Meditations: On Self-ImageSaturday, August 01, 2015
On the nineteenth of September 2014 at 23:46 I began a rant on Twitter. It was just after reading Lisa Bloom’s article on how to talk to little girls. I read the article, able to understand theoretically but feeling entirely disconnected from why articles like hers are needed. I love Lisa's writing. I just couldn’t relate to the experience she was trying to avoid recreating.
My rant read as follows:
“I was raised to focus solely on my character and intelligence. That is what and all I was praised for. I was not actively taught that outward beauty or femininity is ‘stupid’ or ‘pathetic.’ But due to those elements of my identity being neglected, that is how I felt – my beauty and femininity were worth neither my parents’ time nor greater society’s, nor mine. To be honest, I still feel silly if I notice that I find some confidence in my outward appearance or how I express my womanhood. I censure those feelings almost immediately. It’s an odd internal conflict.” Then I fell asleep.
As a tween I never consciously regarded myself in terms of my image. If you had asked me to describe myself I would probably mention my favourite literary genre, the fact that I played the piano, and my ethnic heritage. Beauty was an awkward and unfamiliar terrain that I was not eager to cover, a field where I felt that I didn't belong. It was as though my own physicality were invisible to me. A dissociation, of sorts.
Yet like most other people, I had and still have insecurities; my broad shoulders, large feet, big hands, undefined lips; small breasts, then big breasts; a thigh gap, and later no thigh gap; lean legs, muscly legs, then later big thighs and thick calves; my height – which is now 6’1”; thick knees; uneven brows, strong cheekbones, unidentical eyes; big nostrils, gapped teeth, asymmetrical face; and my unequally cinched waistline. I didn’t deliberate on beauty yet all of those insecurities clearly demonstrate that consciously or not, I could definitely see my image and that I saw it through an unforgivingly critical lens.
I ask myself why I ever cast such a gaze. Where did I learn it from? Was it from a society that dictates at every opportunity how aspects of my physicality are essentially unfeminine? Not dainty enough, too big, too tall, too strong, too dark, too crooked, or outright brutish. “She should train with the f*cking men” after breaking a teammate’s personal best. “She’s a man.”
Was it from passing comments at home or in church that resonated and festered in my subconscious? “Don't grow too tall o, you won't find ozzband at this rate.” “Hmm, so you're ripe now” with an uncomfortable, sexually indicting but also sadistic glare. Or “you were so pretty when you were light.”
Was it from the loaded comments of strangers and friends? “I HATE tall girls.” “Oh, I knew you had something else in you!” Or the conceit that surpasses them all: “you have White features.” A sorry, shameless attempt to attribute what they find beautiful about me – typically my eyes or my hair – to an Other heritage (one which they would never have guessed, had I not disclosed it.) Because apparently Black, especially dark Black, cannot be beautiful on its own merits.
When I woke up on the morning of September twentieth, I felt I had to unpack the previous night’s tweets a little further. I continued:
“I was not mentally prepared to cope with becoming what society deems to be freakishly tall ‘for a woman.’ All of the attention I received for my height paralysed me. I shrunk myself as a person and tried to make myself inconspicuous in many ways. I gave up basketball, became even more reclusive, and actively avoided (group) photos. I did the bare minimum. All because I couldn’t cope with people’s attention and comments.”
I was not used to being engaged based on my likeness so naturally I was ill-equipped for the barrage of comments I would come to encounter. Before I could even reconcile what it means to be a girl or a woman, war was being waged on my femininity because of my appearance. My new curves meant that I became a ‘fast-tailed girl.’ Abruptly, I became desirable to increasingly strange men. Without warning, my change in complexion was declared a shame. All of these disorienting attacks have had lasting effects on my self-image, some of which persist.
When it comes to my complexion, it is not often that I place faith in compliments from non-Black people. Their seemingly innocuous comments like “chocolate goddess” or “cocoa” and “coffee” are not only banal, they have always had consumptive and commodifying undertones. That in a non-Black person’s imagination, my skin evokes foodstuffs does not flatter me; not when the desire of non-Black people for said foodstuffs has historically been the driving force behind the enslavement and exploitation of people who share my complexion. Especially not when it continues to be a driving force today. The ‘compliment’ is uncomfortable at best. In addition, I am still ill at ease with how my body is perceived socially. I'll admit that I more readily receive compliments regarding my figure from fellow women than I do from men. Why? Because when my height and/or shape is received with warmth by (straight) men, it is typically to re-assert power with statements like “I can handle you” by a man who thinks I’m a task to conquer or an inanimate object to control. Or the compliment is laced with exoticising comments like “African warrior princess” or “Amazon,” both of which dehumanise and make me out to be alien. White men, particularly white gay men, I'm looking fixedly at you. I’m aware that #NotAllMen. But enough of you to make me guarded.
Because of my unpreparedness and my Social Location, I still have difficulty navigating my Black, somewhat 'masculine-bodied’ (and at the same time hyper-sexualised) femininity. I exist where beauty is racially coded and the feminine body is prescribed in ways that provide presentations of white femininity as normative. A strict hegemony is therefore maintained on who gets the cishetpatriarchy privilege of being beautiful or who is seen as authentic; in the distribution of this privilege, Black women are typically shorthanded with misogynoir - the vertically and muscularly endowed among us, even more so. To me, the treatment of Serena Williams is painfully familiar.
Somehow it eluded me that I might find my experience reflected, with arguably more nuance, in the words of a Black Trans woman. This disillusion and slowness of mind is possibly a testament to my own exceptionalism. Still, Shaadi Devereaux’s essay on Black Womanhood Defined as Drag Performance was a cathartic and validating read, for me. I can remember my eyes growing wider with relief as I read each line. I'm not irrational! Someone knows this experience, someone else gets it! Figuratively, her essay helped me pry my eyes open and begin to truly see my image as beautiful. I think I would be hard pressed to find a Black femme woman - trans or cis - who was not enraptured and affirmed by the first four sentences.
You see, perhaps for girls like the one Lisa Bloom once was and the woman she is today - i.e. White ones - it isn't necessary to be told at a dinner party that you’re beautiful, to have your outer shell positively acknowledged. You wouldn’t be starved of confidence in your image without it. Mainstream media would always publish pictures that you could see yourself in. Rather than objectify, popular culture would more likely make a nuanced subject of those who look like you. People in nearly every sphere of your life would see you.
For the rest of us, “look at you. You are beautiful” can be important at home and in familiar company. It can provide us with words to speak in times when we are thrown a self-image curveball. It can be empowering. It can be edifying. I tweeted to this end as I rounded up my rant that morning on September twentieth:
“I don’t blame my parents for not wanting to rear a purely vain, vacuous child. But equally, there is a body that carries around the character they placed such a heavy emphasis on. There is a face that is judged before the brain has a chance to demonstrate its talent. If there is nothing at home to counter the incessant voices that say you are ‘less classically beautiful,’ it’s a doubly demoralising experience.”
So for the girl I was and for little or teenaged Black/ Other, possibly tall girls like her, I am very interested in talking about beauty and femininity on our own terms. I want to discuss the idea that yes, we are beautiful within, but equally, without. I am interested in talking to them in age appropriate ways about their bodies. I particularly want to advise them that their bodies are not shameful things and certainly that they are not responsible for how adult society perceives them. I am disinterested in shunning or ridiculing their potential interests in looking after themselves as an indulgent, silly or contemptibly ‘girly’ preoccupation. I am interested in instilling confidence in their self-image and in the expression of their femininity. I am interested in discourse with these girls that ensures that whatever confidence they have in their identity is not violent and is mindful not to perpetuate the kinds of rhetoric and behaviour that belittles and ostracises those who are different from us.
I am still engaged in having these conversations with myself and I have since learned that as with many things in life, confidence in one's identity and a healthy self-image are ongoing journeys, not a final destination. I feel that it is virtually impossible to be comfortable and self-accepting at every waking moment. This is ok. Sorry that there isn't a glamorous reel of carefree, exhibitionist photos. But here are the long, thick legs, the dark skin, and the large feet which I now see for what they are. Me. And beautiful too.
My approach is to not rush progress. Sometimes when we become conscious of things we would like to change, we are ruthlessly impatient with ourselves. I want to be mindful as I process my thoughts and feelings on my self-image. I'm under no delusion that setbacks will not arise. But I'll continue peering into the looking-glass and I'll find a way to not only make peace with my reflection, but also to love it. From time to time, I’ll share a selfie or two.