Hi Dr Ameaka, thank you for joining us. Please tell us about yourself.
Hello! I am a 28-year-old pharmacist, writer and body-positive activist from Cameroon with over five years of experience in community engagement and public health. I am a creative health professional with multiple passions. I work in public health, focusing on health logistics and supply chain management for an HIV Clinical Care program with Georgetown Global Health.
I am also the founder of BodyTalk, an organization which focuses on peer-educating adolescent girls and young women on body image, self-esteem and sexual health since 2017. I am a Women Leaders in Global Health fellow and member of the Commonwealth Youth and Gender Equality (CYGEN) Network.
What inspired you to start a community focused on positive body image, self-esteem, and sexual health for girls?
BodyTalk is a very personal journey for me. Growing up, I can’t remember when I wasn’t overweight (BMI and everyone else said so!) Having a name like Fatima did not help matters. Who I am is inextricably linked to those two things: my name and size. If I ever wanted to forget how I looked, my name reminded me. I felt alien in my body and the space I was occupying.
With influences from TV, magazines and the Harlequin romance novels I was obsessed with at 14 with heroines I was never going to look like, eating began to feel like a sin, something I had to hide to do. So, my body and I developed our complicated relationship. In my teenage years, my awkwardness only grew until I became someone who preferred books to people (still do), hated being the centre of attention and cultivated self-hatred like a cash crop. I also watched my sister undergo a painfully chronic cycle of drastic diet weight loss followed by relapses and regains.
I carried all this baggage right in my 20s until something happened that completely changed my life. In December 2017, while in Pharmacy School, I started a little project. It was a social media campaign focused on Body Image I dubbed #10DaysOfBodyTalk. I created a chat group of almost all the girls in my contacts list and wrote down a few things I wanted to talk about. This would be for a few days, or so I thought.
It’s been over five years, and BodyTalk hasn’t stopped.
I summarize my reasons for starting BodyTalk as a book and a boy. One told me I wasn’t alone in my insecurities, and the other taught me I could be lovable. The boy didn’t stick around, but some lessons did. That book was, Our Bodies, Our Selves, and I’d recommend everyone to read at least a few chapters.
How do you define and promote positive body image within your community?
Body image is how we feel about ourselves physically and how we think others see us. Sometimes how we feel and what we look like are not the same (body dysmorphia). It is our perception of our sexual attractiveness. It includes beliefs, thoughts, and feelings about physical appearance, with studies showing that teenage girls are most vulnerable to body image-related issues.
With BodyTalk, we promote positive body image by redefining African women’s definition of beauty, transforming it from the Western ideal to the notion that ‘there is no one way to be beautiful’. It starts by busting the body and beauty myths we learned as children and creating our own definitions.
Through our online community, social media and blog, we focus on story-telling and experience-sharing captured in our flagship project, #10DaysofBodyTalk. It is an interactive program on Body Image, Self- Esteem and Sexual Health through peer learning in a fun and safe space. Started as a social media campaign, it consists of 10 Topics or ‘Days’ spread over a more extended period. The campaign includes sharing posters, experiences, quotes, write-ups, and specific tasks on several aspects of these three key themes. Topics include Body myths, The Colour of Beauty, Diets vs Exercise, Media distortions and Building Confidence. We address issues of size, skin colour, diets and the media, topics any woman can identify with.
It has directly impacted over 3150 girls and women through an online learning forum, health education for digital media, and community programs. In 2020, after years of storytelling and compiling, #10DaysofBodyTalk was developed into an online interactive curriculum with an adapted print format.
Could you share some success stories or positive experiences from girls who have been a part of your community?
Oh! There are too many to count. Reading and listening to these stories of change is my personal kryptonite. I’ve had many girls walk up to me and say BodyTalk changed their lives. One moment that stands out is our first online session of the #10DaysofBodyTalk curriculum. We had over 190 girls and women from 18 African countries participate. One of them, Habeeba, from Nigeria, was so transformed by the 5-week session that she carried out a study in her Muslim community on girls’ knowledge and attitudes toward sex and menstruation. It was pretty amazing because she didn’t even know the parts of her vagina at the start of the program. She remains an active member of the organization to this day. Our session two members were also impressive, going as far as creating sub-online groups to share what they’d learned. BodyTalk has inspired girls to start initiatives of their own and take up active roles within the organization, which is 100% volunteer-run.
What strategies or activities do you use to foster self-esteem among the girls in your community?
One of my favourite quotes is, ‘Love yourself girl, or nobody will’ from the song, Crooked Smile by J Cole. And this summarizes our messaging. We continually boost their self-esteem by creating community, storytelling and experience sharing that reinforces women’s sense of self.
Girls are constantly exposed to negative media representations and face societal pressure to conform to gender stereotypes on appearance and composure. The perceptions may vary across weight status, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. However, the percentage of girls it affects is still enormous.
When we go to schools for talks and activities, we reinforce the message that loving yourself is not a day’s job nor a straightforward process but requires constant work. One of our topics, ‘Building Confidence,’ focuses on this. We teach girls through our personal and social media task prompts that, at the end of the day, it is ‘mind over matter’ because they are more than bodies. Their self-esteem should not be limited by how they look. We teach each other to take ownership of our narrative.
We continue to push this through campaigns such as YoungVoices: Aloud n’ Allowed to reduce stigma around HIV in 2022, and we are taking this a step further through our biggest ever physical event, ‘The More Than the Body’ Conference in June 2023.
How do you address the intersectionality of various identities (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation) within your community to ensure inclusivity and empowerment for all girls?
BodyTalk has a set of guidelines that every member is expected to respect and live by, at least in the group. They are quite straightforward, really.
‘This is a no judgement zone. We share different backgrounds, experiences and values. Respect that.‘ is the first thing we say to new members, and we have stuck to this over the years. Sure, there have been chatroom disagreements on issues such as sexual orientation and religious beliefs. Still, we’ve dealt with this and used them as learning opportunities.
In what ways do you educate and empower girls about sexual health and well-being?
Our approach to sexual health is unique because we consider it a component of a cycle that includes Body Image and self-esteem. We developed a holistic approach to sexual health education with our person-centred model, enabling members to continually learn from each other and themselves.
Body image is part of sexuality – how we feel about our bodies. When Body image issues lead to low self-esteem, it is usually carried over to young adulthood. It may affect our lives in several ways. The way we see our bodies has a significant influence on us every day, including our decisions. Women with low self-esteem are more liable to make poor decisions about their sexual health. The better one feels, the better the decisions you will make. We cover this gap by boosting their self-esteem and providing holistic sex education.
We teach women through #10DaysofBodyTalk modules, structured weekly chat group discussions on proposed topics, blog articles and physical events. Our #NoPeriodDrama campaign on Menstrual Hygiene Management in 2019 is an excellent example of how we blended all these approaches. Our work mainly consists of Storytelling, Awareness raising, Advocacy and Campaigning, Education/Training/Capacity-building, and Online mobilization.
The program content is participant-led by focusing on peer advocacy and digital connection. Meaning young people themselves get to develop messaging about their health. It simply collects and documents women’s stories from Cameroon and other African countries. Together, this diverse international movement has grown and is breaking down barriers to quality health and education for women and girls. The social media chat app helps break down stereotypes about sexual health and offers more freedom. It also identified gaps in education about safe sex, contraceptives, and sexual infections other than HIV.
What challenges have you faced in promoting positive body image and self-esteem in your community, and how have you overcome them?
As an organization, our major challenge has been crafting an identity and trying to distinguish ourselves in a space filled with people doing sexual health-focused activities. When we realized that we were doing something unique, it made things easier for us and harder. Because despite all the modern hype, there are only a few donors out there looking to finance Body Image and Self-care programs in Africa. We’ve overcome this by focusing on alternate and more sustainable revenue sources such as membership fees, paid events and merch. Also, our 12-member coordination team comprises professional women who volunteer their free time, which only leaves a few hours. We are mentoring students and younger members to take up active roles.
Then, I am from the anglophone part of Cameroon, which has been experiencing a violent sociopolitical crisis since 2016. Many of our physical activities occurred during this, which slowed down our plan to take #10DaysofBodyTalk to schools. We overcame this by focusing on online sessions after running a pilot onsite. Language has also been a stumbling block because though Cameroon is a bilingual country, most of our members are English-speaking, making it hard to reach a larger local audience. However, we are working on translating #10DaysofBodyTalk and signing up more French-speaking members.
How do you engage parents and guardians in supporting their daughters’ positive body image, self-esteem, and sexual health?
This is an interesting question and something we were keen on integrating into our model early on. Firstly, the BodyTalk online community for women and girls has no upper age limit. I mean, my mom is in there. This has allowed us to have inter-generational conversations on various topics, even those usually considered taboo. My mom and I never really had an open relationship through which we could communicate on specific topics. But I moderated conversations about sex, infections, body dysmorphia, and bullying in that group. I’ve seen how it has slowly moulded our relationship into one where we both have a fresh understanding of where the other was coming from. It has definitely earned me more respect and trust in our relationship.
One of my pieces which resonates with many people, is ‘I Wish My Mom Had Told Me’ for the #10DaysofBodyTalk program. It’s about how our parents can make our insecurities worse by creating ideals we can’t meet up to, and I was directly speaking to my mom. Did I mention my mom is in this group? Things worked out because she didn’t disown me or leave the group. (Who even creates a group where you discuss sex and include their mom?)
Looking ahead, what are your future plans and goals for the community in terms of promoting positive body image, self-esteem, and sexual health for girls?
An ideal world for me is one where sex education is taught using a holistic approach that addresses the social components of self-esteem and body image as crucial ingredients to sexual and mental health with learning that is synonymous with fun, safety, freedom, community and above all, a catalyst for change.
BodyTalk plans to take #10DaysofBodyTalk to at least 100 schools in three African countries (Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya) in the next 5 years. Our long-term goal is to build a Self-care social enterprise that embodies our values. Oh! And it’d be nice to pay our volunteers regular stipends for all their fantastic work!
Lastly, we would love to work with male experts to create a #10DaysofBodyTalk that can address the existing gap for mem.