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

File_002

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.

File_000 (2)

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.

File_000 (3)

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.

File_000 (1)
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

lovette zola

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.

lovette

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.

lovette1

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 **

 

#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

25 True Things about My Body Image

Chubby and feeling myself. Sometime in 1988. Somewhere in England
Chubby and feeling myself. Sometime in 1988. Somewhere in England

Last week, I had the opportunity to call-in to a NYC radio show segment on women of color and body image. The politics of bodies is definitely something I ponder about often, especially since non-white women are so often left out of these discussions.

Days later, I found an interesting entry in one of my journals entitled “75 Things about My Body Image…Since I am 75 Inches Tall”. I got to #16. I think 75 is a bit much four years later (at least for a blog post) but 25 sounds like a nice odd number, huh?  I couldn’t agree more!

1. At 14, I wanted to be a Naomi Sims/Grace Jones/Naomi Campbell type of model. I went to casting calls.

2. I got told by a man with short dreadlocks to “…work on my physique”.

3. I didn’t.

4. I am not a model.

5. Six things strangers have told/asked/yelled after me:

a) “Wow! 6’3″! Too big for a wife!”

b) “Dude you’re tall!!! Um, male or female?”

c) “Is it hard to find a boyfriend at your height?”

d) “That straight up look like a nigga right there.”

e) “Step right up sir! I mean, miss…”

f) “You should be a model.”

6.) When I was in elementary school, I wanted to look like Raven Symone.

Me standing next to a classmate...yes, we are the same age.
Me standing next to a classmate…yes, we are the same age.

7.) I’ve never had white fantasies, but there was a brief pre-adolescent time in my life where I wanted to be light.

8)  I love the feel of my “new growth” hair.

9) My thighs have always been friends/lovers.

10) I wanted them to get a divorce.

11) When I think back to how many issues of Teen Vogue, Cosmo Girl, Seventeen, YM, and Teen People magazines I read, I’m a bit sad. It’s like, how did I expect to have a normal view of my body with all of that coming in?

12) I’ve had locs since 2014. I like ’em a lot.

13) I love that as a modern day Amazon, I present as a much more believable Wonder Woman.

14) Sometimes I get a kick out of automatically intimidating men just by standing up.

15) I’ve been deemed overweight by BMI standards since about 8th grade. Even in the middle of basketball season.

16) I’ve known for awhile now that the only part I may get in a hip hop music video is Girl Drinking Martinelli At the Bar.

17) At age 8, I believed the beauty mark above the right side of my lip meant I was in the same pretty-woman club as Marilyn Monroe. (I mean, it is called a beauty mark…)

18) I’ve never doubted the prettiness of my ears. You can’t tell me nothin’.

19) So many random gay men of Portland, Oregon  helped my beauty self-esteem. Thank you all for those slightly tipsy compliments.  You made this girl’s night.

20) Since second grade, my voice has always been a few octaves lower than the average woman.  I get called Sir over the phone.

21) I have decided it is too big of a hassle to correct telemarketers on my gender.

22) Kids and some awesome adults teased me about my big lips but I’ve never wanted them to be smaller. Viva la resistance!

Me in my basketball heyday. What a great facial expression I am having.
Me in my basketball heyday. What a great facial expression I am having.

23)  I used to pray to wake up with a giant booty that would bring me KING/video vixen fame. (This was before Kim K and the ass-mania of today. )

24) Burlesque, body positive books, and movement are my godsends.

25) Sometimes I still want to be a model.

So much of our body image stories are a mix of all things mundane, depressing, angry, and even utterly joyful. While there are some people who are at the edges of body hate or total confidence, I think most of our stories are in between.

Mine certainly is.

Sometimes I feel like a goddess.

Sometimes I wonder WTF I was thinking when I felt like a goddess.

I’ve been to extremes but have never hated my body for too long. And I am so thankful for that.

What would be your 25 true things about your body?

Love,

Hannah

An Interview with The Body Relationship Coach, Ivy Cooper

Ivy Cooper, Body Relationship Coach
Ivy Cooper, Body Relationship Coach

The following post is an interview with Ivy Cooper, The Body Relationship Coach. It’s time to rewrite the story of how women of color talk about their bodies and I know part of that starts with what I choose to post.

I discovered Ivy via Twitter. I was so excited to see a woman of color doing this work! And she was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me. Enjoy!

Hi, Ivy! Please tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Hi, I’m Ivy, The Body Relationship Coach (Ivy Cooper).  I am a Certified Holistic Health Coach and Body Image Expert.  I help people of any size, shape, or body type to embrace and redefine wellness at any stage of life.  I do this through highly individualized, sustainable lifestyle design plans that help my clients develop wellness habits without body shame or body bullying.

What was your prevalent “body story” growing up?

I have always been in a larger body.  Even as a child I was labeled as “husky”, “chunky”, or “overweight”.  Most of the messages that I received about my body came in the form of body bullying and body shaming.  Other children made fun of me and most adults shamed me for being a “fat” child.  As a teen, a great deal of focus was put on weight loss and dieting.  There was more attention put on my weight than helping me to be confident in my body.  Unfortunately, those message were part of my “norm” growing up, so I didn’t feel sad about it very often.  I actually felt like everyone around me was right, and there was something wrong with me.  I didn’t know that what was being said to me was inappropriate or wrong. Those messages became the script of my body image and self talk. I heard them so much that they became my belief systems and I had no reason to doubt them.

Ivy Cooper
Ivy Cooper

What made you want to become a body image coach?

I chose to become a body image coach because I am passionate about helping people find freedom in their body relationship.  I love the empowerment that people get from coaching with me, once they learn how to make peace with their body and begin to design a lifestyle based on body love and self care they experience a new level of body freedom.  That is priceless!

What differences (if any) do you see with women of color as it relates to body image? Is there fat discrimination in these communities? If so, how does it show up?

I believe that there is fat discrimination within the Black community.  In my personal experience, I have witnessed Black people of all genders, ages, and body types shame others who are considered to be “fat” or “overweight”.  There is a myth that the Black community is more tolerant of people who are larger.  However, I have found that body shaming and body discrimination are as prevalent in the Black community as any other.  I feel that this myth leads to a lack of support and treatment within our community in regards to body image, fat discrimination, and eating disorders.  That is why I am proud to be a Black woman providing body image coaching, that is based on my personal experience, knowledge, and education.

What would your message to a woman struggling with body image negativity be?
“Your body relationship is a life journey, not a size destination. Embrace the journey with your body. Remember that your body has been here since the beginning.  It is not perfect, but it is yours.  It has carried you to this point in life and it deserves to be honored for that.  Understand that you have the rest of your life to live with your body and you can always evolve and improve along the way.  However, give yourself grace and gentleness to know that you will always be working towards the higher version of yourself.” – B is for Body

Thanks Ivy! To see more of Ivy’s work, be sure to check out her website here.

Eight Body Positive Women of Color Who Have Inspired My Body Love Journey

Women of Color Who Rock Women of Color Who Rock[/caption]

I discovered words like “fat acceptance” and “body politics” about six years ago when I graduated from college. It felt like a new world opened up to me. I was so impressed by the scholarship, passion, and fun that was involved in body positive movements. But, I was also a little sad/angry/annoyed when I saw how the perspectives of women of color in this movement were assigned: oftentimes they were not featured or at times they were “included” as some kind of pat on the head.

Thankfully, I found a way to women of color who were talking unapologetically about their own bodies and the self-acceptance involved in the journeys. They were business owners, activists, actresses, and more. Here are the top 8 women of color (who are in the public eye) who have inspired me in my own body acceptance journey.

1. Virgie Tovar

First off, her Instagram is so fun. I found out about Virgie when she was interviewed by Golda Poretsky a couple of years ago. I was taken aback by her charm, smarts, and her dedication to the body positive movement. Highly recommended: Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion.

2. Gabi Fresh

It’s always cool to see how women bloggers become more and more successful over time. I used to read Gabi Gregg’s blog all the time, back when she was profiling other fierce “fatshionistas” out there doing their thing. I drifted away a bit but was impressed when I returned years later and saw what a globe-trotting style maven she evolved into. I know she has inspired a legacy of women to own their curves and wear whatever they choose. Highly recommended: Gabi’s Fatkini Creations.

3. Gabourey Sidibe

I like that she sounds like a Valley Girl and has serious feminist connection. I like that she doesn’t shrink or cover herself up in black. The amount of vitriol that this woman faces for her confidence is unreal. It’s sad we live in a world where confident fat and black women face such BS, but I’m glad for her grace and humor in the face of it. Highly recommended: Her Ms. Magazine Foundation Gala speech.

4. Sonya Renee Taylor

She is a performance artist, a scholar, and an activist. The writings featured on her website have challenged my own biases around bodies that do not look like mine. She has created a whole movement (The Body Is Not an Apology) and brings a much needed face to body positivity. Go on, girl. Highly recommended: Her performance piece “The Body Is Not an Apology and her article about the exclusion of women of color in the body positivity movement.

5-8 Body Positive WOC

See it on the Endangered Bodies NYC Blog!

5. Fat Fancy Business Owners Carlee Smith and Annie Maribona

Okay, to be clear, I am writing about my friends here. If you wear clothes in the plus size range, you know how much of a drag thrift store or vintage shopping can be. Enter Fat Fancy to the rescue! I lived in Portland for almost three years and still have awesome pieces in my closet due to these ladies. Carlee and Annie gave me such hope about the possibility of having a socially conscious, viable business. They are awesome and I love playing dress up in their store. Highly recommended: Visit Fat Fancy in Downtown Portland and check out their website here.

6. Perle Noire

You know that overused-but-nonetheless-used quote from Marianne Williamson about being a light in the world? Namely the part of “…And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same…”? Well, that’s what I think of when I see the inimitable Perle Noire perform. Another world subject to similar omissions of women of color is the burlesque world. I’ve been transfixed by burlesque for some time now and am always happy when I see a women of color take the stage. Ms. Noire is simply amazing. She displays such a lavish comfort and sensuality in her body that it never fails to rub off on how I move in my own.

Highly recommended: Watching the Black Pearl in action.

7. Lauryn Hill

I often say that we cannot wait around for media representation to appear before we accept who we are. I fully understand the importance of seeing our reflection in media, but what about that reflection is slow coming? Or the actress loses weight? Or changes her hair? Should our confidence also dip? Still, I cannot leave Lauryn Hill off this list. As a teenager growing up in Orange County, I had many privileges but seeing my kind of beauty celebrated amongst my peers was not one of them. Watching Lauryn Hill pose on the cover of Rolling Stone, win Grammys, and be her wonderful dark-skinned self was a huge help to my teen years. She helped me to see the beauty in myself. Highly recommended: Binge watching Lauryn Hill 90’s era music videos on YouTube.

8. bell hooks

I kinda hate some of the more mundane slogan-y aspects of the body positive movement. “Guys love curves!” and “Just Be Confident” bely the insidious nature of the industries profiting off women’s negative body image. If negative body image based on racist ideas was a personal failing, I think we’d all have figured it out by now. bell hooks opened up my mind to the why’s of beauty politics affecting black women. She was one of the first scholars who made me feel un-crazy for the colorism I saw growing up. Thank you, Ms. hooks. Highly recommended reading: Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery.

Photo Credits: (1) bedaonline.com; (2) gabifresh.com; (3) Vmagazine.com; (4) sonyareneetaylor.com; (5) chubstr.com; (6) thisiscabaret.com; (7) stagedoorfm.com; (8) feministing.com

Questions

How do women whose existences have been racialized experience their bodies?
How do women whose existences have been racialized experience their bodies?

I am curious. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: I am curious on how women of color view their bodies and their media reflections.

I’m curious on how women of color relate to beauty. In what ways are we free from Eurocentric airbrushed ideals? In what ways do we struggle?

I recently attended an Endangered Bodies NYC meeting and got into a conversation with one of the founders. I expressed a qualm I’ve had regarding body positivity and the woman of color, namely black and Latina women for some time now: do we even need body positivity? Are we indeed more secure in our body confidence that a movement centered on our body/beauty experience and media portrayals is really a waste of time?

My gut answer to this question is no. I’ve heard too many stories from friends, seen too many woman color caught in a never ending cycle of not-enough tied to their looks.

There was my friend who in her mid-20’s was already afraid that she’d be one of those black women whose “black would crack” and she’d age noticeably. There were my skinny, dark skinned and fat friends who felt unseen whenever they went out to the club. There was my queer friend who hung out with a lot of white punks and felt her body was “too much” for the indie aesthetic because she actually had an ass.

So many stories. Of course, I can’t say there aren’t ANY places these stories are being told. Itgetsfatter.tumblr.com, @IntersectionalBodyPos, and thebodyisnotanapology are just a couple examples where people of color lay out their own brand of body positivity.

These spaces didn’t wait to be “included” in the mainstream movement of body positivity and what they are doing is pretty awesome.

But, I am greedy woman. I want to see more.

Due to the myriad of often life threatening concerns that women of color, disabled, and queer people face, it doesn’t surprise me that body positivity isn’t the initial item on the list of on-line activism.

If everyday concerns were situated on a ladder, where would body confidence and body positivity lie for women of color? Does it feel shameful to be passionate about the idea of body positivity when there are so many other (often named as more important) issues out there?

In today’s instant answer times, there is a part of me that just wants to ask Dr. Google what is out there regarding my questions. But, there is also a larger part of me content to let my questions live and reveal themselves in time. I’m sure there are more than one answer to all of them.

These are my questions regarding women of color and body positivity. What are yours?

My (Often) Fruitless Google Searching for Body Positive Women of Color


See the post on Endangered Bodies as well!

My tattoo serves as my reminder
My tattoo serves as my reminder

Sometimes just for fun, I’ll do a Google search.

Black women body image. Click.

Women of color body image. Click.

Black women body positive. Click.

For about four years now, I’ve seen the same articles, the same excerpts of academic papers, the same one-off comments on blogs.

There is a silence that surrounds discussion of women of color and their bodies, especially in the body positive movement. Sometimes I start to believe the media. Perhaps black women are just happier at a larger size. Maybe black girls are less likely to experience body shame than their white counterparts and Latina adolescents experience less body insecurities when they are strong in their ethnic identity.

Maybe that’s all there is to know about it.

But these glib surveys and one-dimensional studies tell me nothing about how Latinas or Asian women feel about their bodies. They give no insight into what kind of disordered eating habits affect women of color. They fail to explain the body-centered conversations I’ve had with non-white friends all my life.

I believe women of color have a lot more to say on their body love experience than what has been written thus far. We have stories more nuanced then black-people-LOVE-fatness. In fact,  I would argue that the ideals that certain communities of color hold about attractive female bodies are just as confining as the “thin is best” idea touted in many White communities.

Body image is more than a study or focus on the tyranny of thinness. Body image pertains to hair texture, gender, skin color, the pregnant body, fitness, taking up space, age, femininity, and even the often simple act of embodiment. Body image woes and worries are not solely the stories of middle to upper class young white women. So where are these other stories?

I never suffered from an eating disorder or desired to be Kate-Moss- skinny, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my own share of body image issues growing up. I grew up dark-skinned, extremely tall, and Amazon-esque in a place where this was not the norm.

Maybe my body image issues were due to where I grew up (middle-class, Southern California). Maybe they were due to my aspirations in my early teens (fashion model/MTV VJ…yes, I was a child of the 90’s). Maybe they were  piqued by the tendency of my extended family members to make comments on my weight (“You’re getting fat!”)

I am the statistic that is often hidden away: the black woman with body image conflict.

And yet.

I know I am not the only one with this story. I know there are women of color out there who could detail similar tales of body preoccupation. I also know there are stories out there that vary greatly from mine. I know there are actually some women of color out there who are doing great work (look out for my next blog post for some of them) around body positivity. I want to see them show up on these Google searches as well.

Do you think a woman of color perspective is missing in the body positive movement? What would you like to see if you Googled the word combinations I did?

Up next…8 Body Positive Women of Color Who Inspired My Body Love Journey

Love,

Hannah

I Never Hated My Hair

Read this article on the Endangered Bodies website :)

The different stages of my loc journey
The different stages of my loc journey

Though from outside appearances, it may seem like I did. I am the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. We have some interesting relations to our natural hair. When I was about five years old, my mother started perming my hair. The reasoning? The hair then becomes “easier”, more pliable to twist and braid at will. Saves time from combing. Looks “neater”. You know the drill.

I took after my mother and always had thick, wide-teeth comb resistant hair. When I grew my hair natural, it looked like one of those topographic shots of the Amazon forest. After Good Hair and other mainstream discussion, it was supposed that all black women hated their hair, were obsessed, and eternally vexed by their hair. The reason that black women were buying Indian (or Persian or Brazilian or Columbian) hair was tied to an ever-present self-hatred. Of course, there are women who truly did (and do) hate their hair. There were women who saw the lack of nappy or kinky hair in mainstream magazines as testament to their own hair’s ugliness.

But for me, it was different. I was always proud of my hair and I was pretty chill about how it looked. (I’m sure this was why lots of the black girls I went to school with made fun of me behind my back.) I always looked forward to the time right before the new perm when the roots thick and extra nappy. I would place my fingers into this forest and play. I was always proud when the assortment of aunties and hairdressers would cluck their tongues at it. Most of them would express dismay when they realized just how thick it (sometimes even wanting to charge my mother or myself more money). I loved that my hair texture tied me to my mother. I loved that my hair could stand up at will.

For most of my years, due to playing sports, I was always wearing some sort of braided hairstyle. More often than not, my hair was enclosed within hundreds of ropes of Kanekalon finest. 1B of course. On special occasions, I might wear a weave. I wanted my hair to be easy and quick. No monthly trips to the salon for this girl. My hair was never the main drama in my life until I went to military school. Due to new mental stresses and constant physical exertion, my hair suffered. Plus, I’m sure all those perming years had finally taken their toll. It started losing its thickness. I also had trouble fitting my hair into military grooming standards, which at that time disallowed braided extensions. It was the first time I saw my hair as a problem to be solved.

3 Years Into Being Natural
3 Years Into Being Natural

But after some time I was cognizant enough to know this “problem” emanated from outside me. When I graduated from military school, I was again doing my play dance with curls on my head right before a perm. Why don’t I just let it grow out? And just like I was deciding on an ice cream flavor, I decided never to perm it again. I understand that for some black women, the choice to wear their hair natural is a monumental one. There is a reason so many women detest natural black hair and it’s not just a personal preference. I know I am a lucky one in this regard. While I definitely wasn’t spared my share of body image woes, my African hair was never a source of loathing.

I like to remember my hair when I’m having a “bad body” day. We all have them. I remember the uncomplicated love for my hair to remind myself I’m not deficient in how I see my body. My hair reminds me of the potential of acceptance for other parts of myself. Is there a part of your body you have always treasured? What is it? What would it feel like to carry that love into a body part you don’t exactly cherish? Today, as my hair grows out in locs, I love her even more. I almost never rush to a re-twist. I still love to play with the new growth too much.

 Hannah Eko was crowned Miss Tall International 2014 and is the goodwill ambassador of Tall Clubs International. She currently lives in Brooklyn and is a graduate of Penn State’s Community and Economic Development program. Hannah loves Great Danes, Wonder Woman, and walking around cities with her headphones on. She blogs at hanabonanza.com.

Do you like this post?


Be the first to comment

What is Black Body Image?

Honestly. I have to ask this out loud.

I am a black woman.

I have a body.

Sometimes I think it’s the bee’s knees or some other positive superlative. But sometimes…

Sometimes I wonder why it doesn’t look like…

The Model:

The black model From wikiblues.net
Naomi Campbell

Photo Credit: wikiblues.net

or…The Video Vixen

Delianna Urena
Delianna Urena

Photo Credit: 2dopeboyz.com

or…the Athlete

Venus and Serena Williams
Venus and Serena Williams

Photo Credit: Damon Winters: The New York Times

It’s so easy even for me, to fall back into viewing my body from the POV of admirer or judge, instead of the living soul within.

Of course, I have things to do, papers to write, books to read, brunches to munch.

I’m not always knee deep in body image discussion. However, as a very visible black women, I’d be lying if I said body image wasn’t on my mind a lot. I am 6’3″ and over 200 pounds. A little hard to ignore one’s body with those kind of dimensions, eh?

I forever see this interesting dialogue play out in media in  how black women relate to our bodies. It goes something like this…

WHITE WOMEN HATE THEIR BODIES. A LOT.

BLACK WOMEN LOVE THEIRS!!!! CURVES, CURVES, CURVES!

BOOTY, BOOTY, BOOTY!!!!!

WOMEN WHO ARE NEITHER WHITE NOR BLACK? UM…WE’LL GET BACK TO YAH ON THAT ONE…

Oh, and don’t forget:

LOVE YOUR BODY YOU WEIRDO. (Like, why are you so obsessed about your body image?)

THE END.

This treatment is a detriment to all women. It ignores the complexity of experiences of black and other women of color. It provides trite advice about body love  while bypassing the mega-attention invested in diet culture, body snarking, and misogyny.

I wish I knew what other black women felt about their bodies. I wish there were studies and resources heavily invested in these questions.

Are we pretty satisfied? Are we angry at the unrealistic pressures facing us? Or do these pressures enter one ear and depart the other quickly? Do we feel unseen or hyper-visible? Or is it both? Are we still carrying forward hierarchies based on hair, skin color, body type? Who fits in where? Do we eat our emotions or purge them away? Who are our ideals?

What is black body image?

Of course, I have seen some studies. Read the beauty myths and bluest eyes. I know there are some unresolved hurts and issues going on. (See Resource list at the end of this blog post.)

I  didn’t covet the blue-blonde ideal but I coveted ideals all the same:

The model. The vixen. The athlete.

These photoshopped ideals changed depending on what was going on in my life, how old I was, where I was living, what magazines I was into…The only thing they had in common was a certain level of social currency and the way they made me feel:

Like I wasn’t enough. Like I was failing just be existing in my present day body.

It’s hard to talk about body image. It’s seen as a “woman’s issue” and therefore trivial. But, what can be more crucial to heal, affirm, and dialogue then these carriers that transmit our every experience?

There are so many other body image and consciousness ideals that color our world: sexual expression, body hair, (dis)ability, whether we are trans or not.

So much oppression, shame, and discrimination relating to how a dominant society responds to our bodies.

Sounds pretty important to me.

So, I ask: what is black body image? What ideals did you chase? What does body image mean to you?

So much to write about…so little time…

(For now.)

Love,

Hannah

Here are Some Resources:

Black Looks: Race and Representation – bell hooks

Adios, Barbie: Young Women Talk about Body Image and Identity – Ophira Edut

Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem – bell hooks

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Againt Women – Naomi Wolf

The Black Body – Meri Nana-Ama Danquah