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  • I cannot explain why the bare back of a big squirmy young horse in the middle of the night feels like the steadiest place in the world, but it does—it always does—though, I suspect it is because it gets me off the shaky earth and a little closer to Heaven, if only by 17.3 hands.

    Somehow, a horse between me and the earth fixes everything I find wrong with humanity, specifically on days like today.

    Rivaldo and I walked for a long time in the darkness. I never really need to worry about where we’re going, just as long as we are. He always seems to have a purpose in mind, and his determined walk and cocky colt-like swagger rocked me to stillness, and I just rested. My faithful dog, Gabriel (though not so faithful, as of late), trotted faithfully behind us, and even though it was incredibly dark, I caught him looking up at me, with his jaw opened to a smile, as if to say he was grateful I finally came to my senses and went for a ride. I was finally back. Back to myself, and that was all I needed to re-claim his loyalty.

    After a few times around the track, I wondered if Rivaldo and I might gallop, for a good run atop a horse usually cures my immediate impulse to run away from everything and everyone entirely. Rivaldo must have sensed my change in thought, and I felt him lift his shoulder to take a stride but it turned out to be that of a mere, and rather flat, lope. I suspect it was because he was carrying more weight than usual…there was me…plus the all the responsibility and stress and worry which almost pressed me into a mini meltdown in the checkout line at the grocery store less than an hour prior. I know how heavy that weight is…it’s as heavy as the world, so I didn’t dare push to tire him.

    A lope was just as well.

    I took great satisfaction wearing my worn out cowboy boots, my boy jeans, and an old flannel shirt. My hair was wild, per usual, and I could feel the grit on my face. It was gloriously warm out, and since winter almost froze me to death last year, I felt like I was spiting everything that has caused me grief lately: Man and Winter.

    We stood in the field for awhile, and though I felt weightless for the first time in months, I remained melancholy. I knew time was precious for I was asking Rivaldo to stand in an open field surrounded by dense woods in the middle of the night, which is basically a death trap to a wild horse, so I tried to soak in the thinning songs of the last marsh frogs and waterbugs of this year as fast as I could. I hate that winter takes the nighttime music away.

    Rivaldo impatiently pivoted directions beneath me and I instinctively shifted my focus to stay with him and found myself staring at nothing. The air stirred a bit, and for a moment, I could not remember if I was 27 or 80 (I just turned 26).

    For the last several weeks, I’ve had a ringing in my ears. A collaborative push…or perhaps a pull…a pressure from peers, strangers, friends…and worst of all…family, to “fit” into something that feels like treason.

    Or, in other words, it has been continually suggested I start wearing makeup, high heels, and/or consider the Malibu Barbie look on alternating Tuesdays, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but after surviving malaria, the flu, and not averaging more than 4 hours of sleep a night for months, it’s a big deal.

    Before I say ANYTHING else, I would like to say that first of all, I have nothing against makeup or dress-up, and as both an actor and a model, I am both paid and required to wear and do both. And I do both, gladly. The difference is that when I act or model, I am assuming a character, and when I am not acting or modeling, I’m just me.

    I hate it when the two are confused.

    Just me is a PhD student, a writer, and a farmgirl who shovels manure every day and stays up until 5am to finish her homework and promote her book to help the slum school she is unconditionally committed to in Kenya.

    In other words, if I’m lucky, I have time to take a shower every couple days.

    Makeup and dress-up, in my everyday life, is just not practical. And a farmgirl prides herself on being practical.

    However, even as a working model, I’ve been running into trouble and this is where my grief begins:

    If I had a dollar for every photographer that says “I love your earthy, organic look,” I wouldn’t have any student bills and Gabriel could live in his own mansion.

    I try not to take offense to this. I know “earthy, organic” is superfluous for “you look like a tomboy and I bet you’d make for an ironic photograph if I put you in a dress.”

    This summer, after driving ACROSS the state to get to her last-minute shoot in time, a widely-known North American photographer “complimented” me on my “working-class, blue-collar” looks and wanted to know if I descended from Appalachian coal miners because that’s the kind of cheekbones I have.

    I may have taken slight offense to that one, but usually, I don’t take offense to anything. In this business, you just have to stay humble and that includes accepting the fact that you wind up a lot of places where you’re treated like dirt. I’ve learned to play the photographer/casting director’s game where you’re basically sub-human and you’re everything they don’t want, but somehow they got stuck with you, and thanks to their amazing talent, vision, and photoshop skills, they’re going to turn you into a star for the day. And also not pay you, compensate you for gas, or feed you because models shouldn’t eat anyway.

    Sometimes, that’s just what it is. And then you learn to REALLY appreciate the directors and photographers and casting directors that treat you decently. And you work for them like you’ve never worked before. And then you remember why you love what you do.

    So anyway, these photographers come to me asking to do a shoot because of my Neanderthal features, or however they describe it, and what I really hate is when the originally staged “earthy, organic” shoot unexpectedly turns into high-fashion/high-concept out-of-the-blue and I’m asked, sometimes on the spot, how comfortable I am with nudity.

    I hate bringing men around the zebra because they all want to go on safari. And I hate being around these sorts of photographers because its like “let’s exploit the farmgirl.”

    I have little sisters, a nephew, a children’s book out, 300 students in Kenya, mothers, fathers, a conservative grandmother, the world’s greatest grandfather…and let’s not forget…self-respect, so no, I do not and will NEVER do or want to do anything that does not set a good example, even if you promise me “the photos will never end up online (oh yes, I’ve been told that, too).”

    I always state this standard pretty explicitly up-front, and in writing, because I do not like surprises anymore than the photographer does.

    So it KILLS me when these photographers spring the question on me again the day of the shoot, and then immediately get defensive when I yet again say no, which basically confirms the fact that they are, indeed, dirty old men in disguise. But from their perspective, I’m just difficult to work with.

    And if I get sent another raunchy portfolio seal that reads “there is no greater art form than the female body,” I am going to scream.

    NEWSFLASH: Noticeably insecure, non-professional models making doe eyes and duck lips in neon string bikinis (or worse, nothing at all) against a white backdrop that is the back wall of the staircase in your house is NOT art.

    These guys (and sometimes girls) also get offended when I tell them their inspiration board with the earth/wind/fire theme won’t work because MY horses do not walk through fire, specifically while I’m draped across their backs in heels. Also, the wild zebra cannot rear on command.

    I’m a total let-down, I know. A real horsewoman would probably be able to juggle AND have horses that can walk through fire. I mean, what’s the point of me having a zebra if he can’t do tricks and YOU can’t use him for your shoot, right?


    Also, this month, I’ve heard my fair share of words against women. They cheat. They make men’s lives miserable…on purpose. They’re crazy. They menstruate.

    That’s right, fellas. Hide your sons. There’s women running around, and they’re everywhere.

    I have a pretty big vocabulary, but I do not know what you call a man who cheats. A womanizer, maybe? I don’t think so. Because a man can be a womanizer without being in a relationship. Yet, I can think of at least five names—all slang—that a woman is called if she cheats…or even if she hasn’t, but a man suspects she has. An experienced woman is a condemned woman…but the same men who use these labels will also tease me on a regular basis for being so conservative…and being so conservative with relationships because that’s how I was raised and because I already respect the man I may one day marry. I get ostracized for being what they say is naïve. I cannot decide what it is they want and what it is they expect us to do, if they are going to make a woman feel ashamed either way.

    I told my sister the other day that I think the lean, un-curvy preference for American women/models these days is actually the typical male body. Lean, straight, and muscular. It’s just that Americans like this body type with an unnaturally large chest. What’s beautiful these days is not the natural curvy woman’s body…it’s a man’s body…with a woman’s chest.

    I’ve read a lot of articles on Facebook lately about how you’re not supposed to tell a little girl she’s beautiful because that cultivates vanity and low self-esteem.

    I completely disagree. Girls (and guys) need to be told they are beautiful. ALL OF THE TIME. But it’s not just about outer beauty, it’s about inner beauty, too. Do you read? I think you’re beautiful. Can you speak a second language? Gorgeous. Are you crazy-talented? I’ll probably melt around you, and I’ll let you know it. A wise and exceptional director I know once said that you are never more beautiful or sexy or captivating than when you are completely focused on someone else.

    He is spot-on.

    So, did you connect deeply enough with another today that you found something truly beautiful within them to complement?

    That is a beauty like no other.

    And if your kids hear about their multi-faceted beauty enough, they won’t need their superficial beauty chalked up when they’re older, so they won’t be needy around their partners or spouses or feel the need to take their clothes off for raunchy photographers in order to hear it from someone else. Anyone.

    There’s that saying…”well-behaved women rarely make history.”

    That’s not true. At least, not in the good-history sense. Off the top of my head, I can name more public female figures with DUIs or public displays of nudity/profanity than I can name notable female world-changing historical figures of the twenty-first century, which is terrible.

    What’s worse is that some men call those misbehaved women “hot” in front of their wives, which is incredibly degrading, but I can’t imagine a single one of those men would actually be secure enough to marry one of those other women…they just want to sleep with them.

    Sometimes I wonder if all guys truly believe they have a long line of sweat-pant loving, Star Wars-talking Brazilian models waiting for them. Why else would they so quickly cast aside the real, hard-working women I know myself and so many others to be that they have right in front of them?

    If I were to try to compete with this imposed expectation and theoretical line-up, this is what I’d have to do (some of these, I’ve literally been told I’d have to do if I wanted to be in a relationship):

    Muck stalls in high heels, have three hot gourmet meals ready and served in full make-up every day, keep a perfectly toned body but never order salads for dinner and learn to appreciate the midnight trips to Taco Bell, dress attractively—and maybe even seductively—but not in a way that would attract attention from other men, find those 4 extra hours once a week to straighten my hair for something “different,” learn how to tell a man he looks hot in pajamas a million different ways…because after all, there’s nothing more attractive than a man who wants me dressed up but opts for comfort for himself. Be independent and live my own life on all the days he’s not free. Go to school and be something that could support him if he decides he wants to be a rap star, but never let needing to study take away from the time he needs from me….so therefore, I should just give up sleep. Instinctively know he wants to be fawned over even when he pushes me away and does not instinctively know or care that I have had a long, hard day and want to at least be met halfway. Never forget to wear Gucci heels because moccasins would ruin his day. Nod my head and laugh every time he makes a comment about how women are crazy or emotional or tricksters or sleep around but then clap for his macho men friends that have been with a different woman every weekend since February. Be his mother, in addition to everything else.

    Ummm…yeah. I think I’ll take my chances with just the dogs and the horses for now.

    And so, it drives me up the wall when those who are particularly close to me suggest I join the club and add makeup, hair, and designer clothes to my personal repertoire, specifically when I go out for book readings or signings or lectures or networking. Because, just like the photographers and the men tell me, fake/plastic/unnatural glamour is BEAUTIFUL and it sells.

    I know where my family is coming from and that they mean well, but I can’t say the suggestion didn’t hurt me pretty deeply.

    It’s not because I’m lazy or don’t care or don’t want to be beautiful or have something against makeup. It’s because I feel most beautiful when I’m just me, and I don’t like being asked to be anyone else. It’s because I just got done mucking the barn, chased down the zebra who got loose (again), and barely made it in and out of the shower (which is actually a horse trough) in time to get to where I need to be to meet you or your daughter at her school. And also, it’s because I DO care. I care about being REAL, so that your kid will, too.

    I will look her in the eye and I will TELL her she’s beautiful because she reads and she asks questions. I will write her a note that encourages her to work hard in school, dream big, and follow her heart. If she likes horses, I’ll tell her to ride horses every chance she gets. If she says she wishes she had a dog or a pony, I’ll tell her to keep bugging you EVERY second of the day until you get her one or the other because those endeavors are worth her while and they will not betray her like her girlfriends in high school will.

    Maybe one day, I will wear makeup under my own free will, if only to hide the dark circles under my eyes in an attempt to not scare your kids away.

    But if I’m not wearing makeup and looking like a movie star…and I probably won’t be…it’s because I want your kid to read the book and then meet ME and not be confused. I want her to walk away knowing there is a way to have a voice and do something productive and creative WITHOUT needing to look like everyone else, strip like the girls she sees on TV, or re-cover the face, you, her mother, adores and that God gave her.

    So don’t punish or discourage her for being different. Help her be herself. Don’t help her “fit” in, unless you want a Hollywood diva for a daughter (maybe that persona is cute at home, but I can tell you from personal experience that it makes other people’s lives a living &*$% at school and work, so think of others before making this decision).

    Cultivate her differences because THOSE are what make her…HER. Those are what will help her make her own way in the world when she’s older. Take her to the bookstore and let her go crazy. Let her play the drums or dress up as Batman or play football or take ballet and karate at the same time.

    I don’t need the world to tell me I’m beautiful. I’m lucky because I have my Wazazi Wapendwa in Kenya, my granddad, and my close friends who truly know and love me for me and are quick to remind me all the time, even in my ugliest hours, that I am, indeed, beautiful. I thank God for those good men because the good ones in life are indispensable. We all NEED good men. And thank goodness for midnight rides, because tonight I could feel it…I could feel I was beautiful, even dressed like a drifter, because for the first time all day, no one was telling me what I should be. I was free to be me.

    Because Wonder Woman looks like Wonder Woman, you know? Not a trophy wife.

    And I know there will be some men who read this and will assume I don’t shave my legs or wear deodorant or who will call me a B*&%$ because I am calling them out, in particular, and I have something to say about it.

    So, to any MAN reading this AND thinking that…I just ask you this:

    If you have a girlfriend, a niece, a wife, or a daughter…or may one day have one of those…think of her. And think of the men like you she might encounter, who berate and belittle her and make her feel ashamed or like less of a woman because despite trying hard and trying to be herself, which is different than the line of Brazilian models you have convinced yourself are at your beck and call, she can’t quite compete with Malibu Barbie.

    And think of how you’d like her to think of herself and defend herself in front of those men…and ask if she’ll be able to run to you for encouragement and empowerment, or if she’ll be forced to surrender and think “all men are just like him.”

    Take it from a woman who knows the difference between the good and bad men…THOSE will be her options.

    So treat her wisely.

    Having a little extra respect (even if you think you’re already civilized) and female perspective won’t kill you.

    And to everyone else:

    Be bold. Be beautiful. Be yourself.
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