Androgeny as a “body issue” in the Caribbean and duality as a memory of Africa

Mawu is the supreme and creator god according to the Ewe/Fon people of Abomey/ Dahomey (Republic of Benin). Mawu represents the moon that brings the night and cooler temperature in the African world. She is depicted as an old mother who dwells in the West. Coolness is an expression of wisdom and age for the Fon people. Mawu has a partner called Liza that is associated with the sun. Liza is regarded by African people as fierce and harsh. Mawu and Liza are described as an unseparable unity at the basis of the universe. They are also regarded as twins. Their unity represents the order of the universe. Liza is said to dwell in the East, and Mawu in the West. When there is an eclipse of the sun or the moon, the Fon people think that Mawu and Liza are making love. Mawu and Liza are the parents of seven pairs of twins. These twins are gods with different domains. Mawu and Liza were born from Nana Buluku, who created the world. http://www.mamiwata.com/mawu.html

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I have a big belly well slightly big i am moderately out of shape because i don’t exercise as much as i used to. Whenever i hear about “body issues” i think i don’t have any. I don’t have any “body issues”because i don’t really mind my belly or my weight or i like my body it looks good to me or good enough. I am okay, and if i want to have a better body meaning a better shape i would go on a diet or exercise more or play more sports, but it is not really important.

What has affected me for sometime is the question “is a man or a woman that? not feeling womanly beautiful or not liking frills and things on me. I remember all the times i have attempted to “fix up myself” so people wouldn’t ask this question. I can literally see all my attempts to be distinctly feminine, that female, soft and pretty or sexy and attractive woman. I wore tighter, sexier shorter clothes, earrings and skirts, definitely more skirts. I was doing this to cover up.

I didn’t come across the word androgyny until maybe 3 yrs ago, when it was used to describe how i looked. I think it is a combination of how i feel, both masculine and feminine or more neutral.

My friend talks about markers and the need to have markers. I have come to realise that i don’t have certain markers and i haven’t done much to get them. Long hair is a maker. Long eye lashes is another marker for a woman or a soft face for the feminine. Thick eye brows is another.My eye lashes aren’t  long and my eye brows very thin so i guess that combination makes my face less feminine.

afifabiopicThe truth is i have been afraid of being mistaken for a man or looking like a man but also not afraid at the same time, maybe resigned to the fact that i can’t be living to make sure i don’t look like a man really, cause when you are androgynous there is really a lot of work you have to do not to be.

I use the word androgynous to describe a look, it is more physical. it describes a look or maybe it is what people see. i don’t know if i see it as much as i feel the reaction about myself.

Androgyny as a “Body issue” in the Caribbean

I think this is the least talked about body issue. Many people talk about weight and hair. Hair seems to be its own issue.

Androgyny is an important body issue as important as weight or hair, imagine how you feel when everyday you get up and have to look at yourself but also, being worried that someone is going to mistake you for a man and the embarrassing ways in which that can happen in Jamaica. From experience i know that women who don’t fit in are seen as “it” or something so undesirable.

I think many women try hard not to “look like men”, look masculine or “unattractive” and because of this do uncomfortable things to their bodies, like wear high heel shoes or short clothes or skirts when they don’t want to. They have hair styles that look female/feminine but not good on them.

I think it affects men too, though i have never spent much time thinking about it in the same way as i am doing now. Men also tend to be less present in “body issue” conversations.  I think it is more acceptable for a guy to be cute but not for a woman to be handsome.

One of the things about Androgyny or the response to it is that you are constantly looking for others who look like you. You want to feel normal, but you don’t quite feel normal. You want to tell someone but not sure who to tell, people will still treat you like a woman and friends won’t even mention anything except for when you wear skirts or something with lace, that may look a little odd.

I feel like a new area of research or exploration should definitely be androgyny as a “body issue” in the Caribbean, because one of the unspoken dangers of looking this way is how quickly assumptions can be made about your sexuality based on this duality.

Androgyny and sexual preference are not necessarily connected or the relationship between both can be complex.

To date what do we know of this idea of androgyny in the Caribbean context; is it something we are comfortable with? are androgynous people just artistic and liberal? Where does this come from historically? what makes it comfortable? what makes it uncomfortable? What are some of the ways that androgynous individuals “cope” or redefine themselves? is the Caribbean friendly to Androgyny? Where is hostile? How does Androgyny change our view of people if it does? What is the Caribbean word for Androgyny?

voodooResolving Body Issues

For Africans in the Caribbean it is important to put “body issues” into perspective, they are often a  function of a lack of knowledge of our African selves. Many of the references are outside our genetic and cultural make-up and memory, and though sometimes related cannot fully provide us with an understanding of ourselves that will free us or lead us to a state of “being” just “being”. Notions of beauty femininity, femaleness and masculinity through Western eyes or cultural frames are problematic and are the beginning if not the root of our “body issues”. Our problems with ourselves. Because who are we? Who am I? Where does this self come from? This self that lives on an “island”.

According to Christianity. God is a man. Jesus is a man and Mary the mother of Jesus delivered him-Jesus, to us. God, the supreme creator doesn’t have a female equivalent with the same powers as he. Neither is he both masculine and feminine. Even if we say he is a spirit. He is a male spirit. Close your eyes and see Jesus. We don’t imagine Jesus as both male and female. In African and Indigenous traditions “gods”/deities are commonly both male and female or masculine and feminine energy, two-spirited. For example Mawu Lisa among the Fon people of Benin.

Sharp/rigid gender roles and connecting the presence of both masculine and feminine energies/ duality  to homosexuality or a “human dysfunction” is connected to your reference for supreme being/creator/god. In the case of colonized islands such as ours  have inherited patriarchy through Christianity and as a consequence there is this ongoing struggle to reconcile different ways of being that emerge from our African selves or memories of our African selves.

Further Reading

  1. Second Sex-Simone de Beauvoir
  2. http://www.pop.org/content/androgyny-hoax-1707
  3. Chrysalids- John Wyndam
  4. Male daughters, female husbands. Ifi Amadiume
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About afifa

dj. artist. creative director and co-founder of the SO((U))L HQ and DI Institute for Social Leadership. I make ritual spaces.

One comment

  1. Anya

    I love the way the ancestors are whispering in your ear Afifa. The whole two-spirit thing resonates very strongly with me as well. (In fact I feel more conscious of the masculine energy within me, but I think that might be because I don’t quite know what to do with it. I didn’t really get many clues about what to do with masculine energy when you have a female body.)
    It’s also interesting that you tie it to religion. I know in Hinduism as well the concept of a god/dess having a consort exists, like Shiva and Kali. And what’s REALLY interesting is that before the Judaism became monotheistic, Yahweh had a consort Asherah, who was a mother goddess.

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