What I've Learned About Body Positivity As A Black Woman
My relationship with my body has gone through constant changes over the years, and I hope that someday I'll arrive at a place where I can see it and love it exactly the way it is. Though I'm still a ways off from that place, I'm working on moving closer to it every day. When I first set out this journey of self love, I honestly felt as if I'd never arrive at a place of loving and appreciating my body. It seemed so very unattainable and out of reach. But these days, I look at my body in the mirror and I admire what I see. I can feel parts of myself standing taller and truer and I appreciate all that my body has done — and continues to do — for me.
As a black woman, I've had to work hard on finding examples of black self-care and love. Examples of black love unfortunately aren't at the forefront of the conversation when we talk about celebrating body positivity. As a black woman, when I'd read about girls learning to love their bodies, the stories I read were all usually stories for and about white girls. I spent a lot of time wondering where my my story was, and asking where and how my body fit in. In the absence of having a space for myself, I created my own, and along the way I've met and found other black women who are pursuing their own discovery of self-love. To see other black women loving themselves so openly and so vulnerably made me feel as if it was achievable. It also gave me a sense of pride in who I was. Watching other women learn to celebrate themselves and their bodies made me hopeful and excited about what I could give my own. For so long I'd been taught that my black body was Other. Yet right in front of me were black women, proudly celebrating themselves, their bodies, their sexuality because it was their own. Not anyone else's.
I realized quickly that if I wanted attention from boys, I knew I'd get it by using my body, by playing into the stereotype that my black body was only as good as the pleasure it offered others.
I distinctly remember loving my body as a child. Really, truly loving it. I loved how it carried me through adventures and exploring. I loved that my legs supported me as I climbed trees while my arms held me up. I loved my face, because it felt the wind against it. But slowly, as I got older, that changed. When I was 12, I suddenly became aware that my body was going to serve as more than simply a vehicle for transporting me places. The first time I fully became aware of this, I was walking down the street with a friend. She was a year older than me and for some reason, we danced as we walked, and as we did, cars drove by and honked. She told me that they were honking "because they think we're hot." I was just beginning to learn what it mean to be desirable and wanted in that way. But there, on a corner in the valley of Southern California, I realized that my body wasn't viewed as just mine.
I noticed that black women weren't ever front and center on TV, in magazines, or in movies. I noticed that rarely were black women called beautiful.
In the weeks that followed, I stood in front of my mirror and looked at my body. Like, really looked at it. I pinched parts of my skin, sucked my stomach in, and I critiqued the way my body looked, upset that it didn't resemble the bodies I saw seeing around me, the white bodies getting attention from males, the white bodies on the covers of magazines. I even watched TV differently, scrutinizing every woman I saw under new, hateful eyes. I noticed that black women weren't ever front and center on TV, in magazines, or in movies. I noticed that rarely were black women called beautiful. Yet I realized that black bodies were constantly sexualized, and as I grew up, I was confronted with all the ways men viewed my body. They'd say to me, "I've heard black girls are fun to f*ck," and they'd ask me (using vulgar terms) if I tasted as good as they'd heard. The comments surrounding my body were only sexual, never of value, never of power, and I realized quickly that if I wanted attention from boys, I knew I'd get it by using my body, by playing into the stereotype that my black body was only as good as the pleasure it offered others.
As I got older, the conversation slowly shifted. I was relieved to find more people celebrating black beauty, but once again those conversations were created for a white audience, and rarely did those conversations have anything to do with the way black bodies had been mistreated, misrepresented, violated, and sexualized by white culture. It felt as if white people had decreed black to be "beautiful," and overnight, it became a trend. But rarely did I see the black women around me celebrated and lifted up by our society. Rarely did I hear, "you are beautiful." So I made a choice one day to stop looking away from the reflection in the mirror. For so long I'd avoided really seeing my own body. So I decided that if I was going to give anyone license over how to view my body, it first had to be me.
As a black woman, I have to fight harder to be seen and valued and heard and respected. And even when I do, I still lose.
It took the births of my two children for me to really love and adore my body. It took educating myself about the history of black women in America to appreciate and celebrate my own shape. Because understanding the history that's inside of me made me respect everything my body was capable of doing. I respected that I could carry children, that my body could protect me from sickness. I respected the way my hands could build things, but also touch and love so gently. I appreciated the way my legs look, and how long my arms are. It took me standing in front of the mirror, repeating mantras over and over, to realize that my body was enough.
I realized that if I wanted anyone to love my body, I wanted it to be me. As a black woman, I have to fight harder to be seen and valued and heard and respected. And even when I do, I still lose. And I know that there are so many white women who struggle with body positivity. Yet as a black woman, I'm already up against so much. I know I'm at the end of the line. I know that picture-perfect black bodies like Halle Berry and Gabrielle Union still come in second when standing alongside women like Jennifer Lawrence and Miranda Kerr.
I wanted to change this narrative around black bodies, not necessarily for others, but for myself. I wanted to see and feel my body, and believe that it was good. Because it is good. It is strong and capable and valuable and powerful. Now when I look at myself, my body is far from the perfection I see in magazines and on TV. Yet I love it in a way I never knew how to before. I'm told so often that this body I inhabit is not good enough, but I no longer listen to that, because I don't believe it. I believe that my body is more than enough. It is more than good. It is beautiful. It is graceful. It is capable. It is mine. And no matter what happens, no one can take that from me.