The Brownest Eye

Browneyes

It’s funny because as soon as you’re someone who is not blonde and skinny and you decide to write about beauty, people will usually put you in two categories:

  1. Jealous as fuck.
  2. Self-hating as fuck.

But, whatever. Today I want to write about brown eyes.

I really like brown eyes.

Especially the dark, almost-black brown eyes. 

A couple of years ago, my friend Cathy told me in that her culture, deep dark eyes were seen as absolutely gorgeous, the more the iris of your eyes contrasted with whiteness of your sclera, the more beautiful your eyes were.

If you search “black people” and “eyes” you will immediately be taken to an Images column rife with pictures of blue eyed black people.

I didn’t even specify color when consulting with Mr. Google and this is where he sends me. This is what he thinks I must want to see.

I am not on some black beauty superiority tip.

(That’s reserved for Wednesdays at 2 pm. )

I just really like brown eyes.

And no one really talks about them.

Especially if you are a brown or black person.

Growing up, I remember the only times I heard people lavish a brown or black kid with praise over their eyes was when they were:

grey. or. blue. or. hazel. or green. maybe a light honey.

Never brown.

And never, ever dark, almost-black brown.

In hip hop, the refrain of honey, with the light eyes… is standard musical fare.

I think most of us have been around the block enough to know that white supremacy is to blame for this.

But, I think instead of spending time rifling through that old can of garbage, I’d like to just admire you, my brown eyed people.

Someone once raised the argument with me, when I brought up how annoying it is that brown eyed people don’t get props:

Well, blue eyes are just rare, especially on people who aren’t white.

And I was like, true. It is kinda rare.

But, c’mon, there are a lot of rare traits that are unexpected because of someone’s phenotype, that we don’t laud with ooh-and-ahs and thatoneisgonnabealittleheartbreaker one day. That we don’t dedicate hash-tags for on social media.

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Besides, I recently had a student of mine share something with me that was super interesting: he told me depending on the culture, there are certain colors that are just not seen because the people of that culture have no words for these colors.

So, there are blues and reds and purples that we see here in the USA that others cannot.

And vice versa:

There are greens and yellows and oranges that people in Bolivia or Namibia may see that we cannot.

We just don’t have the words.

(There’s even a study on it.)

So, maybe we don’t even have words really for the degrees and nuances of brown and black.

Maybe we are actually kinda speechless when it comes to those deep, almost-black brown eyes.

What I really want to say is:

Your eyes are beautiful. They deserve compliments and comparisons to night skies, the richness of soil, barely moonlit oceans, and unknown galaxies.

They deserve mention in clever hip hop odes and long descriptions in romance novels and camera close ups on Instagram.

When you hear, “She had such pretty eyes,” you deserve to wonder if the eyes in question are brown.

Just like yours.

You deserve to wax on and on about celebrities with bright, winking, sultry, innocent, ridiculously stunning brown eyes.

(Famous eyes I love:

Diana Ross, Lakeith Stanfield, Tyson Beckford, Regina Hall, Freddie Prinze Jr. Hasan Minhaj, Philomena Kwao…)

There are so many beautiful people we are privy to nowadays in our image saturated world. It used to be that we had to at least wait until we turned on the TV, opened up the magazine.

Now, they appear in our hands, smiling or pouting at us from the rectangular screen in our palms whether you asked them to be there or not.

Thanks Instagram.

Still, there was one day when I was just dumbstruck by this young beauty as I was lazily scrolling through my feed.

I can’t post the photo here, since I don’t like being sued, but you can see it on my IG.

It wasn’t the smooth, dark black skin or the full, wide mouth, the head full of digitally perfected black-girl-curls.

It was her eyes.

Deep, almost-black brown eyes that were piercing and smart and deep. They looked like eyes that have seen some magic or know how to pretend very well they may just find it yet.

They were the kind of eyes I think poetry should be written for.

If no one has told you today (or ever):

I love your brown eyes. 

I’m not saying this in one of those reactive blue-eyes-are-the-devil type ways either.

I just think you have pretty eyes.

And I hope you can remember that too and tell yourself over and over if you don’t believe it.

But, you totally should.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

 

 

Not All Black Girls Know How To Eat #2: An Interview with Jennifer Sterling

Hello Beautiful People,

Welcome to: Not All Black Girls Know How to Eat #2. (For Part One, here ya’ go…)

I’m constantly searching and scrounging around for personal growth stuff, especially in terms of eating. I entered the self-help world mainly through my haphazard, strained relationship with eating and my body.

I wanted a life free from constant body dissatisfaction and eating my feelings through the portal of Cadbury Roasted Almond Chocolate bars.

I found many wellness coaches, eating disorder specialists, health gurus and body positivity warriors. Many of them white women. And while I gained a lot from their level of mastery, I wanted a more culturally nuanced view.

Someone who got why if “eating clean” meant forsaking jollof rice, I was, um, not gonna do it.

Enter Jennifer Sterling. Jennifer is the Holistic Nutritionist and Wellness Coach of my fucking dreams. She’s a former pole dance instructor, went to culinary school, and is well-versed in black girl wellness. Her weekly emails about healing from trauma and learning to nurture ourselves with food instead of numb ourselves, buoy me upwards every time I read them. She doesn’t believe in diets or that health only comes in one size. She is also the founder of the Black Girl Healing Project.

She is amazing and has gracefully agreed to be interviewed here. I hope you enjoy and definitely, definitely check out her site! You won’t regret it.

Jennifer Sterling
Jennifer Sterling

Please tell us all a little about yourself, Jennifer. What are three things we would not know about you just by looking at you (weird, random factoids welcome!)

I am a Holistic Nutritionist, plant-based chef and creative arts therapy candidate. I help women learn to eat intuitively and nourish themselves physically, mentally and emotionally. Three things that no one would know about me by just looking at me? I taught pole dancing for about 8 years, I owned an allergen-free baking business for about 6 years, and I play the alto saxophone.

What led you to become a holistic nutritionist?

My interest in nutrition came from a desire to heal myself. When I was in college, I started experiencing recurrent yeast infections, headaches, and fatigue. I saw several doctors, and everyone swore there was nothing wrong with me – my blood work came back normal and it appeared that everything was fine. After a few years of feeling like I was getting nowhere, I decided to take my health into my own hands and do a little research on my own. As I was researching, I discovered that the way I was eating was contributing to my symptoms. I changed the way I was eating and many of my symptoms disappeared – discovering the power of food for myself, made me want to share it with others, especially since it was never mentioned anytime I saw a doctor. I didn’t want other women to have to suffer for as long as I did.

What issues do you find particularly affecting women of color with eating/body image? Are these issues being addressed in your opinion?

The issues I see affecting women of color have more to do with bigger societal issues – the thought that women of color can’t or don’t suffer from eating disorders, and women of color feeling as though they have to look a certain way based on societal norms.

There are some conversations that are happening around these issues – some acknowledgement that anyone can have an eating disorder, no matter what their shape or size. Sometimes, it is assumed that only a thin person can have an eating disorder, and this is not the case.

I think with the anti-diet movement that’s happening now, a lot of body image issues are being addressed – as more practitioners come to understand the dangers of dieting for weight loss, there is more talk about body kindness, self-love and acceptance. I think these conversations and understandings will be helpful for all women.

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What is the one piece of wisdom you would offer to a woman wishing to heal her relationship with food?

Let go of dieting and everything that goes with it – counting calories, weigh-ins, etc. – and focus instead on the needs of your body. There is no one size fits all diet and 95% of people who diet end up gaining the weight back plus some within 5 years – learning to eat in a way that makes you feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally is much more sustainable and supportive of your overall health than eating to control the size of your body.

What mainstream nutritionist advice or guidance do you find problematic, especially in regard to women of color?

That you need to be or have to be vegan to be healthy. I see this a lot on social media, especially on accounts run by women of color. Being vegan is great, if it works for your body – if you feel energized, satisfied, and well when you eat that way long-term. It’s not the only way, however. For some, eating high-quality animal protein is helpful.

In general, I find any nutrition advice that only focuses on one way of eating to be problematic. We’re not all the same, and we don’t all have the same needs when it comes to food and eating.

What is your favorite meal? Dessert?

My favorite meal…that’s a tricky one! I love mac and cheese, pizza, and tacos. What can I say, I’m a nutritionist, but I love comfort food. Who doesn’t!?!

My favorite dessert. Hmmm….sweet potato pie!

And a curiosity of mine: can you give us your inspiration behind your sign-off, “hugs and curves”?

For sure! It was inspired by the years I spent as a pole dancing instructor – so much of that work was about helping women to celebrate and appreciate their curves. That sign-off is meant to be an extension of that work – offering support with a hug and a little encouragement to embrace your curves.

So, please remind us again, where can we find you?

You can find me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @jennmsterling or visit my website: jennifersterling.com for more info about me and my work.

Thank you so much Jennifer!

I hope this interview has helped some of you out there. Eating does not have to be a struggle and I am learning this along with you. I too have succumbed to notions that there is a “right” way to eat and look, but I am happy to say, that this type of thinking is fading away. I truly hope all of us can find the freedom to be our best selves in our bodies, and that we can learn to treat them with grace and love through the way we eat.

Onward,

Hannah

 

Redefining Sexy

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It kinda all started when Blake Shelton was named Sexiest Man Alive 2017 by the authority of authorities on sexiness, People Magazine.

So me and a friend started talking about what has been universally accepted as sexy these days: What images proliferate in our media. Think pieces on how Beyoncé, Kim K, or Rihanna have “changed” the way women experience their sexuality and sensuality. Does personality count? The ways in which strip club culture has altered the conversation on Sexy.

Lately, I have been paying closer attention to my body in the world. When it expands. When it contracts. When I feel that anxious tightening in my chest or clamping down over my ribcage. When butterflies start. And stop.

During our text conversation, I felt my body constrict, like a dozen thin ropes were wrapped around my mid-section. In the past, I would have ignored this tell-tale signal and blustered forward in intellectual conversation. But, yesterday, I stayed with my body.

I started to think about what I had been told was sexy, the images and attitudes that came into sharper focus once I got to junior high. I thought of Beyoncé in the Baby Boy video. I thought about rappers comments about their love for “honeys with the light eyes” and the current hyper-fascination with big asses. I thought about duck faced selfies and hour-glass silhouettes. I thought about how American-made porn dictates much of what the world is supposed to find sexy.

Sometimes, I think about how I should “already know this”.  Shouldn’t I already have accepted that what I believe doesn’t always jive with what the culture sees as sexy? Haven’t I read enough feminist theory, books about sexuality, blog posts by sensuality coaches? Haven’t I browsed Babeland and She-Bop enough in my lifetime? Shouldn’t I already have an expanded view of sex and sexuality and how I fit into it?

Earlier this week, I read this quote from Bethany Webster:

“Cognitive understanding is very important but it isn’t enough to transform us and create lasting, meaningful change…Concepts are like seeds of transformation, that when dropped into the body can take root and begin to transform us on the deepest levels. When we gobble concepts it is a superficial action. What creates lasting transformation is fully digesting the concepts and allowing them to sink deeply into our bodies, where the alchemy takes place.

Transformation has its own organic timeline that is out of our hands. It cannot be rushed. We cannot control or predict it. This truth can be hard to swallow, especially because our culture sends the message that success is equivalent to control and timely “results”.”

I had been “eating” up the truth about what sexy was for a long time, but the deeper understanding of it was not connected in any real way to my body. So while I was espousing a belief that sexy was more than gyrations and “acceptable” hip-to-waist ratios and long hair, etc. etc., the truth was that deeper in my body, I didn’t really believe it.

The truth is that my views are very much aligned with what the culture has declared as Sexy.

Even now.

This can be traced to living in a culture that devalues women and their experiences. If we are taught that men are superior to women, then it follows that male opinion is more important than what women opine. It is therefore imperative to focus on what men, especially the most powerful men, define as desirable and good and oh-so-sexy. Women must take their cues from their desires and fall in line.

And so, if the idea of Sexy is Kim K and women who look similarly and a handful of Victoria Secret Models and the “hot” yogi or what have you, then this is sexy. End of story.

The rest of us are just there.

I do know that sexuality and sensuality and attraction to who we name as the Sexiest People in our society isn’t a neatly drawn line between women and men. I know that “not all men” find the same women sexy.

However, I also know that there is still a very narrow definition of what constitutes sexy: it is young and immaculate and usually white-or-near-white looking. It is often performative. It is frequently divorced from how women actually experience their bodies. It is sterile and open mouthed and always eager to please.

Part of my journey in revising my relationship to my body, untying myself from the patriarchy is really digging deep in the most common assumptions I make about the world. This includes what I have define as Sexy.

Taking a moment to center.
Taking a moment to center.

The largest leap I made when entering the world of burlesque was not physical. It was not the tassel twirling or the hip shimmies, the bump-or-grinds or the standing split (which my ass can’t do without killing myself anyways.)

It was learning to see myself as a sexy woman.

More importantly, it was feeling sexy.

For so long, despite my reading of Audre Lorde’s Uses of the Erotic, I had pretty much accepted that only certain types of bodies and women could be seen as sexy. I was more comfortable being funny and theatrical, because that was where I saw myself. Girls and women like me, weren’t seen as inherently sexy and feminine.

Intellectually, I knew this was bullshit, but I would literally find myself unable to do certain movements or flirtations in burlesque class due to these mental formations. And when I did, I felt stupid and silly. I was afraid people might laugh at me, that they would smell my awkward display of sensuality a mile away.

I felt like some kind of impersonator, that I was behaving like what Sexy “should” be. A kind of sexy that had no real connection to my living, breathing body.

But, I kept going. The first time I took a burlesque class through Brown Girls Burlesque, I stood in awe of these women of varying shapes and shades who so proudly flaunted their erotic personas on stage. I went to a ton of burlesque shows. I let myself feel awkward as I winked and circled my hips and was fully alive on stage. I danced alone in front of mirrors at home. I journaled about the hard truths about how I had defined sexy before. I expanded my media intake. I asked myself tons of questions:

Where did I first learn about what sexy was? How would my views on sexuality be different if I had never seen music videos or porn in my life? Why am I so tied up to mainstream’s definitions of sexy? When do I feel the sexiest? Who’s the sexiest person I know in real life? Which celebrities do I actually find sexy and which ones have I just been told that they are and reluctantly agree?

I’m still asking myself these questions, but the answers are taking on a deeper level of cognition because they are not just located within my grey matter. I realize that I can’t just “gobble” up these redefinitions. They will take time. The journey is not about what everyone else is doing or how others experience me or even their own sensuality, it is about my own truth.

So.

 I am sexy. I know that Perle Noire is my sensual hero. I know that mainstream attitudes about what constitutes sexy will probably not change much in my lifetime. I know that it is my experience and definition of sexy that matters more than People Magazine’s. I think that sexuality can be spiritual. I know that there is true power in the erotic.

I don’t know if Beyoncé or Kim K or Rihanna have really changed the conversation on women and their sexuality. Perhaps for some women, they have. Still, I think our experience of sensuality and sex is still too firmly tied to the most superficial of attributes. I want more.

I would like to see women talking more about their sexual journeys toward wholeness after experiencing trauma, I would like to hear about how women who aren’t the mainstream definition of sexy still experience themselves as very sexual beings, I would like to see a diversity of bodies of varying ages and abilities and sizes full embodied in their erotic power (but not just in a social media campaign), I would like to hear how black women have redefined sexy amidst racist and sexist expectations. I would like to hear how women came to love and enjoy their natural rhythms and love the most disparaged parts of their bodies; their periods, their menopause, their pussies.

These stories ARE happening, don’t get me wrong. I read about them. I listen to podcasts about them. New paradigms are being created. I think the journey towards redefinition starts when just one woman hears a common patriarchal “law”, tilts her head and names her own experience as valid.

Kudos to People Magazine for prodding me along.

Questions for further reflection: What do you define as sexy? When do you feel the sexiest? What struggles have you encountered in defining yourself as an erotic being? Who would you pick to coach you around feeling sexy if you could pick anyone in the world? What gets in the way of redefining your world?

Onward,

Hannah

 

We Need More Black Love


Says the black girl with the white boyfriend.
But, I am serious and I believe it even more now than I ever have: We need more black love.

The primary images under #blacklove are flamboyantly attractive men and women oftentimes intertwined in some erotic embrace. Sometimes they are wearing crowns. Sometimes the man is holding up the earth or a house as his woman and offspring look upwards in stupendous wonder. Sometimes there are two black bodies intertwined so closely that I recall the song Brown Skin by India Arie.

I believe the popularity of these images speaks volumes (On another post I may go into the crazy intense heteronormativity and their traditional gender role affirming nature of these images, but not today…)

Black people are generally subjected to images where they are hurting each other, hurting themselves, or away from each other, all pointing to the real instances of hurtful separation folded overtly and covertly within colonialism and white supremacy.

These days, we may see black people loving on screen but oftentimes these images are interracial in nature. And yes, even I am a little questioning of this.

Why is it so difficult to imagine black people loving each other?

When I saw the graffiti’d mattress leaning forlornly against a house in Pittsburgh, it both made me laugh and broke my heart cleanly down the middle. The way the mattress had been gutted to show its Styrofoam flesh. The word “bitch” lazily scrawled adjacent to it. Was this some sort of cleverly placed art installation? A call to do differently?

What I know is: black people do love each other. Even amidst the craziness of racism and homophobia and sexism and family dysfunction, black people have always been winning in the show some love department. But, sometimes I think we all need reminders.

I think the time has come for white people to take up the majority of the work of in eradicating white supremacy. It’s been that time for quite awhile honestly, but I think the call is even more salient today.

But what about us?

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine made a really vulnerable Facebook post where they talked about the nature of their mental health and the ways in which the anti-blackness of the world had factored into it. It intensified my thinking about the nature of self-help and emotional wellness today. How so much of it erases the real lived realties of different marginalized groups to settle on some vague promulgation of resilience.

It’s not just a personal “defect” to be unwell in this society. Many times our individual experience of stress, of anxiety and depression can be obviously tied to systems that tell us we do not matter.

Anti-blackness is not just a faraway political thought that we can sequester to history books and graduate studies discussions. It affects the real lives of black people in deep and pressing ways each day: the bombardment of black death, the anxieties inherent within a workplace that was never built to consider you, the constant barrage of images that suggest you are not enough at the deepest level of your body. Over and over and over and over and over again.

We need more black love.

I say this in a way that does not mean we add yet another checklist to Shit I Need To Do Today. I say this as a thought that hopefully can buoy us. And I do I see black love being practiced every day. I see it in with people checking in with their people. I see it in the loud ways black people claim admiration for body features often seen as less than. I see it in events like Black Girls Rock and social media campaigns like Very Black.

I hope that the next time I search for #blacklove I see these images too. Images of queer black people, fat black people, quirky black people, conservative black people, hood black people loving the fuck out of one another.

I endeavor to look for more black love, to showcase love in a myriad of ways towards blackness besides the romantic. And if I can’t find another real black person to love on in reality, I will look in the mirror at my own black face and love it fiercely for what it is.

I refuse to be sucked into the madness of these times and to start doubting the power of true, revolutionary love. I refuse to constrain my activism to what I see on my social media feeds.

Black love, real black love, in a way that speaks to my own soul, is part of my revolution.

I wish you the same in a way that works for you.

Onward,

Hannah

How to Rewrite the Story of Your Body and/or Mutombo and Me

“Each individual woman’s body demands to be accepted on its own terms.”

-Gloria Steinem

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In high school, I found out my nickname was Mutombo. My sister was the one who told me. She had heard a couple kids at our school use it. In case you do not know, Dikembe Mutombo is a 7’2″ former NBA all-star who heralds from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was a defensive dream and holds the second highest record overall for shots blocked.

It of course hurt to hear that this was my nickname. I wasn’t exactly Ms. Confident about my looks in high school and to know that this nickname came from the black kids at my high school hurt even more, it was both likening me to a man and making fun of my African heritage. 

For most of my life, I have carried a pretty complicated relationship with my body. On one hand, there was a deep, albeit small nucleus of belief that I was in fact beautiful and enough. I liked my dark skin, my thick hair, my almond-shaped eyes.

But, then there was the lack of attention from guys my own age.

The magazine covers of women half my size and considerably lighter.

The fact that I was hardly told I was pretty or cute by my family growing up.

Much of the time, I learned to invest in my humor, my smartness, my athletic gifts. I thought prettiness was the domain of a very specific type of girl and I was not her. I learned to make a lot of self-deprecating jokes and pretend that the insensitive words of others barely bothered me.

For many years, I lied to myself in this way.

But, then I couldn’t take the constant inner circus of nervousness, the way I was holding myself back from fully considering myself beautiful. And so, just out of graduating from college, I dove head long into all things feminist theory and body positivity.

It’s been a good ride, which does not mean easy; I’ve had to mine some deep, deep wounds over the ways I’ve been hurt around beauty, but I have discovered a sincere level of comfort and pride in this body that I have.

A couple of months ago, I was invited to take part in a Nasty Woman shoot by a friend. It was a small gathering. Women of all sizes and shapes. And even though I was the only black woman in attendance, I felt a deep kinship with these women.

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After hearing Donald Trump’s disgusting words against women (grab ’em by the pussy, etc, etc) and being inspired by a rugby women’s photo shoot, my friend teamed up with a Oil City, PA photographer  to create a photo series documenting the power of rewriting body stories.

We started the day with a journaling activity, wrote what we most wanted to embody during this shoot on a glass rock. My rock said “Re-write My Story”. Then we stripped completely naked and started to paint each other. It was awkward at first (at least for me) but over time, I almost forgot I had zero clothes on. Each woman was directed to write the derogatory words and phrases we had personally faced regarding our bodies, as well as any cultural beliefs.

Hearing the words these women have faced was alarming and so, so sad. Sometimes all we could each do was shake our heads in incredulity at the cruelty that women too often face about their bodies. There was one of us who was told by a stranger that she had “good dick sucking lips”, another woman whose father would call her “porky”, a new mother who was told that her breastfeeding in public was disgusting and gross.

On my body, there were words like “man” and “pretty…for a dark-skinned girl” and “there goes a big bitch!”. Across my back I had a woman write “Black women aren’t pretty, it’s science” to account for all the reductive pseudoscience garbage, all the Most Beautiful lists that negate black women, all the ways in which apparently black women are seen as less than.

We took a series of pictures and then we washed off the paint. Amidst the faded colors, we started to write the words we saw in each other. Words like “strong”, “beautiful”, “enough”, and “sensual”.

The new words mixed in with the paint of the old stories. Despite our washing off of the old words, part of their messages still lingered on us.

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It was a good lesson of the path of deep body love and satisfaction. For the initial part of my life, I chose to ignore the words and ideas centered around my body. As I started my healing journey, there was a part of me that just wanted to blast these stories away, erase them for good.

But, it rarely works that way.

Those stories will always be there. They are a part of my prologue and to make them disappear would be to erase just how much they have deepened my compassion for myself and for others. I have to see the pain of those words to truly heal. “Thinking positive” and forgetting are band-aids, short-term forms of assistance. It is the reckoning with our pasts with eyes wide open that truly instigates the deeper healing. 

I am so, so grateful I got to take part in this series. Admittedly, I am still a little apprehensive of posting my naked pictures on the internet, but I hope that one day I will have the courage to do so. They are beautiful images. (Another friend wrote a beautiful blog post about the experience and you can find some of the images here.)

I think the reason body positivity has become such a popular movement is because so many people, women especially, crave a space to redefine their body stories. We are given so many messages about our level of worth as dictated by our bodies. And we have had enough.

Of course, you don’t have to participate in a naked photo shoot (unless you want to!) to rewrite the story of your body.

Here are three ways to Re-Write the Story of Your Body :

  1. Free-Write : Go somewhere quiet with a journal and pen. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes. Write as fast as you can with no attention to syntax, spelling, or clarity about your body story. After you are finished writing, read the page. What images/memories arose? Which one is most plaguing you today? Commit to healing the idea that is the most salient for you.

2. Pick a body part that you have a hate/hate relationship with, perhaps one that others have remarked negatively about. For 30 days, spend 1-5 minutes praising its merits in the mirror. Notice how difficult this may be. When mean-spirited thoughts and objections arise, notice them too and let them go. Continue anyway and know that you can always come back to this act.

3. On a piece of large construction paper, draw an outline of your body, big enough to write in. Write all the negative stories you’ve internalized and heard about various body parts, your worries and fears. Use a red pen if you can. Crumple up that paper, burn it (in a way that doesn’t result in accidental arson) if you so desire. Then get out another piece of paper and draw an outline of your body and write the stories/words you’d like to really inhabit. Pin this somewhere you can see everyday. Practice giving yourself what you need.

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Mutombo and Me

Rewriting your body story will probably take time, so commit to being patient with yourself during this process. It’s hardly ever a one shot deal.

When I was living in New York and active duty Coast Guard, I volunteered for an NBA Cares event in Brooklyn. And who walks in but Dikembe Mutombo. His voice is as raspy and big as you’d expect from those Geico commercials, and his presence made grown adults act with the same fervent delight usually reserved for toddlers. I was already about six years deep into my body healing journey and when I posed with him, I thought how funny it was that I got to actually meet the same dude whose name had plagued me so in high school.

I instantly thought backwards to teenage Hannah, so unsure about who she was, so willing to let others dictate how she felt about her beauty and worth in the world. I did not and do not hate that girl. For it was her kernel of belief in something better that has gotten me here today. 

Here’s to rewriting our stories and giving a big No-No Mutombo finger wag at anything that gets in our way.

Onward,

Hannah

 

 

How to Love Your Body

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First off: you are already failing.

Ruminate on this fact. Obsess over your obsession with calorie counting and Paleo 15-Minute Dinners for a Busy Worknight.

Pinch the excess fat of your hip and lament the disappearing jawline you witness in your ten year span of Facebook photos.

Attempt to love your body with the same fervent eye-sparkling bliss each hour and each minute and each nanosecond of everyday. This is not the time or space for grey. Hate yourself for any instance you fall out of bounds and experience any sort of middling experience of your body.

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Linger in artificial spaces and hashtags. Allow these locations to perform your body-love work. The more followers the page has, the better. Never question the  the spokespeople for body positivity. The curvaceous blue-eyed blondes who still have six-packs? The ambiguously-raced models lounging on white sand? Focus on them.

Wait. If the celebrated celebrity/IG model/blogger does not have the exact skin color, hair type, nose shape, foot size, abdominal circumference as you, put off liking your reflection. Once your type of beauty is “in” pounce quickly.

Keep consistent track of beauty trends. As of April 2017, pay close attention to the gluteus maximus and for extra credit, the intergluteal cleft. Make sure each cheek is a gravity defying bubble of bounce. Kill yourself if you notice stretch marks, discoloration, freckles, cellulite. Forswear casual observation of this part of your body forever. Invest in spandex.

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Remember, there are two ways to talk about body love:

1.) NEVER acknowledging the difficulties of body ownership in a feminine-phobic society. In this vein, make sure to promulgate the ease of your positive self-regard. Question and criticize anyone who feels differently or who has had struggle. They are aliens.

or

2.) Erect a Body-Positive Social Media Platform. Detail every single experience of your body woes to include your work-out schedule, bowel movements, unflattering pictures, callus removal, trips to Urban Outfitters, bridesmaid dress anxieties, etc. Etc. Etc. Lecture widely and at length (kudos for militaristic language and 1,500 word replies) about the only acceptable modes of body-positivity: your own.

Pay no mind to your personal experience of your body. Adopt the origin story of the Body Positivity Spokeswoman of the Year. Loving your body is not to be muddled with individualized detail. Nuance is a terrible, terrible thing.

Do not be too cocky. Those selfies of effervescent happiness? Do not post those.

lovette3

Treat food as enemy and physical movement as punishment. Bemoan your badness (aloud) when partaking in the following foods:

a) cupcakes

b) empanadas

c) white rice

d) all of the above and whatever Dr. Oz releases as a a no-no food

(You know the answer.)

Agonize about aging. Be sure to invest in facial rejuvenation surgeries in your early twenties. Correct women over A Certain Age who have blue hair or wear skirts above mid-thigh. They are ruining it for everyone.

Hate your vulva.

 

Repeat and recirculate fashion mandates. Compare your physique to the models of Givenchy and Prada. Always come out on the losing end of this equation. Subscribe fully and adhere to the repetitive silhouettes you see within Vogue and the popular Kardashian of that week’s Instagram page.

Above all else, love your body.

Remember: everyone loves a confident woman.

** All art by Lovette Zola **

 

Self-Help That Doesn’t Suck # 4 – Sisters of the Yam

Title: Sisters of the Yam

sisters

Author: bell hooks

The Break-Down: Recognized public intellectual and scholar bell hooks covers healing for black women in various dimensions to include beauty, relationships, and critical thinking/engagement. There is no “strong inhuman black woman” rhetoric here.

Why I Loved It: Sometimes when you are experiencing constant micro-aggressions or looking out at the incessant indignities faced by people who share your identity there is a strange mixture of confusion, anger, and numbness that arises. Are you crazy for noticing this? Should you deal with this latest slight or stop fighting this battle? Why must the world be like this? I’ve experienced all of these questions and still wrestle with them often. I can always come back to this book to assure myself that:

  1. I am not imagining injustice.
  2. Healing myself is not selfish.
  3. I am not alone.

I feel seen when I read this book in a way that society still has not caught up with. Black women may be “strong” but we are also human. We hurt. We cry, even when “slaying” and displaying our #blackgirlmagic.

For You, If…: You are a smart black woman who also wants to heal. You have a smart black woman in your life who wants to heal. You are a smart person who wants to read a really smart person talk about healing.

Woo-Woo Factor: 1 out of 5 patchouli incense sticks . She’s an intellectual, so there’s that. While there are brief mentions of some noted more fuzzy, self-help writers, hooks’ brilliant mind still shines through on each page.

Onward,

Hannah

Trendy

love

I think my eyes are lazy. They are often kinda shocked by pictures on screen.

Have you ever been watching a TV show or movie and found yourself surprised at seeing someone larger than a size 2 as a lead? Your surprise (I hope) wasn’t colored by some sizeist ridiculousness but a genuine reaction to how many times extremely thin or fit bodies are presented as normal.

Seeing how much body ideals have changed for men and women (mainly white men and women) just from a casual look at cinema is pretty amazing. What was called manly and handsome forty years ago would be equivalent to “dad bods” today.

hitch

Years ago, I read a post on Gradient Lair about the preponderance of light woman-dark man black couples. The colorism inherent in this constant choice of couples was evident to me before this article, but it was great seeing someone intelligently outline this phenomenon out.

Sometimes it’s easy to think you’re the only one who notices something. Or that you are crazy for noticing.

Maybe that is the secondary job of writers: to convince themselves and readers that someone else notices what you do.

I wonder if this whole focus on dark men and light-skinned women is really a nod to the blonde woman-brunette men archetype, an idea that itself is steeped in reductive ideas of light as feminine and darkness as everything masculine.

Or maybe people really don’t like blonde men. It’s not to say that these pairings don’t happen (haven’t forgot about you Ariel and Eric, Ryan Gosling, or Jason’s Lyric). But, they don’t occur very often.

I’m not sure, but I do know that whenever I see a dark-skinned woman paired with a light-skinned dude on-screen, I’m surprised. Still. And it makes me wonder what other things we are all so used to seeing again and again, the things we forget to question. Like my friend who was aghast when Zac Efron fell for Nikki Glaser in Hairspray.

“That would never happen in real life,” she said.

Of course, this is a lie, but it speaks so loudly to what our expectations are. Why we cannot tell black stories without including brutality. Why we seem unable to imagine queer romances that are sweet and whimsical.

Our eyes are lazy.

What I want to know is, which came first, the pre-conceived notions of what was supposed to be or some supposed “evolutionary” based attraction?

I’m thinking it has more to do what our eyes have been trained to see than we think. I want to be a creator in a world who imagines differently.

Onward,

Hannah

 

My Turn as a Chocolate Cheesecake

cover of black pin up book with brown skinned curvy woman with fuchsia bathing suit on and matching flower in her hair
Buy this Pin-Up Book

A month ago I took part in my first pin-up photo shoot.

I was deathly tired after the hours of back-arching poses and costume changes, and had a case of severe seasonal allergies to boot.

I consider it one of the most life-giving experiences I’ve had this year.

Life-giving kinda sounds like a word that one should use in secondary school classrooms, but still.

Sepia toned picture of dark skinned woman in sparkly bustier laying on feathers and looking away from camera in open way
I do a good look-away.                        Shameless Photography

I’ve mentioned before how much I wanted to be a model when I was just a kid.  I think a lot of it came from my obsession with The Great Muppet Caper, with Miss Piggy and Darla, Marla, Carla flouncing around flowy pastel creations.

One of my uncles who was constantly playing around with artistic pursuits to include photography told me I would one day be “just like Naomi Campbell”.

I was tall and roller-skate skinny (in the words of Holden Caulfield). I dreamed of entering worlds of glamour and electric intrigue, beguiling the masses with my one-dimpled smile from the covers of YM (I loved that magazine) and Seventeen.

I pored over magazines. Watched The Model Story on E! Went two “modeling scout” sessions which ended up being barely veiled scams to suck money out of lower middle class families who wanted their kids on the Disney Channel.

And despite these unfortunate setbacks, I still awaited the moment I’d be discovered by a representative of Elle or Ford in a shopping mall.

Alas, puberty.

afro'd dark skin women in gold dress laying down with legs in air in relaxed pin up pose, eyes closed and on scattered records
That 70s Pin Up       Shameless Photography

From the way family friends commented on my weight gain after age twelve, you would think I should’ve had a star role in The Klumps. My hips grew, my string bean legs filled out. My stomach rounded into its stubborn softness.

Shortly after, my uncle looked at me and shrugged his shoulders, “You can’t be a model anymore, but perhaps there’s hope for your sister.”

At my final scout event, a sour faced black dude with shoulder length chocolate colored locs said that I needed to work on trimming my physique and not slurring my words (it was an acting audition as well).

I was fourteen years old, about the same height I am now and a good sixty pounds less than what I am now.

His words rang through my head for years on end. Trim down. Trim down. Speak clearer. Speak less.

My model dreams were hard to kill off. Sometimes strangers conflate any tall woman with an ability to model and so, I constantly was told that I should model. I watched the ascent of plus size models and often perused magazines like Plus Model Magazine and volup2.

Looking through these magazines, I decided I again had the wrong look. Not hour glass enough and too tall. Lacking of racially ambiguous facial features and hair.

I had a story of “can’t” and I was sticking to it.

In my twenties, I would sometimes heed my stubborn modeling desire and have plain black and white pictures taken by a friend or venture to the Korean photo place around the corner.

Dark skinned black woman in afro wig in traditional wonder woman costume standing with hands on hips
You know I had to do it.
Shameless Photography

I’d stare at the pictures afterwards hating on every blemish, wishing for the long, limbed Twiggy physique, the glamazon stature of the 1990s, for video-girl coke-bottle curves. Anything but this ample thighed, athletic woman looking back at me. I located fault everywhere, deemed myself to be un-photogenic and definitely not model worthy.

Those wallet sized copies and 8x10s would quickly become buried under office supplies or stuffed into boxes labelled MISC.

One beautiful thing about the pin-up modeling/dress-up world is the apparent celebration of an assortment of bodies. I’m not saying there aren’t issues of beauty ideals in this vein of modeling, but the standards of being a modern day pin up way more open than straight-sized and most plus-size modeling avenues.

There are hour-glass pin-ups. Alternative, tattooed pin-ups. Lanky pin-ups and the short and stout.

I also love that this community has fun and is mostly female. Style need not be pretentious.

I had long admired the work of Shameless Photography a woman-run pin-up photography business based in the Bay Area and NYC. I was even a finalist for a letter-writing contest they held two years ago. They shoot a diversity of models and I had no fear that they wouldn’t know what to do with my hair or fuck up my foundation.

I was drawn to these images and sought to see myself pictured in this way. The idea of luxuriating in beauty, unashamed pulled and pulled. Women are taught so much centered in shame around their bodies. I am no exception. Obvs.

The Shameless team were so kind and professional, never short-changing on changing around a look or getting the pose just right.

I soon understood a major bonus of modeling: having people admire and encourage you in real time. Who doesn’t want to hear “Beautiful!” or “God, what a great shot!” after each flash of a camera?  After the shoot was finished, we exchanged tired grins of battle comrades.

They were even nice enough to say I should model. Like, IRL.

Now, the thing about life-giving and life changing experiences is that the fear and old stories aren’t just like, “Well, damn, I guess we better move on out.”

During the shoot, my inner voice criticized my lax diet of the last couple of weeks and often castigated myself when I’d flop out of a pose. God, you suck. My mind wanted to posit their model encouragement as Things-They-Tell-Every-Shameless-Pin-Up and just “being nice”. I worried about if the pictures would turn out to be good or not.

dark skinned woman assuming muscle baring rosie the riveter stance in wonder woman costume, side profile. red background. wearing large afro wig and wonder woman costume
Rosie the Wonder Woman
Shameless Photography

The difference between teenage wanna-be model Hannah and Hannah of 2016  is not invulnerability. I wish I could give some declaration of being totally over it, but changing stories often sometimes takes time.

The difference lies in that tiny gap between thinking these damaging thoughts and believing they are true. The difference is recognizing my fault finding and perfectionistic eye as nothing but impediments to being fully myself. And though the negative thoughts are pervasive, they were not the majority. I let myself have fun and make the “too!” face over and over.

dark skinned black woman in cat eye glasses in navy blue white polka dotted dress. holding glasses with one hand and hand on hip. wearing pearl bracelet.
Shameless TOO! Face

Today, I don’t have dreams of being a Supermodel or signing with whatever major modeling agency is out there now. I don’t need to make a living as an IG model or walk the catwalk for Rubin Singer.

I commit to heeding the call of my creative life, no matter how superfluous and superficial or weird these calls may be.

Modeling is part of taking my creative desires seriously and having fun enjoying my body, a body I slowly learned to critique and posit as unfeminine. It’s about letting go of that stale-ass story where I entrusted my self-regard to the male gaze and “popular” opinion.

And giving really good face.

Voguing onward,

Hannah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#blackgirlpain

Two events happened:

 

A friend sent me the newest picture and incarnation of Lil’ Kim.

 

I looked at the picture, really looked (like tens of thousands on Instagram did.) .

 

The tousled blonde highlighted ponytail. The imaginary sharp cheekbones. The light, light skin that was not Kimberly Jones.

 

6 panel picture of a very light skinned lil'kim (rapper) with blonde hair and highlighted cheekbones.
                            Lil’ Kim 2016

 

I was not surprised. (Was anyone?) Lil” Kim has been headed in this direction for yeeeaarrrs. I think we all kinda knew this picture was inevitable. My concluding thoughts damngirl. whitesupremacysucks. goodluckwiththat. hopeyou’rehappy. plasticsurgerymustbeadrug.

 

I honestly didn’t think about it much deeper than that before I was off to the next thing. 

By a stroke of luck of grace, I was able to received two free tickets for The Color Purple running on Broadway from the USO (thank you!). 

It was powerful, raw, and honest. I’ve read Alice Walker’s novel and watched the movie many times. Like many black women and girls, The Color Purple has long been a part of my pop culture landscape. I quote the movie too. Sometimes inappropriately, I cannot lie. 

 

“You tol’ Harpo to beat me?!!!”

 

Oh, Oprah…this is my favorite view of you.

 

I left inspired in that giddy way only Broadway can summon (“I may be black. I may be poor. I may be ugly…but I am still HERE!) Life was not a utopia for black women by any means, but wow, have we come far. 

 

But, I also left with a raging headache. Like the frontal section of my brain was dipped into molten silver. 

 

Over dinner with a friend following the show, we discussed how amazing the cast was, the ridiculous range of the voices, the minimalist production that forced attention to the real emotional complexity of the play.

 

We also talked about #blackgirlpain. And I had a mini-eureka moment:

 

I think my headache was related to #blackgirlpain.

 

My friend:

 

“Alice Walker was doing #blackgirlpain when it wasn’t cool.”

 

Yeah, she was. And a lotta people at the time of releasing the novel The Color Purple were none too happy about it.

 

But here we are, 2016. On Broadway.

Broadway sign of the color purple in as crowd lines up to get in.
Go see this show.

 

I couldn’t help think about Lil’ Kim again. Pity. Incredulity. Sadness. A hefty sense of moral superiority for loving my black skin. Anger at this world for it’s terrible definitions of “beauty.”

 

While Walker took #blackgirlpain seriously, there are far too many arenas that gloss over and cheapen it.

 

I love being a black woman today. Sometimes I look around at what black women are doing and dreaming into being, and I cannot help but shake my head in wonder. Where the hell did we get this audacity from? How do we keep going when everything is telling us to negate ourselves, serve our Kings, call ourselves ugly?

 

But, there is still so much #blackgirlpain that has not been explored, so much we want to ignore in ourselves and those around us.

 

I see it in my own desire to look away from Lil’ Kim-gate and think no further. Sure, she’s a celebrity, as distant a relationship as there can be, however, she still reflects a large influence of our society—she is a microcosm of so many ideas about beauty we’d rather ignore. 

 

Lil’ Kim did not want to be a regular black girl. Regular black girls are left by their men for lighter skinned “European” looking girls. They are ignored until they become the definition of outrageous. This is the story Lil’ Kim has about who she is and how she looks.

 

I honestly hope that her latest transformation provides her with a sense of security and peace.

It would be easy to offer someone aping and thirsting over Eurocentric beauty trends platitudes soaked in #blackgirlmagic and #melaninpoppin.

 

But is it always that easy? I suspect that a lot of “regular looking black girls” have really had to struggle in this whole self-acceptance, I’m-beautiful thing. Maybe our journeys are not as tortuous and apparent as Lil’ Kim or maybe we grew up surrounded by realistic models of beauty or were told that our abilities held more weight than our looks. (If we could all be so lucky.)

 

I don’t know. I consider myself a smart woman, one who really wants to dig deeper than the present day surface realities, a woman who has adopted alternative views on a host of traditional aspects in terms of spirituality, gender, race, and yes, Beauty.

 

I too still have my times of #blackgirlpain. Beauty can be a touchy subject for me. I remember many instances where I would overhear conversations where certain black men picked apart black women based on her phenotypically African features. How certain friends I’ve had are asked if they are of mixed heritage to account for their beauty. Because of course no Regular Black Girl can be pretty. We need something “extra” for that. 

 

This was my past and I wish I could say these things don’t happen in my present. I can’t.  I just know enough now not to dwell in certain circles, not to visit certain corners of the Internet. 

 

It’s still out there and surrounding us on all sides anyways: The unexamined assumptions behind phrases like “classically beautiful” and what it means to be blonde/blue-eyed. The billboards and the way women who stray furthest from Eurocentric modes of beauty have to carve out their own niches in fashion and celebration. Thank god for Tumblr. 

 

#blackgirlpain is still here. 

 

Beauty, of course, is not the only space where #blackgirlpain resides. But, it is a commanding one.

 

I am giving myself permission to really explore my #blackgirlpain, to dive deeper within the realities of collective #blackgirlpain.

 

Even I need space and time to heal from the harmful messages I have received and continually receive about my worth in this society. 

 

I want to really lean into my desire to exhibit a continual display of bravado in the face of these realities. Why am I not allowing myself to feel the full gamut of emotions around this issue? 

 

I mean, it makes sense that some black women hurt around Beauty. Even a casual look at the world tells us the caveats and small spaces that mainstream culture gives to The Regular Black Girl. I think there should be more spaces where black women are allowed to express and reckon with all of the feels. From crippling self-doubt to deep adoration of their physical self. 

 

How else can we really heal? 

 

I think black women are beautiful. I cannot comprehend the caveats that people place between black women and beauty. 

 

And yet the world will still work to promote a one-dimensional definition of beauty. 

 

Here’s to being more honest to each other about what we see when we look in the mirror. May we find spaces of holding to do this. 

 

 

Onward,

 

Hannah