What I’ve Learned From the Paradoxical De-Sexualization of Women in Senegal

As I sit squashed next to a woman openly breast feeding her son in a sept place on my way to Joal, I think about the odd relationship between Senegalese society and women’s sexualisation.

On one hand, Senegal has progressed far beyond the U.S. in terms of public breastfeeding. Mothers can openly breastfeed anywhere in Senegal. And, amazingly, men are actually able to control themselves!! When I first arrived here it was odd to see women’s breasts everywhere I went. In the U.S. women’s bodies are so over-sexualized we feel the need to make special rooms for women to breastfeed or they have to find a private space to simply feed their child. The stigma against openly feeding your child boggles my mind. If you don’t breastfeed your child, you’re a bad parent because you’re not giving them the benefits of breastfeeding, but God forbid you breastfeed in public! Mothers in Senegal walk even around the house topless. The oddest thing about people’s irrational fear of breasts is that people are only uncomfortable when they see the nipple, the part both men and women have. That in and of itself shows the lack of sense around the sexualisation of women’s breasts.

However, on the other hand, because Senegal is 94% Muslim, women are often expected to dress modestly. The only time I feel comfortable wearing shorts is in my house. Most women wear full Senegalese outfits everyday. Even in the house, they will wear loose fitting dresses that go to their ankles. Some Muslim men won’t shake a woman’s hand because of a fear that they will become attracted to them if they touch them. And, as in other Muslim countries, many women choose to cover their hair when they leave the house. No woman I have talked to seems to feel this is oppressive, it’s simply the style of Senegalese dress and is a longstanding tradition of religion and culture. It can often be frustrating to me, however. There are many times when the heat reaches 107 degrees F that I wish I could be wearing shorts and a tank top instead of pants or a long skirt.

When we first arrived in Senegal we were amazed by what we thought really was the lack of sexualisation of women’s bodies. In some sense, that’s true. Women aren’t expected to look one way or another. Yes there are style trends, yes women like to look nice, yes there are famous women others see as beautiful, but over all Senegalese society sees beauty in many forms. One of the biggest examples of this we’ve seen has been women’s weight. In the U.S. women are constantly told to be beautiful means to be thin. But in Senegal, gaining weight is see as beautiful and healthy. In fact, our families will tell us to eat certain types of foods to get bigger butts. That is something we’ve learned, Senegalese people sure do like butts.

Living here has been a transformative experience for me in terms of body confidence. In the U.S. I was always surrounded by advertisements, friends and family telling me that being thin is what’s important. It was something I struggled with and oftentimes felt judged for. But here, I’ve learned to love my body. Sure, I have wide hips and a big butt and cellulite and I’d rather drink attaya then go for a run, but here that is beautiful.

I hope what I’ve learned to love about myself here stays with my in the U.S. because feeling beautiful as a women in the U.S. is not an easy feat. I hope every woman, and man, who reads this knows that they are beautiful in their own skin. Beauty is not a scale, it can’t be measured by your weight or your makeup brand or what clothes you choose to wear. Beauty comes when you see yourself as beautiful, I will always be thankful to Senegal for teaching me such an important lesson.

I hope someday the U.S. will be ready to progress to where Senegal is in terms of the sexualisation of women’s bodies. Yes we may be able to wear shorts and bikinis at the beach. But we are expected to look a very particular way while doing it. And for those of us who don’t meet society’s version of beautiful, it can be devastating to our self confidence. So while I continue to work on loving the skin I’m in, I’m sure of one thing… if I have kids I will feed them wherever I damn well please, and I’ll never forget the amazing women here who showed me that I am worth a million more things than just my body.



P.S. I’d like to say thank you to everyone who participated in a March For Our Lives march. I wish I could have been there to take part in this momentous time in history. Thank you all for not staying silent. #enoughisenough.