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