Without This Woman, I'd Still Be Living Other People's Dreams For Me
I started wishing myself away in kindergarten. For an entire semester, I let my teacher and classmates call me "Za-hee-da" (it's "Zai-ee-da"). I wanted my classmates to like me, so I was polite. Nice girls didn't correct others when the names that their parents chose for them were mangled into a cacophony that could never come from love. Nice girls shrunk themselves. So I shrank.
Each day, after my mom dropped me off at school, I felt knots in my stomach. I knew who I was leaving behind: The girl who was outspoken; who loved books and sports equally; who was secretly mischievous; whose parents believed she was beautiful despite a mouthful of teeth gone wild.
My parents gave me my first and middle name because they wanted a daughter who was humble and regal. They wouldn't have even recognized the school version of me.
One day, the weight and guilt of being an imposter felt especially heavy. I decided to correct my teacher on the pronunciation of my name.
My 5-year-old body jolted with adrenaline. Most of the class had already bolted for recess, and my portly and rosy-cheeked teacher stood alone. I straightened my uniform skirt and wiped my sweaty palms on the pleats. My teacher greeted me, mispronouncing my name for the umpteenth time.
I don't remember how I corrected her. I only remember the mortified look on her face as her soft brown curls shook in embarrassment. She was so apologetic. I, on the other hand, was suddenly liberated, weightless, and felt like the queen of kindergarten.
That day, I redeemed myself to my unknowing parents and gave myself permission to start a new chapter as myself.
I wish I could say that from that day forward, I lived a more bold and confident life. But that's a lie.
I was 29 when my life as I knew it fell apart. It was the first time I had to sit down and understand how being selfless was destroying me.
While I usually credit my therapist (Dr. Meers, what's good!?) with helping me reckon with myself, there's another person who doesn't get her due: Oprah. On a lazy Sunday afternoon, I watched Oprah asking a spiritual guru who inspired them most. In true Oprah fashion, she then answered the question herself, telling the guru and the audience that you're doomed if you don't list yourself as your biggest influence.
Her words were a punch to the gut. I sank into the sofa and considered who my biggest influences had been. I had a long list — family and celebrities, mostly. And I was entirely absent.
I started researching my own life. I looked at old pictures, long-forgotten memories, embarrassing social media posts. I dug deep to remind myself what I had done with my time. The proud moments, the scary moments, the surprising moments.
Like in first grade, when I joined my school's gymnastics team and discovered that I could land a back-handspring. In eighth grade, I had a secret romance during my three-week trip to Japan. I chopped all of my hair off, twice: Once for a fresh start, once because I was bored. In college, I rode a motorbike through the savanna in Ghana. I joined a gospel choir as an agnostic.
The more I pored over my past, the more impressed I became with the fullness of my life. I saw myself in new ways: independent, creative, bold, complicated. After that, I slowly began to make time to do things that I loved, just because I loved them.
I fight to honor myself because that brave little girl with the crazy teeth deserves the hero I am becoming. I am Zahida: "Zai-ee-da." And you will pronounce it correctly.
Bustle's "Without This Woman" is a series of essays honoring the women who change — and challenge — us every day.