Episode 17: Fatu Sillah - How'd you learn to love your body?
Updated: Jan 19
Delighted to share the next conversation on the subject of learning to loving our bodies. This week we chat with the brilliant and beautiful Fatu Sillah. Fatu lives in Sydney and works as a social worker, supporting young people who have been in social care. She grew up in a number of African nations after her family had to leave her birth place, Sierra Leone when she was young. She moved to Australia in 2004 at the age of 13 and she’s been largely independent from there.
Fatu Is An Incredible Woman
And my goodness she has lived and learned a lot. She is everything I would wish for in an Aunty and I am so excited to share our conversation with you
She is unflinchingly honest about her experiences
Proud of her achievements
Breaking generational and cultural barriers
Real fragile and vulnerable
A little bit sweary (beware)
Distinctively and impressively her own woman
Full of joy and illuminated from within
Fatu’s really well acquainted with the way random chance can change your life and she has an internal motivation to thrive, in spite of what anyone else may say or think about her.
Please excuse my gravelly voice I was in the depths of a cold when i recorded the introduction. It’s short and sweet, so you can get onto the main event and hear more of Fatu’s story.
Fatu is a survivor of FGM and an ambassador for No FGM Australia. You should be aware that she speaks frankly about her experiences and that means some discussion of sexuality and the body parts involved as well as a bit of strong language. It’s a bloody cracking show, that has me laughing and crying and feeling fired up every time I listen. I know you will get a lot out of it. Can't wait to hear what you think in the comments.
That’s what you need to be - Growing up in the Ivory Coast social norms for beauty are super different to those in ‘the west’. In the West Africa Fatu grew up in, womanhood and beauty was very much about looking plump and healthy. So that’s what young women were conditioned to be, because that’s what men were looking for in a wife.
We connect on these cultural norms, which also prevail in my community in Belize among my people who are the descendants of West African’s taken as slaves.
Isn't it fascinating how culture persists, that’s how important it is to us. Governing even things as personal as our relationship with our own bodies.
Coming to Australia - Culture shock and mind body separation - “My body was the last thing i thought of... but then it's the first thing, because you stand out and you feel insecure...
Can I ever breathe?” Fatu
Do you remember the bizarre feeling of living in your body at 13? Fatu experienced all of that while learning a new country and culture. Most of the time she was trying to simply survive and that threw up a strange situation where her body was both a focal point for other people and the least of her problems.
That’s something that really struck home, what you want/need to focus on is often miles away from what the world’s projections about your body will demand. So many women are faced with that conflict and want to simply fade from view. Fatu speaks so candidly about taking steps to try to erase her difference, just to buy herself enough space to think.
“I learned to ignore my own feelings at the age of 13/14 to adulthood… now” Fatu
Attraction & Objectification - “Everything about your body is something that someone else has projected onto you - all you are doing is processing” Shantel
“At home - you’re being told what your body should be…”
“In Australia - there's an entire different set of standards projected onto you…”
“A waste of time a waste of energy and exhaustion...”
“I woke up one day and thought I am beautiful as I am”
Colourism Is Often An Inside Job - I guess this was a conversation about intergenerational trauma. How families pass on harmful norms because that’s what they inherited and how Fatu has learned to view those people in her own life with compassion. Yet she speaks out, so those beliefs are not passed on to the next generation.
A beautiful discussion and especially powerful considering the depth of experiences that Fatu has had to reconcile.
Owning Her Narrative and Feeling at Home in Her Body - It’s “me and my thoughts fighting every day” Fatu
“I don't get angry anymore. It’s part of me I’m going to embrace it”
Being honest about her experience with FGM and it’s impact on her life and health was a risky choice that must have taken a lot of courage. It’s transformed Fatu’s relationship with her sexuality and body image. To own our stories we must be comfortable with the way they are carried in our bodies. She owns her scars and is proud to stand out and revel in her freedom. Pink braids, shining skin, short skirt and no bra. As free if she wants to be. All I can say is Bravo Sis, you deserve every f-ing bit of it.
We all do.
Shantel: 00:01 Hey Aunty! is based in Melbourne, Australia. We acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we live and work, the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respect to their elders past, present, and emerging, and we extend that respect to all Indigenous Australians, and all First Nations mob everywhere. There you are. I've been expecting you. I've just popped the kettle on. Come on in.
Speaker 2: 00:30 Hey Aunty.
Speaker 3: 00:34 Hey Aunty.
Speaker 4: 00:36 Hey Aunty.
Speaker 5: 00:37 Hey Aunty.
Speaker 6: 00:39 Hey Aunty.
Shantel: 00:40 Hey Aunty. How'd you learn to love your body? Hi, and welcome to Hey Aunty! I'm Shantel Wetherall. Thank you for joining us. It's such a pleasure to be back with you, continuing our mission to listen to Black women, with more conversations reflecting our brilliance and diversity, showing that there's millions of ways to be magical.
Shantel: 01:26 Fatu came to Australia from Sierra Leone at the age of 13. She was basically by herself, and you can imagine that she faced plenty of challenges. But she is incredibly resilient, bright, and beautiful, and she has molded an incredible life for herself, where she now helps to mentor other young people as a social worker. She's also a really active and fearless campaigner against FGM in Australia.
Shantel: 01:57 I love this conversation with Fatu. She gets really real about the challenges of going through all of those usual teenage things, with all of these additional things on her plate. It was really moving, sometimes funny, and basically incredibly life-affirming. Thank you Fatu. Take a listen.
Shantel: 02:26 So you live and work in Sydney. What do you do Fatu?
Fatu: 02:31 I'm a social worker. I just finished my degree, so I'm also working in the sector.
Shantel: 02:36 Amazing. And so, you live and work in Sydney, you work in social work, you do a lot of advocacy work. I've seen loads of beautiful things you do online. But you weren't born in Sydney. Where did you grow up?
Fatu: 02:52 I grew up everywhere in Africa. So I grew up in Côte d'Ivoire, and I also grew up in Guinea with my mom, and in Côte d'Ivoire with my stepsister.
Shantel: 03:02 And so, Côte d'Ivoire is where people who don't have a beautiful accent like you would describe as the Ivory Coast, is that right?
Fatu: 03:10 Yes, yes, that's correct. That's French term for it.
Shantel: 03:15 I love the way you say that. That is gorgeous. So growing up around Africa with your mom, this show is Hey Aunty! How did you learn to love your body? And so I wonder growing up in that environment, what were the sort of cultural messages you received about femininity, and beauty, and women's bodies?
Fatu: 03:40 Growing up in Africa, surrounding with women, I feel like I grew up learning that in Western world compared to where I grew up, it was like skinny was kind of ugly. You have to have a bit of fat in you for you to be more womanly, and then for you to be attractive. It was more like that, you know what I mean?
Shantel: 03:59 Yeah. We've got that too. So my family is from Belize in Central America. And I grew up in the UK, but we were also of West African ancestry. And it's so funny how that kind of translates, because in Belize, the beauty ideal ... I'm a good Size 14, a generous Size 14. And so I'm considered very curvy in Australia. But when I go back to Belize, I'm actually too skinny to be attractive.
Fatu: 04:34 Yeah, that's me. Growing up, I was made fun of by my cousins, and they were like, "No one's going to marry you. You're too skinny." I felt like as a young person, as a young female at the time, where I was unaware of things that was happening around me. It just felt like there was so much pressure to eat more food and to gain more weight, and then to be attractive. Because once you hit your puberty, you're so ready to get married. It was kind of like that pressure.
Fatu: 05:04 As a child in that mindframe, in that environment, you're pressuring yourself to grow into this woman that you're not, because of the pressure of the society, and then the people around you like your aunties, and your grandmother, and the men around you as well. Because that was more [inaudible 00:05:24] and then that's what men go for. Because once you hit 15, you're ready for marriage, and you have your period, that's it, we're going to get you married. And with you being skinny like this, no men want to marry you, because it's considered sick as well, which is kind of like gross.
Shantel: 05:40 Right. So it's like you look sickly, you don't look healthy?
Fatu: 05:45 No, not at all. Yeah. It's just like that. No one wants to get that anorexic person, because they're sick. You need to eat more food. So you're literally forced to eat food even though you're not wanting to eat food. But because of that pressure, and you know no better whatsoever, because everyone that you're surrounded ... You're surrounded with...
Shantel: 06:04 Interesting. Wow, when I was back home in Belize, I heard the phrase for the first time, the way they describe the really desirable female body shape is I think a very West African kind of female body shape. And it's like a really solid woman, a woman who's real curvy and solid, and looks like she could have a lot of kids, and be strong and help around the house, I guess. Be a strong support and partner. They say, "Look at that," they might be referring to a woman walking past on the street and saying how beautiful she was, and they would say, "Look at that gal, that healthy gal," you know?
Fatu: 06:50 Yes, yes. That's exactly right. That's exactly ... And they would point at the person and be like, "That's what you need to be." And you're like, "What? That?" But that was considered as healthy, and even though it wasn't.
Shantel: 07:03 Yeah. Wow. Or it might be healthy but not for you, because you're naturally very slim.
Fatu: 07:10 Exactly right, and you're pressured into doing this thing where you eat to the point where your body can't take it anymore, and you start puking, and you're just like, "What the hell?" And then coming to Western world, it's completely opposite, and I'm just like, "Everything that I've been taught in my life is a fucking lie. It's just not the right thing," you know what I mean?
Shantel: 07:30 Yeah, wow, what a contrast. How hold were you when you moved to Australia?
Fatu: 07:36 I was 13 years old when I moved to Australia. That was 2004.
Shantel: 07:40 2004. And am I right in my understanding that you moved here on your own independently?
Fatu: 07:48 I came here with a refugee humanitarian visa when Australians were taking refugees from Sierra Leone. So I meant to actually come with my family, my brother and my uncle, but they were not available at the time of the ... I always say, I'm the middle child, and no one likes me, and no one loves me, so I'm just stuck in the middle. So I have the middle child syndrome. That's what I always said to myself.
Fatu: 08:15 So when the opportunity came over, and my mom actually did this paperwork, the whole story was like, a guy came over one day, and I remember sitting there because I'm [inaudible 00:08:25]. The guy was like, "Hey, I have application to go to Australia, the refugee application. With $50, give to me and I'll sell it to you." So my mom bought the paperwork, not knowing if it was legitimate or not, and then applied for ... put my name and my brother's name, and my uncle's name in it, and my ... Because she didn't know that it was legit. And then they sent it to the refugee camp.
Fatu: 08:51 Fast-forward to one year later, and the same guy came back and said, "Hey, you guys have been approved to go for interview for the spot to go to Australia." It turns out no one ... My brother was in Sierra Leone, like I said, they always traveled with my mom and my sister, and I was the one that was in Guinea at the time, and I just end up going to the interview with my uncle, my mom's brother. Another boy replaced my brother who was not my brother, because with the refugee paper, pretty much anyone can replace somebody.
Fatu: 09:21 So he end up buying the space. So we came to Australia together. So technically, I came with my uncle. The reason why I say I came by myself is because I haven't associated with my uncle pretty much, because he neglected me at the age of 13. So I don't do anything with him. We came together, but I have not seen him for as long as I've been in Australia, pretty much.
Shantel: 09:45 Wow. So you are ... You're a 13-year-old girl, you've grown up with your mom and your family, and a very African cultural upbringing, lots of messages around what femininity is, what beauty is, what your body should look like, and some of them good, some of them not so good. And all of a sudden, you're in Australia, and all the messages are completely different.
Fatu: 10:19 Oh my God, it's culture shock, absolutely culture shock. You need to actually relearn how to reset your whole learning, your whole brain, and then switch it. It's like a 180 turn where you're like, one minute I'm in Africa where I'm taught to do this and do this, and the next minute I'm in Australia where I have to find self-love, self-confidence, and then try to belong at the same time, and find that sense of security where I feel safe.
Fatu: 10:47 It's just like, as a 13-year-old girl, I feel like it's absolutely culture shock. You're in a place where you have no family, and then your uncle who absolutely has a mind of his own. And it's just like, what am I going to do to survive? What am I going to do to look after myself as a person, as a 13-year-old girl? You know what I mean?
Shantel: 11:07 Absolutely. Absolutely. I can imagine. Wow, that is a huge challenge. And at 13, let's be really honest, I think about myself at 13, and that's a huge amount that you had going on in your external world. But when I think about my internal world at 13, I was getting my period, my body was changing, I was a 13-year-old Black girl, surrounded by white people. And all of a sudden, my little beanpole body started transforming, and I started getting these wide hips, and big thighs, and all of this stuff started happening, and I was like, "Holy smokes."
Shantel: 11:58 You're going through puberty, to some extent you're becoming a woman. And that journey into womanhood is tumultuous at the best of times, without also having to navigate all of that new cultural stuff around becoming a woman. And becoming a woman in your culture includes a lot of other things as well. Could you speak to that at all?
Fatu: 12:25 Definitely. Like you were saying, you figure in your mind you knew that your body is turning into something else, and you're growing up into a woman. For me at that age of 13, I swear to God, I wasn't even thinking about that. I feel like my body was 13, but my mind was turning ... I feel like I was in a survival mode, trying to survive in a world where I have never been before, and I didn't even know it existed within three months before coming here.
Fatu: 12:53 I think for me, that was out of my mind. I didn't even care about my own body. But at the same time, you see people around where you walk around the street, and straightaway people start ... I feel like at some point I felt like an object where people would say, "Oh my God, you have big lips." And I have big lips. Back home it was like, you have big lips, it was made fun of. Your long lips, and you're calling name with your lips. And then here people are admiring your lips. It's kind of like, what is accepting?
Fatu: 13:29 A mouth mine is so used to being my lips. I hated it because I felt like, oh it's too big for my side. When I have money I'm going to do surgery to make it a bit smaller. And then I come into a country where ... Yeah. So these are the things that I went through back home. And coming here, I'm skinny, that's acceptable in Australia, I have big lips that men find that very attractive. But attractive where they find it sexually attractive, you know what I mean, like I want to use your lips, or want you to do this thing. It's just objectifying a woman.
Shantel: 14:02 So true, because either at home where you are being told what your body should look like, which doesn't suit your body, or let alone thinking about what your spirit wants. Then you come to Australia, and it's like a whole other set of standards, and people's desires, and thoughts being projected onto you. And as you say, where you feel like an object, because it's like, where is there room for me to own my body?
Shantel: 14:37 And I'm really interested in what you said about your body just wasn't even part of what you could think about, because I can really relate to that. And I think that that is a very common experience for women and for women of colour especially, because of that need for us to survive so much in the circumstances that we're in sometimes, that we sometimes have to almost divorce ourselves from our body and our physical needs, and our physical ... You know?
Fatu: 15:14 Yeah, I agree. Absolutely. Absolutely. My body was the last thing that I thought of at that time. But at the same time, it's the first thing you think of because you go to school with a whole [inaudible 00:15:28] people, whole school full of white people, and then you stand out, like the first thing you do around, you stand out, and you'd be so insecure because you just don't know, "Are they looking at me because I'm weird? Are they looking at me because my hair is kinky? Are they looking at me because of what I'm wearing?" You know what I mean, you feel insecure because you're like, "Oh my God, where is this place? What is this place? Can I ever breathe?"
Fatu: 15:53 I learned to grow up quicker than I expected. I learned to ignore my own feelings. I learned to just avoid anything that has to do with me thinking about it, and then thinking that it's happening. To just taught myself that, at the age of 13 to 14, all the way to adulthood now, it's kind of sad at the same time because I should never be able to feel that way. I should be in a place and feel proud of who I am.
Fatu: 16:23 I used to bleach my skin at that time as well, because I felt like that was the only way that I can survive in a world where white was considered as pretty. Because at least I got in the room, I don't have to be looked at, or at least I have a bit of a skin tone there. I go to the shop when I get paid, with CentreLink money and be like, "Okay, I'm going to buy some cream." And then it's so expensive. But you feel like that's the beauty, and you're like, "Oh money, it's worth it. I'm going to buy a tube and I'm going to make it with [brand name] and that's the best cream.
Fatu: 16:57 And you go there, these African women, they're selling it to you. They're like, "Yeah, you mix it up with this, and use this soap to wash your skin." And it's just been part of the norm. It feels like it's normal because people that are meant to tell you, "You know, you shouldn't do that." But they're the one that's selling it as well. And then maybe they're right. Maybe the people that are telling me I'm too dark, or when I go in a room and stand out, maybe that's the norm. That's what they're taught to be beautiful, like a whiter skin, or lighter skin, you know?
Fatu: 17:29 So I used to literally waste my money on the beauty product of bleaching. And then, just do random stuff to my skin, and my skin was like ... You could tell my knuckles was darker, I can feel it in my face, really white. And I knew it was not right, because I felt like this is not me, but at the same time I thought, "This is pretty," because at the same time you're getting compliments from people, "Oh your skin is looking really good. What cream you using?" And those sort of compliments, you think it's positive, but it's actually negative.
Shantel: 18:00 It's so hard. I really hear you, and I can really relate to the idea that you're in circumstances where actually being self-possessed, and empowered, and girl power where I own my body, is really the last thing that you've got space to develop. And instead what you're doing is you're moving through space as a young woman in your teens, and everything about your body is something that somebody else is projecting unto you. They are naming whether it's good or it's bad, or whether it's normal, or whether you're within the norm, or whether you're outside the norm. And so, all you're doing is processing all of these external messages. And frankly, it's almost like ... I remember feeling that I would do anything just to not be an outlier anymore.
Fatu: 19:02 That's exactly with me.
Shantel: 19:03 You know? I would do anything so that I could just fade into the background. And I remember, I'm going to ... Just between us, I'm going to send you a picture after we stop talking, of the way I used to do my hair when I was growing up. My high school friends were either really great friends, or really terrible friends. Because I had some really, really bad straight weaves that I was wearing, because I was just desperate to look like the other girls, and they were not fooling anyone, and they were awful. But it was just an expression of just wanting to erase my difference. So I can so relate to what you're saying.
Fatu: 19:49 It's so sad, because you don't even get to know who you are. My whole childhood, I tried to figure out who I am, but I didn't even get that chance. And it's what people's perspective was, that was the most important thing. And it shouldn't be, you know what I mean? It's what your perspective is as a person. But we're just told in a world where, "If you're not white, you're not beautiful. If your hair is not silk, it's not beautiful." It's so much questions of, "Why is your hair this way today, and why is your hair this way tomorrow?"
Fatu: 20:25 It's just that question that constantly you have to answer to. Even you told me yesterday that, "Yeah, I do my hair every day differently," but it's still the same question, and you get sick and tired of talking about it. Even today I still talk about my hair. And hair is something that I feel so connected to, because I feel like, this is who I am. I'm going to embrace it, and I'm going to do whatever I want to do with it, and then stand out and be my own unique.
Shantel: 20:52 Yeah, I really hear you. I really hear you. Because it should actually be your pride. It should be a source of pride. And now I can see you, and I see the pride you take, and you're such a proud individual. You have beautiful, beautiful complexion, and you embrace it, and you're such a stunning woman.
Fatu: 21:16 Thanks.
Shantel: 21:17 When I look back at pictures of myself when I was 15 and 16, I was beautiful. But I never felt beautiful. And it's such a waste, because the mental space that was taken up trying to change my body ... I wasn't thinking about being creative, or joining this team. I was wasting energy on that when I could have been doing things that were just so much more fun.
Fatu: 21:54 I know. I know. It just waste of time, waste of energy, and exhaustion. I literally just woke up one day and then told myself, "You're beautiful the way you are." Thank God, it was so expensive, it made me even go broke. I'm like, "You know what? I don't have the money for it." Thank God I didn't have that much money that time anyway. That made me even encourage me more to stop, because I was wearing short skirts ...
Fatu: 22:14 I was embarrassed because there was patches on your skin where one place is white, one place is dark. Your knuckles are dark, and this and that. And I'm like, "I'm not even being able to express myself how I should when I wear clothes." Because I feel like if people are going to be asking me, "Why is your skin white?" And white people, they're straight up. They'll be like, "Why is your knuckle darker than your other hand?" You know what I mean?
Shantel: 22:38 Oh yeah, they're curious. They're going to ask those questions.
Fatu: 22:42 Exactly. And I'm just like ... One day I went home and I'm just like, "Nah, I'm not doing it anymore." And I just went to the pharmacy, I just go with this QV cream. It's just not a cream, it's just this lotion that babies use, and I literally just been using this like body wash until today, because I'm just like, "I'm beautiful who I am. My skin tone, I need to embrace it."
Shantel: 23:02 Wow.
Fatu: 23:03 I don't care what people think about me. It's what I think of myself that's important. And I should use my energy elsewhere where I can just work toward my future, work to help other people, and that's what's important. Your opinion does not matter to me. It's your judgments, that's your perspective. You don't know me. It's your bad luck if you don't even talk to me because of my skin colour, or to make me even feel insecure.
Shantel: 23:28 I love that. But it takes a lot of strength. Because I'm thinking about the people who ... The colourism thing, being a dark-skinned Black woman, I feel like I got more messages about not being beautiful because of my dark skin from people within the Black community in my family even, than from anybody outside. So to have the strength to push back ...
Shantel: 23:55 I remember being told my relatives, "Don't wear dark colours. Your skin is dark enough already. Why do you want to be so dark when you're already dark?" You know, when you're a little kid, stuff like that really sticks with you. And so, for you to find a place where you're like, "No man, this is a waste of time, and money, and energy." It takes a huge amount of internal strength.
Fatu: 24:23 It does. And I feel like for the family perspective as well, I feel that they don't know better as well. They're growing up as well, they've been taught to hate their own skin, and they've passed that on to us, and they tell us the same thing that they've been told before. So I feel like it's a time to say to them, "No, you should never feel embarrassed of your skin tone. Thank you for telling me that all that year, but now I'm just finding out who I am. And my skin is just beautiful as it is."
Shantel: 24:47 It is beautiful.
Fatu: 24:52 It's just that. And it's something I honestly don't blame people, older generation in Africa or my family. I know they did what they had to do. But at the same time, they were not taught any better.
Shantel: 25:02 True.
Fatu: 25:02 They were taught to hate their skin as well, and then they're passing that on us, and it's just a shame, because if they ... People know if they tell you, you're elderly, "Oh this is bad," they're going to come back and tell they're grandkids, "This is bad." But instead, they don't do that. They just tell them, "White is better. White is this." And they pass that onto us, and it's so sad, because you know how it is. Black people are just dirty, and that's the stigma and stereotype around it.
Shantel: 25:27 Yeah, it's amazing how we kind of have internalised the anti-Blackness that has been put on us. And I think the people in my life who have given me those messages, I love what you say, I don't blame them because I know it's what was indoctrinated into them. And I know that when they are trying to make me be different, it's because they wanted me to be happy and be safe. And so I don't resent them. But you've had to have a lot of strength to get over a lot of things. But where do you think you found the strength to really resist and be the one who said, "No, I'm okay as I am."
Fatu: 26:11 To be honest, I don't know. I just don't know. There's a lot of things within myself, I feel like I have a lot of courage within myself where if it does not serve me right, I move on from it. And if it does not make me feel good about it, I don't do it. And I feel like I have that energy within myself where I'm quick to switch, I'm quick to figure out what's best for me.
Fatu: 26:37 I will get advice from people that I care about, that cares about me. But at the end of the day, it's up to me to decide what I want to do, and what I want to overcome. Everything that I have overcome in my life, it's me reflecting on my own and saying, "Do you want to share that, or do you want to really move on from that?" Or, "How are you going to overcome this?" There's so many things in my life where it's just me telling myself.
Fatu: 27:02 Because growing up, I was told so many things that it's just disgusting that I didn't turn out any other way, you know what I mean? I woke up one day, I'm like, "I'm tired of being people's puppet. I'm tired of hating myself. I'm tired of all this negativity around me. I'm tired of people telling me, 'You're so illiterate. You can't do anything for yourself. You can't do studies, you can't do anything, you'll be worthless.'" I was tired of it.
Fatu: 27:27 A lot of the time I said to myself, "You don't need to prove people wrong." But it was kind of like a motivation for me to say, "No. You don't want to help me or you don't want to see me succeed, or you don't want me to love myself. I'm going to do it anyway without your help." So it was those things that gave me the courage. I don't think it was anything else. It was just me waking up every morning, I'm like, "I'm going to do better today." You know?
Fatu: 27:52 I can't fix that situation, I have no control over that situation, so I'm going to let that situation go. And I'm not going to let it bother me. Is there a solution for it? Yes? Then I'll go and fix it. But if there is no solution for it, I'll figure out another way. And half of the time that's what I've been doing. I can't think of something that will be like, "Oh, that's my motivation. Oh, that person was my motivation." I actually can't. It was just all determination of me saying that I'm not going to end up where I started.
Shantel: 28:19 Internal.
Fatu: 28:21 Yeah. It was just that. It pushed me through it. Not having family here, not having a role model or anything like that, it was just me and my thought, fighting together every day. Survive, and then to get off the street, and then doing things for myself. I had a hard time throughout my life, and I'm not going to lie. I'm sure I share that myself half the time on Instagram, and everywhere else. It was not an easy life.
Fatu: 28:47 I didn't have a role model, and high school was tough. It was bullying, and there was racial profiling, and there was neglect. No money, no lunch money. There's times that I used to stay around the shopping centres, or train station, asking for five cents to get home. I still have fines still today because I never used to buy train ticket because I didn't have money. But I still went to school until I finished Year 12, because I had to do that, and I didn't want to quit. So those things were the things that pushed me.
Shantel: 29:20 You are an incredible woman.
Fatu: 29:23 So yeah, these are my life. I never used to get along with my mom, and I still don't. So it was more, I can't go back where I started. Even when I used to live in Africa, I used to never see my mom, one day or two days. I just lived with my friend. I was more clever. I think people still laugh at me when I tell them, "Dude, I used to sell things at school because I didn't want to ask my mum for money, because I knew she wouldn't give it to me."
Fatu: 29:51 I used to make lollies for myself, I used to make milks for myself, put sugar in it, and then start selling it at school just to make my own money. I used to sell water on my head in the shopping centre to make money, just because I didn't want to ... Until the day that I came to Australia, I was doing those things. So I felt like I was that clever, that even at that age. That was like 10 years old, 11 years old. I was doing that for myself.
Shantel: 30:11 You had that hustle.
Fatu: 30:14 Yeah, I was hustling hard, because I'm just like, "You know what? I have to do it for myself." At that age, no one told me, "Do this, do this." I just saw people doing it, and I'm like, "Well if those kids can do it on the street, I can do it." So I would come home, put water in the bag, tie them up, put them in the fridge, let them cool down. After school I'd put at least ten heavy bags in my head and go outside and sell them. Literally, that's what I used to do, make my own money, and then survive.
Shantel: 30:39 So strong. You fought back against ... You've always had that hustle to survive, and that sense of independence, and that wish to prove people wrong. And it's really served you well. And I know that I've come across your name often in your incredible activism that you do as part of No FGM Australia. Even that is so courageous. How does an experience like that impact your body image as a young woman?
Fatu: 31:20 I think it impacts you massively, because FGM traditionally is known as when you get cut, mutilated, you're ready for marriage. Your body is not ... You're not labeled as a man, because you have a clitoris hanging off you. So once that clitoris is cut off, you're considered as a woman. So you have a secret society where you find that sense of belonging, and that's where men find you attractive.
Fatu: 31:50 So it's kind of like transitioning here, where I wasn't taught that that's not actually accurate. That's not true. Your body part belongs where they belong. No one should cut that off, and no one should make you feel less worth a woman than you are already. So, figuring out my own body growing up, and then going through emotions where I'm just so angry, and so upset as I grow up, where sexual conversation was something that I would never engage in because I felt like I can't relate, and I don't feel that kind of orgasm because I was mutilated.
Fatu: 32:27 And then that's what I was told growing up where it's like, it's all about men's pleasure. You don't feel anything. And then here it made me feel very insecure, and I was not talking about any to my sexual things to anyone. Because I was put down my friends as well where friends would be like, "You don't know anything about sex. Why are you engaging in sex? Your clitoris is cut off."
Fatu: 32:52 So that kind of made me go into a hole, where I'm like, "Oh my God, I can't get a break. So what am I going to do to overcome this stuff?" So that's when I went online and I started doing my research, because I was never told about human rights, about the mutilation, and to see this statistic out there where it was, at that time it was 180 million women were mutilated. And to now, it's 200 million. And then that gave me the motivation.
Fatu: 33:16 I'm like, "You know what? Since this is a stigma and taboo in my society, I'm going to make sure that this taboo is out. I don't care if someone's going to hurt me or not, but I'm sick and tired of being closed and then not be able to experience things, not be able to talk about my feelings or my body, how it is down there, or how I feel sexually as well. Maybe there's someone there that can relate to who I am, what they've been through as well."
Fatu: 33:44 And I think that gave me the confidence to speak about my experiences as an FGM survivor, and as a girl that was mutilated at six years old, where I didn't even know what my body was. And to growing up where you're figuring out all this part of your sensitive part, but you have no sensitive part, you know what I mean? So it kind of gave me such a strong courage to just go out there, speak my mind.
Fatu: 34:08 And I always say, I will speak from my perspective. I'm my own personal storyteller. What I say, it's coming from myself, what I experienced. I'm never going to speak on another woman's behalf, even though they've gone through FGM as well. Their experience might be different to mine. So I'm always going to speak from my experience. You can either like it or not like it.
Fatu: 34:27 And that's why I just decided, maybe that's a healing process for me as well, and at the same time it's time for me to go around asking, getting questions about my body. Why am I feeling this way? Is this related to this? You know? There's so many complications that come from FGM, and no one told me that. It was just that you're going to get married, and men is going to find you attractive, and you're going to be beautiful. And that's not what it is. That's definitely not what it is.
Shantel: 34:55 Wow. I hear you. I really hear you. I love the way that you own your story. There's a quote that I think I've mentioned before on the podcast from Audre Lorde, and she says, "Anything about me that I own cannot be used by others to shame and diminish me."
Fatu: 35:19 Definitely.
Shantel: 35:20 And I really hear that in your story. I've paraphrased that a bit, but I really hear the fact that you've come from this cultural context where there is this belief that this sort of rite of passage thing is important for you to become a woman, but ... Did you ... When you moved to Australia, even when you were up to the age of 13 in Africa, did you already feel that that wasn't right? Or was it the experience of coming to Australia that made ...
Fatu: 35:57 You know what? Now that you said that, I actually ... I knew that it wasn't right. But as a young woman living overseas in a country where FGM is condoned, your mom gone through it, your aunties gone through it, and the people around you have gone through it. It kind of become ... I want to say that it's kind of like a pressure for you as a six-year-old, you know, this thing is bad, but it's something that I have to go through. And then at the same time, you're always watching behind you to see who's going to cut you to go and get you mutilated.
Fatu: 36:34 But you know, it's scary at the same time because, there is such a stigma around women that are not mutilated, and then the society as well where women are mutilated belongs to. And then, you want to belong in that, because that's seen as cool, even though you know FGM is bad in your mind, as a young child you still want to belong. I don't know. We all crave for that sense of belonging.
Shantel: 36:58 We all crave it. We all crave it. It's the same reason why I was piercing my ears by myself with whatever I could find around with my friends. It's the same reason why young kids in Australia are tattooing their bodies themselves with their friends with Biro ink. It's all the same continuum, we all want to belong. So I hear that, I understand.
Fatu: 37:21 It's exactly like FGM as well. I knew it was wrong the second time when they tried to mutilate me. And I still have that scar for that, because I ran for my life. And this happened because they're not educated as well. They mutilated you once, and if you're not mutilated from that country of that town, no one know you're mutilated, you know what I mean? So they will still think you're young and your clitoris is growing, which means they will do it again. And I ran for my life.
Fatu: 37:49 Like every single time I see a scar on my ... I don't know, I've never seen this, but it's actually on my shoulder, and I only feel it, and I'm like, "That's because they are there, you run." Because you run for your life, because you didn't want to get mutilated, because you knew it was wrong at that time. And that was before I came to Australia. As a young person, why should I be running from people? Why should I be running from certain things if I knew it wasn't wrong, you know what I mean?
Shantel: 38:14 Yeah. Yeah, you knew.
Fatu: 38:16 But I felt the pain. I felt the pain, and I knew it was horrible. It took me six months to heal. And it was the most awful part of my growing, and I didn't have a six-year-old childhood. I didn't have a normal childhood where I'd be playing. But half of the time I was playing, I was crying, because I can't pee because of the pain that I'm going through. And for someone else try to do that the second time, and for me to run away with it, you know as a child, you know something is wrong.
Shantel: 38:44 Wow. So when you feel that scar, so when you get out of the shower ... I don't know about you, but when I get out of the shower, I feel like it's a real Black girl thing. There's about eight layers of moisturiser that needs to be put on my skin.
Fatu: 38:57 That's me.
Shantel: 38:58 That's how we glow so beautifully.
Fatu: 39:01 Yeah.
Shantel: 39:02 And so, when you run your hand over that shoulder where you have that scar from that private reminder, what do you feel now? Do you feel pride for resisting? What do you feel?
Fatu: 39:18 I feel pride, and I feel so much anger, because I feel like I should not have run. No one should have touched me in the first place, that's what I feel. You know what I mean? But then, I don't want to make excuses for them, but they were not taught to do anything. They're bored, they have nothing to do with their lives besides going around saying that, "Your clitoris, it doesn't belong there. We're going to cut it off."
Fatu: 39:43 I feel all those sense of mixed emotions. But I felt like at this stage of my life, I still feel it. It will have a quick reflection, then I'll move on quickly. Because I feel like I'm in control of my own life now. I'm not going to let that upset me any longer. I don't even know where those people are. So why should I let them control me, when I'm living my life, you know?
Shantel: 40:08 I love that. You feel in control of your body and your life now.
Fatu: 40:12 Yeah. Because I know that I'm safe. I know no one's going to do that to me. Yes, these scars are always going to be there to remind me. I still have the scars on my ankle where I was mutilated. I was trying to go pee, and I couldn't pee because it was so sore, and I fell over the stone, and I hit myself, my ankle was bleeding, and I had to get stitches done because I didn't want to pee, because it was painful.
Fatu: 40:34 And I had three wounds at the same time, clitoris being cut, having that pain, and then having that cut wound on your ankle at the same time. It was just awful thing, and I still have that scar until today, and I never used to wear short skirts because I'm like, it still reminds me. It still now does remind me, but I don't get angry anymore. I learned to get over it. I'm like, well it's just part of me now, I'm just going to embrace it, you know?
Shantel: 40:58 I love the way you embrace those parts of you, and that you're owning these parts of your story. Do you feel like maybe ... I have things, different life experience, but I feel like I can really hear and relate to what you're saying. Because there's things that I've experienced in my life that I kept secret for a long time, through shame. Because of that, they created a distance between me and my body.
Shantel: 41:29 And I feel like in some sort of really weird way that I don't quite understand yet, not keeping those secrets, either by telling particular people I trust, or by just really shouting it from the rooftops, telling the world. You're my Instagram friend, you've seen some of my posts. Whether it's about my mental health, or other things, has really helped me to feel less alienated from my body, like I can sit in it, because it's not causing me shame.
Fatu: 42:02 Yeah. I feel the same. I feel the same. I feel like I'm able to control what has happened, and then now able to embrace in it, and then talk about it openly with people, strangers, where I'm like, "I don't care. This is part of me, so you can know about it either way." You know? Getting connected to myself, getting connected to my body, and getting to know, okay, that's fine. That's what it is. It is what it is. You know what I mean?
Shantel: 42:30 Yeah. I think that what you said is so pertinent. It's like you said, you didn't like the scar on your ankle, or you were worried about strangers seeing that your knees were darker when you were bleaching. I really think you hit a very important point there which is that, I think what really alienates you from your body sometimes is the fear of other people's questions, whether they're real questions, or what their eyes will ask.
Fatu: 42:59 Yeah, I agree.
Shantel: 43:01 And when you are not afraid of those questions, because either you are being honest with yourself or owning the narrative that those scars show, or that my wide hips show, or that something about your body shows, that your difference shows, and you're not fearful, because you've taken possession of that narrative, then you can sit at home in your body, because it's like you don't feel like your body is going to betray you and open you up to that vulnerability of an awkward conversation that you can't handle.
Fatu: 43:36 Yes. I agree. I absolutely agree. And now I just walk around, if I can go around the shopping centre with my singlet, big open singlet, I will go there with no bras on. That's how much I don't care about what other people think of me. And I walk around with shorts on, I don't give a shit, because this is who I am, either like it or not. It's your problem, not my problem. I always say that. If someone call out a name on me, I'm like, "You don't know me." That's my whole go-to. I'm like, "You don't know me."
Fatu: 44:02 Because people that know me, they will never say those kind of words to me. So it doesn't going to either bother me. I'm like, "I'm not even going to see you again, so why should I let your cruel words hurt me? Why should I take that back home because of your insecurity, or because you don't want to see me wearing short stuff, and then put my skin out there like that? Oh, you don't want to see dark skin like that." You know what I mean? It it hasn't anything to do with me to do with me, so I'm always like, "You don't know me," that's my whole go-to. I'm like, "You don't know me."
Shantel: 44:27 I love that. That's such a great go-to. Because I heard somewhere, when somebody wants to be mean to you, it's like an act of rejecting you, because it's trying to say you don't belong. And she said one of the first things you should do, when they push that projectile towards you, it's almost like you hold up a ping-pong, like a table tennis racket, and you push it back towards them. You just refuse to accept it. You just go...
Fatu: 44:53 That's exactly.
Shantel: 44:54 You sent that over my way, and I'm just, boop, back to you, the negativity, boop, back to you. I'm not going to own it. I'm not going to collect it and internalise it. And that's what you're doing. You're just going, "You don't know me." Boom. Back to you. It's back in your court.
Fatu: 45:10 Yeah, that's exactly what I do, everything that I do with my life. If someone awful said to me, "Fuck you," this and that, or, "Why are you doing this?" I'm like, "You don't know me." [inaudible 00:45:18] awful stuff. Because I feel like that's more painful for them, because they want to see a reaction. And if you turn around and said to them, "I don't know you, you don't know me, so why should I let your cruel word hurt me? I'm going to go on my day, and whatever I need to do and do it. You're the one that's going to go home and say, 'Why didn't that person get upset?'" And they're pushing your own integrity and what you stand for in life.
Shantel: 45:43 Yes sis. And let nobody ever separate you from the joy of walking around without a bra on, right?
Fatu: 45:51 Oh my God. Do you know how free it is? If I can go around with no bra on, thank God my job allow me to be who I am. And I embrace that every single day. I'll go around workplace sometimes with my Africana hair tie, it's just who I am. Different hairstyle, I don't give a shit. I'm like, "This is who I am. You hired me, you hired my entire culture." I don't care, you know what I mean?
Shantel: 46:16 I love it.
Fatu: 46:17 It's freedom to be who I am, to embrace. So many years you guys told me to hate myself, so many years you guys told me this is not right. I'm like, nothing is fucking right. I'm going to do what I need to do to survive, and what makes me happy. So now, workplace people like, "Oh, we don't even know what you're going to come tomorrow." I'm like, "That's exactly my point. You never know what I'm going to be tomorrow, because that's who I am."
Shantel: 46:39 Keep an eye out.
Fatu: 46:39 And I think that's what always draws me back to braids, because I feel like braids I stand out more. And braids represent culture, braids represent who you are, where you come from. And that's why I'm always aiming to go that way, because I'm like, silk hair, extensions, straight hair, it's just always blending in. It's just blending in with what people think is beautiful. But my braids, you might not think it's beautiful, but it makes me stand out. It makes me have a conversation with people who want to know about different culture. It makes me be different, and that's what I like. I like being different in a world that's the same, you know?
Shantel: 47:14 Oh, sis. Sis. That is a word.
Fatu: 47:18 Sorry. So passionate.
Shantel: 47:22 I love that. I love that. I love it.
Fatu: 47:30 It's who I am.
Shantel: 47:32 And you slay those braids. Are they pink right now?
Fatu: 47:36 Yeah, they're pink now. I don't know what colour to put here, but I don't know. Winter is coming. Let's see.
Shantel: 47:44 I love it. You look beautiful.
Fatu: 47:47 Thanks.
Shantel: 47:48 Wow. What do you wish an aunty could have told you when you were younger about loving your body?
Fatu: 47:59 Aunty who told me, where whatever you want to wear, be who you want to be, wear your clothes how you want to wear it. Walk into a room, be confident, own your skin tone, and tell me, "Use shea butter and coconut oil," because that's what's best for your skin.
Shantel: 48:18 Word.
Fatu: 48:18 Don't tell me ... Yeah. And then don't tell me to go and buy cocoa butter, or Caro Light where that's beautiful, or tell me to dress, be conservative, where it's like now that you have your period you're going to get married. I heard that so many times. I want them to tell me, "Now that you have a period, you can do whatever you want to do. It's your body. This is what your body is going to turn into. Come to me and ask questions."
Fatu: 48:47 And be open-minded, there for me when I need to talk to them about certain topics. Not to push me to do things that I don't want to do, or not to make me feel like I'm an object of some kind of ... where people can come and beat and say, "Okay, you're ready for marriage now. Let's pay your bride price and get married." So that's what I wish that someone would have told me when I'm growing up. Tell me it's going to be hard, tell me it's going to be a hard world. You're going to be judged, you're going to be...
Fatu: 49:17 But these are the things that you want to do, to stay on top of things. And I should know. I would tell my grandkids, or I would tell my kids that. But I feel like I wish I should have been told that when I was growing up, because that would have given me a lot more confidence, and a lot more strength to deal with the world that I find myself in this country, which is the white world, white men's world, and it's just hard to navigate. Tell me how to navigate. I think that's the most important thing that I would ask for anyone that's my aunty, or a family friend, or whoever. It's just a massive part in Australia today or any country.
Shantel: 49:56 I love that. And do you know what's really beautiful Fatu? You just did that for someone.
Fatu: 50:04 Thank you. If I can inspire one person, I'm happy.
Shantel: 50:08 Nah, you just did that. Someone listening, you just said that word, and it reached them, and they're like, "Mmm. Yes."
Fatu: 50:17 I mean, we're beautiful. [inaudible 00:50:19] fuck. I wish someone would have told me earlier before, "Your skin tone is beautiful." I look at my skin tone. I don't wear makeup every day. I don't wear makeup. I hate makeup, matter of fact. I call my makeup three-step makeup, where I put foundation if I have to, and I put my powder, and I put my glasses back on, or I just spray on top of my makeup to just make it settle. That's it.
Fatu: 50:42 I go to work every day with my bare face. It's just who I am. You've got to deal with it. I don't need to please anyone. I wish people, aunties would have told us that, you don't need makeup to make you beautiful, or you don't need another colour to lighten your skin tone, and all those stuff, get your colour that makes your colour pops, that make you shine through the light. When the sun touch that skin, it just melts away.
Shantel: 51:08 Light on our skin. Light on our skin is magic, right?
Fatu: 51:11 Oh my God, it's fucking Black magic every day. But yeah.
Shantel: 51:17 I love that. I absolutely love that. Thank you so much Fatu. One of my favorite things about having a podcast called Hey Aunty! is keying into that iconic thing of Black aunties. Sometimes they're good, sometimes they use their powers for evil. But I think that as an aunty, I would describe myself as the loud cheering you on aunty. What sort of aunty was you, Fatu?
Fatu: 51:42 I'm very loud, I'm very abrupt. I'm just a loud person, caring human being. I'm the type of aunty where I would put someone's need before mine, and supportive of anyone that want to do good in this world, and try to navigate their way through it. I'm that type of aunty that would sit down and give you advice, and just help you through it. Help you navigate. Just while being still loud and while still being abrupt in a good way. Just being myself and not changing who I am to suit someone else's need.
Shantel: 52:21 You and me, we're in the same camp. We're in the same aunty camp.
Fatu: 52:25 I always get called out being loud. So, yeah, I'm loud. I can't speak quietly. No, it doesn't exist in my dictionary.
Shantel: 52:36 Fatu, it was so rad to talk to you.
Fatu: 52:38 You too, man. I had a blast.
Shantel: 52:45 Thank you very much to Fatu Sillah for that wonderful conversation. Hey Aunty! is produced by Michelle Macklem, Shantel Dubanuba, and me, Shantel Wetherall. Music in this episode is by Jason Price and Michelle Macklem. For more on the show you can visit heyauntypod.com. Follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We're just getting started with Season Two, but you can always go back and listen to the great conversations from Season One. More from us in a week.