I remember when I first became aware of my body. I was probably about seven or eight years old. I was standing in line waiting for my mom to come pick me up after school. Knowing what I was like as a child, I was probably dancing around for no reason. Honestly, knowing myself now, I was definitely dancing around for no reason. Regardless, I remember overhearing comments from two teachers. Both female. Both white. They were commenting on my skin. They made comments about how pretty it was. I was a child. I had no real reason to know whether or not my skin was pretty. It didn’t really matter.
I don’t remember the entire conversation, but I do remember one teacher saying “Yeah, you should see her in a bathing suit.”
I remember awkwardly smiling. If my memory actually serves me correctly, the teacher that said this was also my “sometimes after school babysitter.” When the weather was warm, it made sense that the other children she watched and I would play outside in the sprinklers. She certainly would’ve seen me in a bathing suit. At seven or eight I didn’t think too much about the comment, but now at 26 I can’t help but wonder what those words did to the little girl in me.
Being aware of your body at an early age can be dangerous. I remember the first time I cognitively became aware of my breasts. I was in 8th grade. I was wearing a long purple sweater that had a collar with buttons. I loved this sweater so much that I also had it in a shade of gray. I walked into the bathroom before the school day started and a friend of mine was also wearing the same sweater. She looked better in it. That is to say, it was more flattering on her body. At least, that’s what I remember thinking. I was in 8th grade and already comparing my body to hers. Like apples against oranges, I wished her fair skin and green eyes didn’t seem more beautiful than my dark skin and brown eyes.
She turned to me and said, “Jayna…are you wearing a bra?” I was super embarrassed for a number of reasons, but mostly because there were other girls in the bathroom at the time. I immediately said that I was, because I was. And she said, “Are you sure? Let me see.” I pulled down the thick collar of my purple sweater and showed her my bra strap. “Oh, okay good.” she said. “It just kinda doesn’t look like you’re wearing one.”
I went home and begged my mom to get me new/better bras because of what happened in the bathroom. I don’t remember if I ever wore that purple sweater again.
For the next few years I was able to ignore my body. I wasn’t actively trying to neglect it, but I had other things that filled my mind. My love of English began to flourish, my interest in theatre started to form, I dabbled in sports, I was daydreaming all the time. Life was so interesting, why would I spend my precious moments focused on my body when there were people to talk to, books to read, and Disney Channel Original movies to watch?!
But eventually, I entered high school and the space in my mind that was occupied by the choreography for “We’re All in This Together” from High School Musical, was replaced with the reality of boys also becoming aware of my body. I knew this not because they would comment on my physical features, but because of the way they would comment on the bodies of the other girls in my grade. I knew who was at the top of the “hot list,”–the well endowed, long blonde-haired, American Eagle wearing white girls. The girls that I was good friends with but would never look like. The girls whose houses I would sleep over, but whose clothes I could never borrow. The girls whose make up, mannerisms, and music tastes I tried to mimic because I wanted to be anything but a minority. And who did all of the judging? A gaggle of white boys.
Thinking back to the mindset I had as I was coming of age makes me sad. There are several pictures that I vividly remember taking at the beach or at a friend’s house that ended up on facebook I wish hadn’t. I stared at my body and critiqued it until the only thoughts I could think were “I’m so fat,” and “I don’t look pretty.” When I look at those pictures now, I cry over that young girl that didn’t have eyes to see just how beautiful she was. I also cry because that young girl wasn’t surrounded by other girls that looked like her. She wasn’t surrounded by skin that soaked up the sun just like hers. She wasn’t surrounded by thighs that were just thick because that’s the way the good Lord and biology set up her body. She wasn’t surrounded by hair textures that didn’t lose shape in the wind.
As I’ve entered into adulthood, I have a newfound appreciation for my body and for my melanated skin. Thick thighs save fries, y’all! (It is a blessing not to lose some Chick-Fil-A crispies because of my lack of a “thigh gap.”) For this new vision, I am grateful. The ways my hips curve evidence the strength that so many women before me had to bear and birth children in horrid circumstances. The shape of my legs proves the tenacity my ancestors had to literally run for their freedom. The gravity defying nature of my hair is just…fun! All of this is good and true and lovely without the endorsement of white people.
I love this growing confidence I have in my appearance. I’m proud of the clothes I wear that aren’t used to hide the creativity of my God. But let me be very clear–my self confidence is not your license. Whether you are a bystander, a best friend, or my boyfriend, there isn’t anything that grants you permission to place your hands or your sexually charged comments on my body.
Last year, I had my first true experience with a form of objectification that was masked as appreciation. When my memory drifts in retrospect, my stomach begins to turn. Details aren’t necessarily important; sharing them doesn’t validate the experience, the fact that it happened does. And while the events certainly blurred my vision of the beauty in my body, that (to me) isn’t the worst part. The part that I have yet to fully reconcile and have such strong feelings about is this: what happened was between a white man and a black woman. He and I. Him and Me.
At one time or another…
His feelings were fetishizations.
His touch was traumatizing.
His words were weapons.
His compliments were corrupt
His expectations were erroneous.
His “love” was a lie.
And there’s something about it all, as a black woman, that is silencing. There’s something that makes me feel small and stupid and full of shame. There’s something that screams, You should have seen this coming!” There’s something that sings, “This was your fault!” There’s something, though MUCH quieter now (shout out to therapy!!) that whispers, “You deserved it.”
I think back to the Hannah Montana loving teenager that was aware of her body. She was displeased with it, but also desperately wanting a boy to notice it. And not just any boy, a white boy. To gain the prolonged gaze of a white boy somehow meant I’d have reached the pinnacle of beauty; or at least, I would have been breathing the same air. So, as an adult, when the prolonged gaze (and then some) came my way, there was a part of me that thought “I did it. It finally happened. I made it.”
And at that admission, I crumble. With tear filled eyes, I struggle for breath at the misguided notion that unloving, inappropriate, harmful speech and touch said something about me as a whole person. “This is it,” I would think. “I’m worthy and loved…so, why do I feel gross and dirty?”
When I was younger, I didn’t know that attention and affirmation were different. I didn’t have a category for being objectified and overly sexualized. Flattery and fetishization were synonymous with unfortunately positive connotations. And without proper correction in my younger years, I’m having to do the correcting as an adult.
I’m having to correct the lie that there is authentic value in my appearance.
I’m having to correct the lie that care is shown through promiscuous prose.
I’m having to correct the lie that my body isn’t fully mine.
I’m having to correct the lie that my black beauty is validated by white verification.
I’m not done, I have much work to do. Much of the truth is yet to be uncovered.
But I can confidently type these words more sure of my value and worth as a woman, and specifically as a black woman. I can confidently share some of my story knowing that it’s true.
Even so, I don’t have a winsome way to wrap up these thoughts. I only share them because in light of Black History Month, I think of the other black women that feel the way that I do, but perhaps don’t really talk about it. I think of those of us that grew up thinking attention from a white boy/teen/man was ultimate. I think of those of us that have been deeply wounded by white men. I think of those of us who have beautiful, safe, healthy, and redemptive relationships with white men, yet are terrified to trust them. I think of those of us who are internally conflicted because of the environments in which we grew up. I think of those of us that feel “less black” or “too black” because of the way we think, because of what we’ve been told, or because of what has happened to us.
I think and I think and I think…
I also tremble, but like Hagar in Genesis 16, this I declare–“You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” (v. 13).