I have suffered from disordered eating for most of my adult life. I’ve been through cycles of restricted eating, binging and starvation. At the peak of my disorder, I was fifty kilograms, vegan and exercised every day. In between lecturers and coursework, I practised yoga until I felt faint, cut out sugar and kept carbs to a minimum. I knew my lifestyle didn’t bring me happiness but I didn’t know how to break the cycle I found myself in.
Moving back home after my Masters was incredibly difficult for many reasons. Of course, there were the harsh realities of living in Lagos which for the most part are universal, but for me, the hardest part of being in Lagos was the city’s love of food. As a people, we centre socialising, family time and celebrations around food. It became increasingly difficult to maintain my restrictive diet and active lifestyle and before I knew it, I had gained ten kilograms and was sixty kilograms – the heaviest I’d ever been. I needed to buy new clothes and I switched my vegan diet for a friendlier pescatarian one and cut out dairy.
It was during this time that I started pole dancing. I started because it was an affordable option in a city where a yoga subscription in a good studio was beyond my budget. When I started pole dancing, the first thing I noticed was the confidence of the women around me. Women of different body types showed off their bodies in tiny shorts and crop tops while practising tricks and dancing to music. In this environment, there is absolutely no space for body anxieties. Instead, we embrace our FUPAs and discuss beauty treatments and our lives. We praise each other when we conquer tricks and feel our bodies growing stronger. In these conversations, I finally learned to love my body. Pole dancing taught me to not just love my body aesthetically, but to love my body because it is strong, sexy and forever evolving. In pole dance, there is no final goal per se and the opportunities to grow in the practice are endless. Week after week, I have watched my body grow stronger with no pressure to be taut, lean or flat. As a Nigerian woman, there is also something incredibly powerful about being sexy and practising an often sexualised artform in the absence of the male gaze.
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The magical benefits of pole dancing are being felt by women everywhere and in Lagos, it has become an increasingly popular form of fitness for women. Feso Adeniyi, founder of Red Caramel Dance and Fitness, explained that a few years ago when she first started the studio it was difficult to convince women in Lagos to pole dance. However now, with the rise of social media accounts with pole dance content and the rise of pole dancing in mainstream popular culture, more and more women are curious and are willing to try pole dancing. The increasing popularity of pole dancing is evident in the wide variety of women I attend classes with. These women are mothers, married, work corporate jobs, and range in age with some women in their 40s.
The sisterhood I’ve formed with these women has impacted my life and self-esteem in ways I find hard to articulate. Seeing women exude confidence and a sense of care in a country as patriarchal and unkind to women as Nigeria has empowered me to challenge my own deeply flawed understanding of my body. In an environment focused on strength and growth, the measure of fitness and health is not in the size of your arms or the flatness of your stomach, it is in the ability of your body to carry itself, to twist and bend to the needs of a pose or trick. After a few months of pole dancing, I found myself simply forgetting to weigh myself. I no longer made anxious glances at my stomach in mirrors or compared myself to women I saw. Instead, I judge my body by how easily going into an invert feels or how quickly I can learn a new trick. The mirrors in the studio are no longer a source of anxiety, now they are a source of pride allowing me to admire my body in a difficult pose.
I write this not to claim that pole dancing magically fixed my disordered eating but instead, to draw attention to what happens when women are in a safe space and are encouraged to view their bodies as strong, healthy and able. There is also something to be said about the fact that part of why pole dancing has risen in popular culture is because of the efforts of black women with bodies that defy white beauty standards. These women have shown me that strength and athleticism have very little to do with how little you weigh or how lean you are. Pole dancing has allowed me to unlearn an internalised self-hatred I was too scared to admit was there. I am learning to love my body and in turn to love myself because this body has the ability to be strong, sexy, to grow and to evolve.