've always looked up to because I think she was in those difficult spaces and then she built her own platform. She decided she was going to control the narrative, and she was going to create space for other women, for other marginalised groups and I so admire that. And to have her really relate to the moment that I was in and give me the advice that I really needed, it was like a very pivotal moment. So I write about that in the book, not to name drop, erm even though it was really one of those like, surreal moments, but really because it was, in a way, the beginning of that journey where I started to take seriously that I needed to work on myself. 

Annie [00:07:58] It's surprising how radical that bit of advice is for a woman, I think. I can only speak of my own experience but the idea of just kind of taking time to work on yourself beyond bits to exercise or, you know, but like actually like, you know, really intentionally being like *laughing* I want to work myself. It's only recently become something that is feasible for me in terms of what I thought is feasible. Why the hell is that? I'm 45. Like, why does it take us so long, I suppose? Is that what we're taught by society, you know, to always look outwards and never look inwards? Why do you think? 

Afua [00:08:32] Think we're raised by exhausted women. Like I come from a lineage of (Annie: 'God') exhausted women. Women have been caretakers, not just for their family and friends but for society, the custodians of culture, history, values, family. And then on top of that, they have been providing unpaid labour and work resources. It's exhausting and I think there's just such a shocking history of women being depleted and it being expected that women should deplete themselves. And I definitely inherited that idea and I think if you come from women who've been marginalised or who are immigrants, there's this additional idea that you have to work twice as hard, that you have to create security, that you have to empty yourself to provide a better opportunity for the next generation. I've benefited from that and in a way I think I have the luxury of saying, I see this and I want to choose a different future, and I understand the systems that have made that not even optional for so many generations of women. There's definitely become a much more mainstream idea about self-care now, and wellness, and I always feel a little bit alienated from that. And not because I don't believe in it, of course it's so important to look after yourself, but I think what put me off was that it was grounded in very capitalist, consumerist ideas. You know, you do this job and you earn this money and then you go to a spa, you spend your cash on these retreats that they become almost like new indicators of prestige and status. And I just felt that was feeding into the problem that was creating this exhaustion in the first place. And the journey I went on with this book was to really understand wellness and self-care not as this kind of modern luxury, but as something that indigenous cultures had always centred in this communal good that they were pursuing. And the culture integrated the idea of caring for each other, of creating space. And, you know, as we think now about our very contemporary struggles for social justice, for class justice, for racial justice, there are so many scholars who I've cited in the book who are bringing back those more ancestral indigenous ideas of wellness as a communal practice, not something that you just add on to your kind of individualistic pursuit of accumulation. It's bad for our mental health, it's bad for the planet, it's bad for social justice and it gives us- much as it feels so, so overwhelming sometimes, it gives us an opportunity, I think, to look at what's been lost. What did our ancestors who didn't live that way, who didn't practice excess, who understood living in harmony with nature, what knowledge systems have we lost from them? And, you know, some of those are about self-care and self nurturing and understanding life as a cycle and really honouring that cycle. So that was kind of the missing piece that I needed to really deeply engage with ideas about wellness and self-care and once I did, I realised that I hadn't been looking after myself in that way and that was one of the things that I really set out seriously to do. 

Annie [00:11:35] So, if we go through the book with the lens of change and we start with your childhood change, I suppose, what was the biggest change in your childhood with regards to your relationship to your body? 

Afua [00:11:47] For me, I was raised by parents who I think didn't want to see race. I say that in a good way. You know, my mum's black, she comes from Ghana. My dad's white, he grew up in Britain. They both had identities that weren't very racialized. You know, if you're a black woman from a black country, being black isn't your main identity, it's just normal, everyone's black. And my dad's white from a white country and so he didn't see himself as white. And so they- and they also, you know, they met just at the time when segregation was ending in America in the late 60s. They lived through the end of apartheid. I think they just assumed that my generation would be this kind of post-racial generation where race wouldn't matter and we could just, you know, love who we loved and identify how we want to identify. All of us who care about racial justice want that *Annie laughs*. We want to live in a world where race doesn't determine your experience and outcomes, but the reality is we haven't done the work of dismantling the legacy of racism to get there yet and that's what I learned. And one of the ways I learned it, to answer your question, you know, having being raised not to see race was to realise that people racialized me. And as I went through puberty, realising that people saw me as different from my friends- I grew up in a very white area, that people did see me as different and they would ask questions about my name, about my skin colour, about my body shape, about my hair texture, about the kind of food we ate at home, that made me realise that they saw me as other. And, you know, on one level it's quite innocent, when someone's different you're curious about it, but because there's such a specific baggage around blackness and the way that's been racialized, it often has these undertones because people have been told that black people are inferior, that Africa is savage and backward and all of these colonial ideas that have never disappeared, so that when people express a natural curiosity about your difference if you happen to be black or of African heritage, there's also loaded into it these ideas that there's something wrong with you. And that was a huge change for me. I went from the kind of innocence of just having these two parents and this loving family and this lovely environment to realising, oh, the world thinks there's something wrong with me. The world sees me as less or as problematic or as other in a way that makes them uncomfortable. And that was a huge thing to navigate and as a teenage girl in particular, it carried all these specific messages, you know, I think I felt very hypersexualized, I felt people made assumptions about what I was like and what I was into and what I wanted for myself and I found that really hard to navigate. Nobody gives you like a guidebook *laughs* as to how that was going to happen and, and how to get through it. 

Annie [00:14:20] How did it change you? Did it make you behave differently? Did it make you think differently of yourself? 

Afua [00:14:26] There was a negative and a positive change. 

Annie [00:14:28] Right. 

Afua [00:14:28] The negative change was it created a real insecurity, and at times I would say self-loathing. You know, I think as a young person you just want to be the same as your friends and you want to conform to the beauty ideals, and the beauty ideals when I was growing up in the 90s were to be thin, to be white, to have long, straight hair. I mean, this was the era of Pantene and hair straighteners and Friends and it was a very single narrative about what was attractive and desirable, and I didn't fit it. And that was really hard. And you don't have to have my heritage to relate to that. So many young people who feel they don't conform know what that's like. The self-esteem issues it causes, and how hard it is to really like, love and accept yourself. And there were incidences of racism that really forced me to think more deeply about how I saw my own identity. I mean, I wrote in my first book, British, about my school friends sitting down with me and saying, 'don't worry Af, we don't even see you as black, you're fine'. And in that moment, me realising that they thought that it was bad to be black, that for them the best thing they could offer me was a way out of my blackness. And that leads me to the positive side, which is that in that I realised I didn't want a way out of my blackness, like I loved my blackness, I love my Ghanaian heritage, I love the culture, I love the community, I loved the art and the contributions to humanity and the genius of it and I felt proud to be part of that. And so if I was being offered a way out of it, I didn't want that. And that was, I guess the beginning of me really being intentional about embracing that heritage and owning it, and that being a source of strength and inspiration for me. It was a very confusing time and a time of a lot of change. 

[00:16:08] *Short musical interlude*

Annie [00:16:18] So if we look at the book then, of which there's kind of five different categories around the body, and look at puberty specifically, what did you learn about puberty upon writing this book that you didn't know when you were that age? 

Afua [00:16:33] I learned that there is such continuity across cultures, from the Amazon to the Arctic, Africa, Asia. I mean, it's fascinating. Ancient, pre-Christian Europe had some of the most fascinating rituals around puberty and womanhood. And so there's an importance about recognising the transitions of puberty, about creating space where you initiate girls into the circle of women who have been through that transition. The puberty cultures that I've really encountered in my heritage and other African initiations that I've been part of is that, it's seen as such a powerful thing. As a girl initiated into puberty, you are welcomed into a phase of power. It's explained to you that your menstruation, your fertility, is not a weakness, it is a- it's a superpower. It allows you- and this isn't just about whether you have children, it's just simply the fact that your body is now capable of creation and that that creation is linked to the planets, the universe. I mean it's an incredible thing, and that you're taught to understand that power, to harness that power and also to respect the cycles because our bodies are always trying to tell us something. And so to compare it to the way I grew up in Britain, your period was seen as a pain. Like at best, something that someone would help you try and get rid of as- without- with as little mess and fuss and pain as possible. And all the period products when I was growing up, it was all about like, making it invisible, allowing you to keep going as you would anyway. You know, don't worry if you're on your period, you can still, like, jump on a bike and go in to work and run a marathon. And I get that. As women, like, we don't want to be told what we can and can't do. At the same time, what I've learnt from these ancient cultures is that when you're on your period, your body is trying to tell you to rest. The reason that you're experiencing pain and fatigue and mood swings is because you are meant to slow down and honour that cycle, and I think it's actually a metaphor for kind of Western culture, this idea that nature is something to be overcome, to be overpowered, to be controlled, that your body is something to be suppressed and ignored or moulded into whatever is convenient for the needs of the economy. And actually, what you lose in that is a connection to your natural cycle and there's a source of power and pride in that. So, it couldn't really be more different. 

Annie [00:19:02] I really related to that part of the book- 

Afua [00:19:04] Did you? 

Annie [00:19:05] There's a part of the book where you speak of the fact that you kind of took a pride in being able to 'crack on' when you had your period. You just got on with it, you'd kind of work through the pain and you didn't let it stop you, and you didn't have that much awareness of your cycles. Your period would take you by surprise, like you weren't- I'm exactly the same. Only recently have I really started using period tracker apps. It took me ages to get pregnant every time I tried because I never knew what was happening, err when periods were coming and I related to it so hard, this feeling of like, not wanting my period to slow me down or stop me, but then realising that your body is trying to tell you something and you're ignoring it over and over again, it's very powerful. 

Afua [00:19:45] It was a very life changing realisation for me, and it's funny because I learned a lot of this- for the first time I really encountered it was at a puberty initiation I went to for a friend's daughter. 

Annie [00:19:55] Okay. 

Afua [00:19:55] And this friend, her daughter had started a period she wanted to do a traditional African puberty initiation. She'd invited other female friends who had daughters and so we came thinking, oh, this would be good for our daughters, you know, to experience this. I mean, I'm sure our daughters got something out of it but it was us, it was the mothers, the women in our 40s who were most profoundly affected because we realised that when we went through puberty no one had told us any of this. And we'd gone through life, you know, most of us now perimenopausal or menopausal, realising we're about to be at the end of that period and we never worked out what to do with it. We never learned to respect it, to honour it, to listen to it, to see it as a source of power. We all saw it as something to just suppress as much as possible and carry on. The priestess who, who did that initiation, who I write about in the book, she's called Laurence and she said something that really, really resonated with me and I'll never forget it. And she said, if when you come to the menopause, you have never worked out what to do with your era of menstruation, that will haunt you. Like when you lose that power, the fact that you never used it, the fact you never understood it, or you never honoured it, it will torment you once you've lost it. And I really started- I really recognised that I think with friends I know who've gone through menopause and found it really traumatic. It's the sense of having lost something that you never embraced in the first place. I think it's like a double grievance. 

Annie [00:21:19] For those who are listening who still have periods, how do you use them? How do you understand them? How do you honour them? 

Afua [00:21:25] Yeah. So I think one of the really positive things is that women have always been sharing this knowledge and protecting it and promoting it, but now it's starting to become more visible. So there are a few people that I would really recommend if you want to know more about this. There's a writer called Maisie Hill whose book Period Power: Harness Your Hormones and Get Your Cycle Working for You is a really great starting point to just understand what is happening to your body and how you can actually work with it, rather than work against it. And the women that I've worked with, Laurence Moniasse Sessou, her website's moniasse,

Annie [00:22:03] We'll put it in the show notes. 

Afua [00:22:05] Yeah. And she does a program that you can enrol in where you go through a whole course of understanding how to listen to your body, feel its power, there are rituals you can do- and it's never too late to start. I mean, obviously there was this kind of like gut punch at realising like, oh I'm, you know, at the end of my menstrual era and I'm only just working this out, but it's not too late. Even if you've already gone through menopause, it's never too late to really engage with your body in that way. And actually, I did an initiation for my own daughter, and my mother came and my sister and it was just so powerful because it felt like healing the generations, you know, and we've all been caught up in these systems that have deprived us of knowledge that we should have inherited and it's affected us all in different ways. And I think, this isn't to blame each other, but there is a way that you can come together around it. And I did feel a sense of healing and that has really stayed with me. 

Annie [00:23:01] I think anyone listening can relate to- the just- your period being something that's deeply private. You don't talk to people about it ever so it's just the act of sitting in a room with other women and talking about it is quite radical in a way. It must feel very freeing. I've never done it. 

Afua [00:23:17] Yeah, I really recommend it. 

Annie [00:23:19] Apart from the very first time I got my period, I don't think I've ever spoken to my mother about the period- my period ever. 

Afua [00:23:23] Yeah, yeah. Same!  

Annie [00:23:26] Yeah. Okay, so that's the blood section, and then we moved on to- you moved on to beauty, which again was so revelatory this whole section. The body hair section, can you tell us, Afua, about what you learned about body hair and attitudes to body hair on women in Ghana? 

Afua [00:23:45] Well, the body hair story was one of the more shocking things I worked in the book, because I was just surprised how little I knew about the origins of our social attitudes towards body hair. And just, well  quickly- and if you're interested, read the book because I do tell the full story, but there's nothing objective about the idea in Western societies that we should get rid of body hair. It's actually quite a modern idea, and the origins of it are darkly eugenicist and it's really around the work of Charles Darwin, who is really known for On The Origin of Species but this is another book he wrote called The Evolution of Man, where he basically established the evolution of man from primates, which was, as we- I think most people know, was very controversial at the time. As people began to engage with those ideas, they began to want to differentiate themselves from our ape like ancestors. There was all these very racially superior ideas at the time that black people were closer to the animal kingdom, these white supremacist ideas that- to be white and European was to be at the kind of pinnacle of evolutionary civilisation. And so people of white heritage, people in Western Europe and North America began to see removing body hair as crucial to show that they were not in any way connected to bestiality, to primitiveness, to savage nature. And so it's all very bound up in these colonial ideas about who's savage and who's civilised. You know, these are the ideas that we use to conquer land and extract and steal resources. We're still living with the consequences. So when I realised that the average woman in Europe and America spends tens of thousands of pounds in her lifetime- 

Annie [00:25:27] *Exhales* I can't. 

Afua [00:25:27] The highest figure I heard was £73,000 removing body hair in your lifetime. We spend our own money voluntarily undergoing pain to strip our skin of hair that is perfectly naturally there. And you know, the spirit of my book is not judging women, because the last thing that I believe in doing is telling them what to do with our own bodies. But I guess what I'm advocating is, understand where these ideas come from because they're not inherent *Annie laughs*, they're not they're not innate. They're not objective, they're narratives that have been crafted by societies for specific purposes. And if you don't understand the agenda behind those ideas, you can't really make an informed choice. It was so shocking to me that I had been a victim of those mentalities without even understanding them, and something that really first kind of prodded my consciousness was when I went to a wedding in Ghana. It was a beautiful wedding, beautiful groom, beautiful bride, both very accomplished professionals. And the bride not only had a hairy chest, but she had had her wedding dress cut in a bespoke design to specifically show off her hairy chest. 

Annie [00:26:34] Wow. 

Afua [00:26:34] And everybody was commenting on how gorgeous it looked. And I have to say, like, I was a little bit shocked at the time. I was in my 20s and I was, I was like that's not attractive, what are they talking about?! Because I'd been so conditioned *Annie agreeing* with this single idea about what's attractive and I realised that this was a world in which that was considered an asset that you would show off, and it really helped me understand that I had a very culturally specific idea of beauty, and that everyone in the world doesn't share that idea, and also how empowering it was that this woman's natural hair was considered a great asset, and how lucky her groom was that he found her. And at the same time as feeling this kind of revulsion, which I'm ashamed of now that I felt that revulsion but I was a product of my conditioning, it was also the beginnings of realising that feeling ashamed of your natural hair, your body shape, anything about how you were born, it's not inevitable. Like there's a world in which that doesn't have to be a source of shame, so I found that really interesting. And it's still the case in Ghana that body hair is considered very desirable in women. You often see women in an amazing outfit, and she's got very hairy legs and everything is designed to show that off and so it's kind of like part of the look. And people will praise her and comment on the hairy legs and even chin hair on women! I've seen women really show that off, it's regarded as attractive. You know, the things that we go to such lengths to remove in other cultures, in different contexts they're considered gorgeous so that's one thing I love about going to Ghana, it kind of breaks me out of my very Eurocentric conditioning every single time. 

Annie [00:28:10] Yeah. Wow. I think, I think so many people listening will be like gobsmacked by that *Afua laughs*. Just to think we didn't have to shave our legs all this time! 

[00:28:18] *Short musical interlude*. 

Annie [00:28:28] Afua, what is the biggest change you've been through as an adult then with regards to your relationship to your body? 

Afua [00:28:35] For me, it's definitely becoming a mother. 

Annie [00:28:38] Right. 

Afua [00:28:38] It was really good for me because I was very critical. I'm someone who's quite self-critical in general. I was very self-critical of my body and very self-conscious and being in the public domain doesn't help, you know, because you have to watch yourself and listen to your voice and see yourself in pictures. And, I mean, I've had jobs where there were men whose job it is to tell me how I looked, you know, to tell me that like my- they don't like the shape of my legs and, you know, they don't like the colour I'm wearing, it doesn't suit me and even for a very secure person, that can be quite jarring for it to be part of your performance. And I think having a child made me first appreciate what my body is capable of, that I really found a new respect for my body because I- every stage of having a child I didn't think I'd be able to do. I didn't think I'd be able to carry a pregnancy to term. I didn't think I'd be able to give birth. I didn't think I'd be able to breastfeed. I just didn't think I could, because I had no evidence that my body could do any of these things *both laugh* other than people telling me it could, and to see that it could was just astonishing. And then it changes your body, you know, and you have no control over that. And I in my case, I chose to not see it as a problem that needed correcting, but to see it as a natural stage of life that is associated with bringing a human into the world and therefore embrace it. And like, I'm in L.A. right now, it's quite hard to have this like- I love and respect my body as it is. Everybody's on Ozempic, the weight loss drug- 

Annie [00:30:03] *Laughing* Oh God! 

Afua [00:30:03] Every time I come to L.A., it just feels more extreme than the last time. And at least in the last few years there was this whole curvy Kardashian thing going on. 

Annie [00:30:11] Right, right, right. 

Afua [00:30:11] Now it's gone completely back to 90s, everyone's super skinny. I think I'm quite resilient to pressure from like external norms about how I look but it is like, okay, I am a different shape from everyone else around me now, and that's fine. This is me. And you know, you have to like, walk through it again. But I definitely aspire to not go down the road of seeing my body as a site of problems that I can correct, but rather to see it as my story, the site of my stories and my struggles and my joy and something that I hope will take me into old age if I love it and respect it. So that's- the change that motherhood started was really a newfound respect and acceptance for me. And it's not easy because you don't- your body doesn't always change in the way you want it to, but it's kind of surrendering to that and accepting it that I think has been a real, a real gift. 

Annie [00:31:04] Let's talk about fertility and what you discovered with regards to that word. 

Afua [00:31:09] Fertility is really complex, isn't it? Because in many cultures it's seen as such an inherent part of what it is to be a woman, and I think that can be really oppressive. Like, not all women want to have children. Not all women can have children. And so I think the kind of pressure to reproduce can be very damaging, it can be a source of a lot of pain and trauma and, you know, I mean, in African countries I've been to they'll call a woman who doesn't have any children barren, which I often just find so offensive and stigmatising and there is a real stigma around it. However, I think the, the power of fertility, rather than the necessary decision to use it, goes hand in hand with a love and appreciation for the female form and for women's bodies, in all the shapes and sizes that it takes. I'm interested in the ideas of fertility, and I think it would be great if we could get to a point where we can appreciate fertility as a function of our bodies without it- in a way we could separate it with the pressure to or the demand that we reproduce. And I do think it's interesting we're entering a new era where obviously many countries are now becoming concerned about falling birth rates. And the thing that's never said is that, you know, when a politician bemoans falling birth rates, the undertone is like, we now expect women to do this unpaid labour of producing more children, which by the way, we never properly recognise, we never thanked them for we never remunerated them for we never gave them enough time off work for, we never gave them systems of social or cultural support for, and now they're surprised that women aren't choosing *Annie laughs* to provide this punitive service. I mean, or having a child for people who want to is such a joy and it's the best thing I've probably ever, ever done in my life. But the idea that it's required of us, and it's the social output that we must perform, while also not being paid for it and not even being given enough time off work for our bodies to heal from it, and not being given help or support to do it in a way that doesn't exhaust and deplete us, I think that's really, it's just really ridiculous. And I think, I think in my book, I'm really taking it back to the personal and realising that we don't owe anyone our bodies and we're not answerable to anyone but ourselves and the choices that we make. But I choose to incorporate that understanding and the knowledge of my ancestors. And that's a choice I find enriching. But it's very different from, from having things demanded of you. 

Annie [00:33:36] And can you tell me about what you discovered with regards to your ancestry and fertility? You talked about waist beads and wearing them. 

Afua [00:33:42] Yeahhh. I'm wearing my waist beads right now. 

Annie [00:33:44] Are you?! 

Afua [00:33:45] I am, but basically in Ghana, where my mum's from, and in many African countries, women have worn waist beads for millennia. And they are- they serve, like so many of the best things, they serve multiple purposes, some spiritual, some very practical. So it's part of a celebration of the female form, this kind of like shapelyness is considered very desirable in Ghanaian culture. It's not considered acceptable to be thin as a woman as you get older. And, for example, the name for like, having rolls of fat around your neck is nature's necklace. Like it's considered an adornment. It's very desirable. Things like fat ankles and, you know, just rolls of fat are beautiful on a woman. But waist beads are a kind of way of celebrating that female form. They're also a very practical tool that women have used for centuries to monitor their bodies, to monitor weight gain, weight loss, to detect early signs of pregnancy, and to just tell them what's going on. And, you know, in a culture where there's no shame or pressure around weight gain, it's not like putting yourself on scales every day and stressing about --- it's just a source of information. Also, they were used to erm, attach underwear and sanitary products. You know, people used cloth when they were on their period so they would, they would use the waist beads to harness them. So they're just like, the perfect amalgamation of all these like, practical and emotional functions. And it was so interesting for me because I actually didn't really realise how widespread wearing waist beads was until my friend asked me to bring her some back one time when I was in Ghana, and I realised that she was wearing them, her kids were wearing them and I thought why don't- why haven't I ever worn them? And I asked my mum about it and she said that erm, first she said, oh no, no one wears those anymore, you know, only in the villages. And then I was like, actually, no mum, like lots of people still wear waist beads. And then she thought about it and she said she realised that when she was growing up and Ghana was still a colony, it was called the Gold Coast, there was this idea, and it was obviously kind of promoted by British Empire, that it was desirable to become as European as possible. To become westernised and Europeanised was to be high status, to be civilised. You know, they were pushing this idea that it was savage to be African and it it was civilised to be white and European and so the kind of educated, the people who had Western education in colonies like the Gold Coast were showing how civilised and westernised they were in this colonial mindset. And my mum said, you know, she realised that they were so quick in her family to, *laughing* she said, to embrace Marks and Spencers knickers. But they kind of like cast off all these traditions and thought that this was progress. And she said, now that she actually had a moment of looking back and realising, why were we so quick to get rid of our customs?, like this was our culture for generations and we just, we were just persuaded that it was better to do what British people do. And she said, now I actually feel quite sad, it makes me realise what else have we lost? And that in a way, that kind of encapsulates the spirit of the book, not just for me and my heritage, but all of us. Like what else have we lost through this whole era of colonialism, industrialisation, Christianisation? There is so much in our indigenous heritage that was swept away that we were told was backward or evil. I think that it's worth looking at what's been lost, and it's worth understanding that that was millennia worth of knowledge that particularly was used by women to support and thrive and encourage and grow other women, other girls into women and to celebrate the stages of life. And that in losing that, I think we've lost a lot of what was good. And I think a lot of the crises we face, the crisis around ageing and the sense that you lose value and you lose attractiveness and you lose social utility and, you become almost invisible in our culture when you when you get older. These are cultures that regarded age as success (Annie: 'yes!'). To be an old person was to have lived, to have survived, to have gained wisdom and memory that you could contribute to the community. And when I thought about my choices, you know, if I'm going to lean into Britain where I grew up that's going to regard me as increasingly less interesting and useful as I get older, versus the ancestral culture that I come from which regards me as more useful and valuable and important and beautiful and wise and recognised as I get older, it's kind of a no brainer. Like, *Annie laughs* obviously I'm choosing that. 

Annie [00:38:24] I read an article by Miranda July in Vogue magazine, and she was talking about menopause and erm, how in western culture there's a template of how to live as a woman or as a girl. You know, we're kind of taught what we're supposed to look like, and, you know, everything you've just been talking about. When it comes to menopause, there doesn't seem to be a template anymore. Like once you pass that threshold, there's so few women that are in the public consciousness, on films, in media, and you know, that you can look to. So it seems like this kind of- kind of blank canvas which to me is actually- yes, it's scary, but it's also quite exciting because to me that says, well, you can make up for yourself what you want. Have you discovered in any of your research about how other cultures, I suppose, look at menopause and look at that part of women's lives. 

Afua [00:39:14] I think what I found is that, like most ancient indigenous cultures have a much more structured way of treating people through different stages of life, that it's more thought through. So like, for example, in some cultures in Ghana, there's actually clothes that you wear at different stages. You know, like when you're a woman over 75, like there's a specific way that you dress, there's a specific role that you play. And so everybody has a role to play. And I think if you're from like a more individualistic culture, that might seem a bit alarming or overwhelming, but actually, like, everybody has a purpose. Everybody knows- 

Annie [00:39:53] Right *laughs*. 

Afua [00:39:53] What their role is. In my Ghanaian and culture there's this *laughs* this whole thing about becoming an elder, and it's not the same as becoming older. Like there's becoming older, which is obviously everybody does, and there's becoming an elder and that is like you have to qualify for that. Becoming an elder is you've proved you're useful, you've helped your community, you've contributed to your community, you've helped raise young people, whether they're your own children or not, you have been part of the social order of ushering in. And to become an elder is regarded as the ultimate accomplishment. And so that's the stage of life where you really come into your own and *laughs* your value it kind of goes through the roof. In a way, you have to become an elder to, when you die, become an ancestor. Like, not everyone becomes an ancestor. 

Annie [00:40:41] Ahhhh. 

Afua [00:40:41] You have to have been an elder in life to become an ancestor in death. And it's taken so seriously, there was actually this one study I read that described it as like a career, something people are so intentional about. And I really love that because it's- it's not gratuitous, it's like as you get older it's not just to make you feel better that they- that they're creating a place or role for you, it's you actually do have value. Older people have so much value and I just think we've lost that. But from what you're saying I do really relate to it, I think you feel freer as you get older as a woman. Like, there's less expected of you, which has got a negative side but the positive side is you have a lot more leeway to create your own narrative and your own identity. But the danger as well is that you become invisible, like nobody really cares what you wear or what you do because you're invisible. And that, I think, is the really toxic thing that happens to older people in Western societies. This invisibility. And so many older women have spoken to me about that, about feeling literally invisible. People see through them. It's not like they're deliberately ignoring them, they just don't see them. And I just think that's so sad. There are lots of cultures where it's the opposite. The older you are, the more you've done in your life, the more you've done for your people, the more seen you are and I really love that. And if this book can help in any small way, like usher that spirit back into our realm, then I would be so happy. 

Annie [00:42:03] I also like the, the kind of, the chain of thought of thinking of yourself as an ancestor. So always thinking, what are you going to leave behind? 

Afua [00:42:10] Yeah. 

Annie [00:42:11] You know, what are you giving back to the world? That's a really big kind of honourable way to think.

Afua [00:42:18] And I do think it's powerful. And I think there's, you know, there are different ways of expressing that but I find that a really useful framing because it's asking yourself, like what is the point of me? What am I living for? What am I contributing to? What do I want to be remembered for? How can I leave this world better than I found it? And I think that's something every single person can ask themselves, and it's an aspiration. You succeed in that by asking yourself the question rather than any specific outcome. You know, there's no target. 

Annie [00:42:46] Yeah, yeah. 

Afua [00:42:47] It's just that you have a spirit of thinking that way and wanting to be that person and that's what really, really counts. 

[00:42:53] *Short musical interlude*

Annie [00:43:03] What change would you like to, if any, make moving forwards into your life with regards to how you see yourself and your body? I mean, you you touched on it there but- 

Afua [00:43:14] That's a great question. My book was, in a way, my accountability partner. I wrote about how important I have found it to accept your body, to also see your body as the source of your inheritance, right? Like if I got a nose job, this nose was from my ancestors, like I'm wearing them on my face. I feel like there's a power I inhabit. 

Annie [00:43:35] There's a bit in your book where you mention Bella Hadid. 

Afua [00:43:39] Yeahhh and she was so sad. She had a nose job I think when she was 15 and she now, you know, her- that was her Palestinian grandfather's nose she said, that she saw it as something that she wanted to kind of westernise and look more like all the other white girls around her who had European noses and now she feels like she lost part of who she is when she had that done. And again, like, not to judge, people do what they want to their bodies and their faces, and I really practice radical acceptance but I think if you don't understand what you're doing, then you are likely to regret it. And obviously, a 15 year old's not going to be able to know what the 40 year old her- I feel comfortable judging- 

Annie [00:44:17] *Laughing* saying that, yeah. 

Afua [00:44:17] They should not get a nose job at 15. But in general, I don't think people think about that and people have responded to that part of my book when I said that, you know, when you alter your face, you are erasing parts of your ancestry. People were like, I never thought about it like that, that makes me look at my face completely differently. So I try to embrace that and I found it really powerful and I hope to continue on that journey. It's harder the older you get. That in Western societies, the older you get, the less you are conforming to the beauty standard that we are indoctrinated with. You know, when you're young, it's easy to say like 'I do, I love myself!', and the more you deviate from what you've been told is attractive, the more resilience and confidence and self-love and acceptance it takes to stay true to that. But I feel like my book is my accountability partner, and I've written about that. So if next time you see me *Annie laughing* I've had a nose job with loads of fillers and I'm on Ozempic, I feel like you could legitimately say, 'didn't you write a whole book about how you should accept who you actually are?'. 

Annie [00:45:20] *Laughs* Afua, thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure to hear from you, thank you. 

Afua [00:45:23] It's been really fun, Annie. Thank you for having me. 

Annie [00:45:29] Afua's book, Decolonising My Body is available to buy now. It's a great, great read. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you found that episode and indeed that whole series useful. I love to hear from you, Annie Macmanus is how you can hit me up on Instagram or if you want to write us something there too. Links to everything we discussed in this episode will be in the show notes if you want to go check 'em there, and if you missed it go back and listen to CMAT and Dr. Jen Gunter. We will be back next week with a really special guest, the rapper, poet and now author George the Poet. Do not miss it. It is one of those conversations that had me on the edge of my seat. I absolutely loved talking to George. Changes is produced by Louise Mason with assistant production from Anna de Wolff Evans through DIN productions. See you next week.