“You can’t make me feel uncomfortable in my ancestors’ skin” – Elk Bone
No single relationship in my life has ever been as tumultuous as the one I have with my own body.
My struggle with my body and my relationship with food began quite young. Some of my most vivid memories as a child are of the times my adoptive mother made me feel guilty for my behavior when it came to food. I’ve always been a bigger girl and she had me dieting at a very young age.
When I was in elementary school I would hide food in my bedroom. She would discover it under the bed or in drawers and it would set her off. She would tell me about how that made me a freak and was evidence that I had “problems“. I was so deeply ashamed of this behavior and I didn’t know where it came from or why I did it. I didn’t know why I couldn’t seem to stop.
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I sat on a panel with another transracial adoptee from South America, that I was offered some explanation for my behavior. She told me that hoarding food is actually quite common for children adopted out of poverty. We didn’t know where our next meal would come from and, having experienced starvation, we had internalized the need to take as much as we could while it was available because it might not be there tomorrow. There was no one in my adopted home telling me that this was normal behavior for a child from my background- that it was a survival instinct and not something of which I should be ashamed.
When I was 12 I developed breasts before any of the other girls and by 14 I was a double D and struggling to contain my chest in the tops made for girls my age. I remember preparing to leave for school one morning, in a tank top she had purchased me, and my mother yelling at me to go upstairs and change because I “looked like a whore“.
In my early 20s, I worked for a college ministry and all of the women on staff decided to do Weight Watchers together. Every Wednesday, at our staff meeting, we would go to the bathroom together and take turns stepping on the scale. I was consistently leading in weight loss and by the end of that year, I was down 50 pounds. I never admitted to any of them that it was only a few weeks into our competition that I had plateaued and therefore started making myself vomit on a daily basis in order to continue reaching my weekly goal. I still look at the photos from that year and wish for my old body.
I haven’t had health insurance or seen the doctor since I was a teenage girl. For years now I have been battling migraines and chronic pain from my back down to my feet. Sometimes it will wake me out of a deep sleep because it is so excruciating. Part of me hopes to have the funds to see a doctor one day but part of me is also terrified of how I will be treated. I have heard awful stories of women that have been dismissed or misdiagnosed because their doctor couldn’t see past their size. I’m not sure it’s worth putting myself through that.
I have spent the last four years volleying between crash diets and bursts of self-love. During the good times, I post photos of myself in crop tops with statements like “Thick Thighs. Thin Patience.” and tag all my selfies with phrases like #EffYourBeautyStandards and #BrownAndUnbothered and #ThickThighsSaveLives. But, in the bad times, I go back-and-forth between binging or adhering to a strict 1200 calories a day limit and crying while judging photos of myself.
I carried all of this with me into an interaction I had two weeks ago. I was speaking at the Nevertheless She Preached conference and I decided to run to the store right after I checked into my hotel. When I finished with my shopping I stood outside waiting for my Uber to arrive. I was standing a few feet away from a white man smoking a cigarette when I heard him speak to me.
“Is it a boy?”
“Huh?” I replied
He doubled down. “Or a girl? Or both?”
“I’m. Not. Pregnant.”
“Oh. If you were, it’d probably be triplets.”
I was silent.
“It’s okay. I used to be big.” he continued.
I turned my back on him and the exchange ended.
I immediately shared the interaction on social media and I made sure people knew that I was furious. I relayed the exchange with the right amount of snark and righteous anger. The people online only saw that part of my response. What they missed was me quietly letting tears flow down my face as my partner texted me to comfort me and let me know that he loved me and that part of why he loved me is because of how I look.
Because I didn’t feel that at that moment. What I felt was every inch of space I occupied. More than my fair share. So much that others felt free to comment on my body. It was another reminder that I needed to keep my body as small as possible.
I shared all of this with the predominantly women audience at Nevertheless She Preached. I was speaking on the idea of “Remaining Here In All My Too Much” and it was a horribly, perfectly timed exchange to drive my point home. Unburdening myself to so many should have been the soothing balm I needed but it didn’t keep me from tearing up in line at the movie theater concession stand a week later because I was having a bad body image day and that man’s words were echoing in my ear.
All of my work can be unraveled by one stranger in a parking lot.
The celebratory selfies, the encouraging memes, the body positive Instagram pages, the defiantly proud t-shirts, the constant pep talks… none of it mattered.
He crushed me.
I don’t want to hate my body.
I don’t want a man I don’t even know to have the power to wreak havoc on my emotional well-being.
I don’t want to hide half my body behind other people in photographs.
I don’t want to hurt myself in the hopes that it will make the difference between a size 16 or a size 18.
I want to see an image of myself and love the woman looking back at me.
I want to believe the man in my life when he looks desirously at me instead of recoiling in self-consciousness.
I want to throw my scale away and buy more crop tops.
I want to see other women, slender women, and admire their different beauty without negating my own.
I will try again and again to love this body but there will be a fragility to my success – because I am not alone in the journey. There will always be mothers and men, friends and strangers, claiming a right to comment on my body. My body that steels me in the face of trauma and carried me through loss.
But there are also the women from generations before and generations to come. Ancestors and descendants – women that have and will endure so much in bodies just like mine. Bodies that steel them in the face of colonization and carries them through oppression.
While I may not yet be ready to honor my body for myself, I have an obligation to honor it for them.
So, I will try.
For those trying too, a poet’s tender reminder,
“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” – Song of Songs 4:7