"Mummy, a girl at school said she wouldn't sit next to me because I'm not pretty. Is that true?"
I felt a kick in my stomach. I have been telling my daughter that she's beautiful "inside and out" since the day she could lift her head and look me in the eyes. I repeated those same words to her that day, when she came back from school feeling rejected by one of her classmates. Yet I couldn't help thinking I was a fraud. I have been telling my daughter she has to love herself when all I do is put myself down every day. Could it be that I have passed on my self-doubt to her?
As expected, the conversation soon turned to boys. I continued to reassure my eleven-year old girl that when the time comes she will find love if she loves herself. Yet self-doubt crept again in the back of my mind.
The only man who ever wrote me beautiful letters was my dad, when we first moved to the UK and he was stuck back home in the Somali civil war, may his soul rest in peace. But for years I joked that I could use a love letter from a man proclaiming undying devotion or saying he couldn't live without me. No such luck, unfortunately. Damn you, Disney cartoons, for making me believe in Prince Charming! I could sue you for emotional distress. Yet it dawned on me while chatting to my daughter that day, that I may be asking too much of Prince Charming if I can't love myself as much as I'd expect him to love me.
So I decided I should make the first step in proclaiming my love. Not towards Prince Charming, of course, but towards myself. Warning: if you have weak stomachs you might wish to stop reading now, in case my love letter induces feelings of nausea.
My dearest Leyla,
I hope my letter finds you well.
First and foremost, I want to apologise to you for always making you feel you are not smart enough, that you're not a good daughter, sister or friend and that you are a terrible mother who put her child at risk by speaking out against FGM. I would also like to apologise for constantly telling you that you are not beautiful and for sometimes telling you it would be better if you were not around because the pain and shame is too much to bear.
I'm writing this letter to tell you how much I love you and that I'm extremely proud of you. You are here for a reason. It is ok if you can't always be the perfect mum, sister, friend or colleague. You are at your best when you allow yourself to be vulnerable around those who love you. I know that at times you don't notice the amount of love around you, but I'm proud of you for seeking therapy when the world didn't make sense and everything turned dark and lonely. Leyla, you survived FGM, moved to the UK at the age of twelve without speaking a word of English and now you are writing a blog for the Huffington Post. The Dahlia project was your dream and you have made it come true. You are providing a safe space for women like you who survived FGM, a place where they can share their most painful experiences. I wanted to tell you that you need to be as kind and generous to yourself as you are to others.
As I end this letter, I want to remind you that since the release of your documentary The Cruel Cut you have received endless emails, tweets and Facebook messages from strangers who told you that they love and admire you. The messages of love have completely obscured everything negative. This may be the first love letter from me but you have received many already. All you need to do is accept the love you are being showered with.
Lots of love,
P.s. I will write to you very soon.
Ok, you can take your heads out of the buckets. This is the scariest blog I've ever written so please be gentle with your responses! I hope my letter inspires many to do the same and if you wish to share it with me, I would love to hear from you. This is my direct email address firstname.lastname@example.org
2014 will be the year of acceptance, love (and hopefully some much-needed lust) but most importantly recognising my Prince Charming may come in a different form.
Here's a link to The Cruel Cut
And sign this very important petition and help #stopfgm
Follow Leyla Hussein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/leylahussein