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

 

 

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

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