I started writing about this topic two years ago; it was for a project of personal essays I'm slowly collecting to form into a book (years from now; when people will actually give a shit about what I have to say). The original incarnation of this piece was so powerful it shook me to my foundation and forced me to change. Then my goddamn fucking iPad ate it, and I cried and yelled at Apple Support over the phone until they got me on the phone with engineering, who couldn't recover it, despite a valiant effort. I gave up on it. I felt that maybe I had written it just for me. I was the only one who needed it. It’s job was done, and it’s disappearance into the ether didn’t matter. I was driving the other day (most of my life for the past six weeks has been driving) and thinking about how much has changed, and decided to revisit this topic. I will always think the first one was better, but whatever.
I suffered from low self-esteem for twenty years. Twenty fucking years of hating myself and being unhappy with the face and body I saw in the mirror. What a waste of time. What a sickness. I don't particularly remember when it started, why it started. I just know it is something I've lived with for a long time.
I didn't care about what I looked like as a child. I looked like my mom. My mom was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in real life; her and Jeri Haliburton ( a woman who went to our church and wore fabulous hats). I thought I'd grow up to be pretty like them, but I didn't care. I wanted to run barefoot in the sand, until the bottoms of my feet were black. I wanted to play with my Barbies, and host elaborate games of make believe. The only thing I wanted back then was a ballgown and hair down to my knees, and bed sheets and towels were fine substitutes. I loved my body back then. It could dance and jump and swing higher than any other kid at the park.
I remember my brothers teasing me. That's what older brothers do. My nose was big. My nose looked just like theirs. We have our mom's nose. Her whole family has it. I had a big butt. Every female in our family does. We make the Kardashians look like jokes, even post implants. I didn’t like it when they made fun of me. I usually started crying. But, I was still me and I didn’t notice anything different when I looked in the mirror, except an awesome girl who dressed like Blossom and wanted to be a rock star and a ballerina and veterinarian and a secretary when she grew up.
My first kindergarten crush didn’t like me. I gave him one of my class pictures. He threw it back in my face and said, “Girls are gross!”. I didn’t take this as a personal offense. I just thought he was dumb, and didn’t realize how awesome girls, particularly, me, actually were. My third grade crush called me a poser and said he’d never like a girl like me. I was crushed. When my brother and I were walking home, he said, what he thought was, sage and comforting advice. “You’re pretty for a black girl, but you’re not the kind of girls boys like”. I ruminated over his advice as much an 8 year old could. I didn’t know these phrases were phrases that reappear over my life, and ultimately, fuck me up and make me hate myself.
I remember the first time shame about my body set it. I was 9. A family friend had bought me a new bathing suit. It was navy blue with yellow sunflowers. I thought it was the cutest thing and could not wait to wear it. It wasn't until I tried it on at home and the giggles about my big backside made me question it. Question myself. I wore a t-shirt over it on my class trip the beach. My mom asked why when she had my photos developed. I told her the truth. Her eyes narrowed and she said, "I'm going to talk to those boys." But, it was too late.
The damage was done. By middle school when puberty hit, acne set in, weight settled in new places, and I could not make a school uniform stylish or cute, I was done. I was not one of the pretty girls. I was, just barely, part of an in crowd. In fact, a lot of my friends were mean girls. I don't blame them, we didn't know any better. We were victims of a societal conditioning. I just took it to heart. I was about thirteen when I really stopped thinking I was pretty. This is also when I remember feeling depressed for the first time in my life. I don't think there's a causation here, I do think there's a correlation.
I tried to fight it in high school. I was unsuccessful. I monitored the things I ate with an unhealthy amount of zeal. Just five pounds, and I thought I would transform like Cinderella. It didn't work that way. It didn't matter what color box braids I installed, how black my clothing was, how dramatic my eye make up was. I could emulate Gwen Stefani, Brody Dalle, Ronnie Spektor, and Prince until my lips turned blue, it didn't silence the conversation in my head. This conversation was reinforced by outside influences. Despite being a good and passionate dancer, I never made the dance team. It didn't stop me from auditioning every spring, it didn't stop me from taking beginning dance multiple times. It, did, however, wreck my brain. I did not look like the girls who made the team, and that's why I didn't make the team.
And then there was that phrase. “You’re pretty for a black girl, but you’re not the kind of girls boys like”. My first love told me, "pretty", but not "hot". He meant to tell me that I was attractive, but not slutty. Which eventually meant he'd hook up with someone else in front of me, but whatevs. I was lead to continue to believe that I was not desireable, so I was not pretty at all. I was smart, I was funny, I was talented, but boys don't like those things. I was not the kind of girl that boys like. I was pretty for a black girl, but that alone implies that black girls are so low on the sliding scale, I shouldn't even bother.
I literally cried when the proofs for my senior pictures came home. I can remember the day they were taken vividly. I had box braids my whole high school career, but neither my mom or I wanted them in my senior picture. She took them down, and blew out my hair, it reached the middle of my back. She did my make up that...no dramatic Amy Winehouse cat eye. I went to school and two boys gawked at me, "Is she new?" They couldn't believe I was the same girl who sat in the back of their math class drawing on her sneakers. The photographer said I looked like Halle Berry. I was flattered by her kindness, but I didn't believe her. The pictures came in a few weeks later. My mom and my brother kept talking about how beautiful I looked. I sobbed and begged them to stop lying to me. I wasn't beautiful. I didn't want my mom to order the pictures, they were hideous, I was hideous.
The brain is a funny place. Outside influences were what first convinced me that I was ugly, but they weren't enough to unconvince me of that fact. A freshman boy my senior year took to calling me "Storm", because to him, I looked like Storm from the X-Men, and he begged our shared English teacher to introduce him. My English teacher told me about it and laughed it off. "You're hot, you know that right?" He wasn't creepy, he knew I was in pain and couldn't see myself. My third grade crush asked me for a dance at our senior prom and I shrugged.
Being pretty had never been my currecy. It wasn't something I didn't know how to trade in. I had instead created other currency. Intelligence, talent, kindness, spunk, attitude, taste. I went to college with these tools, pledged a sorority, and thought the struggles were behind me. They weren't. I was just starting to unravel the ball of twine that was my self-esteem.
Theatre, something I had always been passionate about, what I decided to major in, was my first lifeline. I was in The Vagina Monologues my freshman year, on what was basically a whim. "My Short Skirt" by Eve Ensler, made me realize how valuable my appearance was and how little it had to do with anyone else. My sophomore year I enrolled in a class called "Theatre and Community"; we had to research an issue affecting our community and write and perform a piece of theater about it for our final. I wrote about low self-esteem in college aged females. I interviewed my friends, my family, my professors. I read books by bell hooks, and debated the finer points with the head of the Gender Studies department. I broke open during our performance and started crying. There was an energy in that room I've never experienced since. I was learning.
College was great in other ways. There were boys everywhere. And boys who didn't think I was pretty could easily be replaced with ones who did. My freshman year crush disappeared for a few semesters, reappeared my Junior year, and made out with me under a stairwell. I saw myself through his eyes; curvy and fun, a good dancer, good taste in music, full lips and dark eyes. I was beginning to own myself.
My post college boyfriends made were also a help in undoing that ball of twine. The nameless ex who broke me apart was really responsible for holding me together for a long time. I will always be in his debt for allowing me to realize that a man could love me unconditionally. I didn't know that before him. The love of men had always come with strings attached, been based on something I couldn't qualify or measure up to. He allowed me to learn that I was enough. Skinny, fat, happy, sad, I was enough. I started to lose that after our parting. I dyed my hair fire engine red, lost five dress sizes, and started wearing colored contacts. One of my friends said he liked he changes but wanted to know why, I told him the truth. My breakup was fucking with my head, he told me I was enough. Of course, I started dating him months later.
It was after he and I fizzled that I started writing this the first time. My therapist and I were having a very long conversation about my relationships with men and my self-esteem and how they intersected. I gave the easy answer; my father abandoned me, I was another daddy issued cliche. It was a surface scratcher. I kept thinking about her questions as I drove home and started writing when I got there. I don't have the first version, so I don't know how it differs from this one. I just know the first time I wrote this, I began to heal for real for real this time. I reopened an old wound and cleaned out of all the dirt and debris. That was almost two years ago.
Am I perfect now? No, not by any means. I put on quite a few pounds this winter, and I had a really rough time with it. But, instead of living in a hateful place, I live in a loving place. I have bought into myself. I have bought into the body positivity movement. I have bought into the rampant celebration of black women and #blackgirlmagic on the internet. It has taken me 20 years, but when someone calls me pretty, I can simply reply thank you. I get hella Tinder matches. I have healthy relationships with men. I take selfies because I enjoy looking at my own face, when a few years ago I reacted to mirrors the way vampires do.
I don't know how to wrap this up with a bow and end it. I don't know what someone else is going to get from this. Maybe, I just needed to have this conversation with myself again. So, here it is.
Until next time xo