This is the sixth profile in our Society Nine Storytellers series where badass women in our community share their definitions of femininity, strength and empowerment and discuss what they fight for.
Have a story to tell? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org – tell us who you are, a little bit about your journey and what you fight for – in life and sport.
On the 9th of January, I gave my first TEDx talk. I was so excited about it that I danced onto the stage to the beat of African Skank. I danced so raucously that my microphone flew off and the team had to set me up again.
My talk was titled Women and Spaces and the theme of the night was ‘Owning My Destiny’.
My deal, the thing that keeps me up awake at night, the reason I have gotten into unsafe discussions with street molesters is SPACE. Space and my right to it. My right to own space with no fear, no favor.
I recognize three kinds of spaces. Public spaces, like streets; shared activity specific spaces, like gyms; and the most important kind-personal space. This is your body and the span of your aura. I just recently became a certified yoga trainer and it is still very fresh in my mind how your aura is the span of your limbs. This is the space that if nothing else, you have a right to by virtue of being born into the world.
Street molesters can’t have gotten that memo. These guys will whistle, kiss at and even fondle 13 year old girls in school uniform. So as a woman navigating Kampala or any other town in the world you will have people invading your space, your consciousness, your emotions using lecherous words and actions.
I first decided to embark on a fitness journey in 2012. I had an almost crippling fear of the men at the taxi and boda stages that surrounded my office because relentlessly, every day for months, they greeted me with hisses, wriggling tongues and leers and no reaction of mine ever made them stop. So when I decided to go running, this beaten up pair of Beats is what kept me going. And then one day I forgot them and had to run without. That was the day I ran towards a man who had yelled, “How is your vagina?” at me. I asked him to repeat himself. He didn’t.
Making a conscious decision to run every day ate away at my anxiety. I began to feel like I had a right to the space, the street, the tarmac on which I walked as I entered my office and as I left it every evening.
SHARED, ACTIVITY-SPECIFIC SPACES
Now that my anxiety about public spaces had abated, the universe said Oho, wait. You have two more tests. Let’s see how you deal with this shared space business.
During a mountain climb I broke my leg. So I chucked running out and decided to learn about strength training. I bought a membership at a gym, armed myself with Google as my personal trainer and limped in on my still healing leg.
I was using one of the machines, lifting nothing, 10kg maybe when a big man, dressed in baby blue gear from head to toe came and said, “Get the hell off the machine!” I was like, “What? Nah.“ He insisted and we got into a staring contest. He was shouting out of indignation that a woman could dare to stand her ground in such a male space. Clearly he thought I was just playing/wasting time. Screaming at me about how I was somehow being disrespectful, he lunged at me but I was too fast. He then tried to throw a dumbbell at my head. I won, because his conscience or something caught up with him and he stalked off, leaving me shaken and really afraid. I vowed then never to enter a gym unless it was my own.
This brings me to the third space, the most personal of spaces, the body. At the beginning of 2014, I opened up an exclusive women’s gym and a social media page to go with it (give it a like!)
We have expanded into creating personal safety curricula that are tailored to the lives of university, market and corporate women, but at the time it was just a gym with a tiny membership to whom I distributed herbs and homemade oils. The class I was most proud of hosting was self-defense, although I eventually had to sneak it into kickboxing, the more popular class.
Without intending to, I had become the unofficial leader of a fitness movement and this, as I found out, came with expectations.
From July to September I was part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young Africa Leaders which changed my living situation somewhat. I was living and studying in Indiana, trying very hard to remain plugged into my business back home. This is an experience that took me across the entire spectrum of existing emotions; emotions that I decided to deal with by running. The Notre Dame campus is beautiful and it was very good for my soul.
After a particularly long run, one gal asked me, gingerly, in her adorable French accent that may or may not have influenced my reaction. She asked, “How can somebody who exercises so much be so fat?”
The following week, I submitted a picture to a self-love campaign we were having on social media. I’d gained fat and in my caption I wrote about that, and also wrote about how intense I looked in my bikini. I was killin it!
Just a few minutes had passed before the body police came roaring in on big motorcycles of bigotry and horribleness. How dare I, the leader of a fitness movement, be so careless as to express self-love in the face of fatness? Unacceptable! Fat people must remain quiet and ashamed, right? Silly non-people!
It was silly and annoying but it brought to light how necessary it is to bring wellness into fitness spaces. It confirmed to me that even though my business wouldn’t grow as fast necessarily because of my refusal to fat-shame women into the gym, it would be worth more to reach the greatest amount of women – ALL women. We all fight for our right to be well – in heart, mind, body and soul.
You can be depressed and insane with abs so tight that they show through your shirt.
You can be depressed and insane with a belt of jiggle around your hips.
What we need to go for is mental, emotional and physiological wellness.
Most importantly, we cannot achieve wellness without safety. Without safety and without the confidence to demand safety; without the idea that we have a fighting chance in the face of legislatively sanctioned un-dressings of women, without complete ownership of our spaces, we aren’t living lives worth living.
Our bodies have to be dictatorships. They cannot be democracies where everybody has a say.
Our bodies deserve to own the ground beneath their feet.
Our bodies deserve to walk the streets unmolested.
Our bodies deserve our loving attention.
As one member of my conglomeration of besties said yesterday, “As women we are taught that our bodies are decorations, that we exist for the visual pleasure and ownership of others. BUT HEY! This is not a decoration. I live here!”
Mildred Apenyo is a writer and human rights activist with a passion for the safety and wellness of women based out of Kampala, Uganda. In 2014, she quit her career in advertising to start FitcliqueAfrica, a social enterprise that opens exclusively women’s gyms, creates personal safety curricula and promotes wellness through the distribution of herbs and herbal products.
She calls herself an accidental entrepreneur because according to her, “I had no idea that my activism, my feelings and protests would manifest as a business.” Mildred was one of the 500 chosen to be part of the inaugural class of the Mandela Washington Fellowship of Young African Leaders in 2014.
First photo by Darlene Komukama; second photo courtesy TEDxKampala; all other photos courtesy Mildred Apenyo