I will live the life of my dreams… in *this* body.Posted: January 24, 2016
[sorry this post is a few days late – I’ve been having issues with my wordpress admin page]
This post is about living, loving, and joyfully navigating the world in a body that may be culturally stigmatised, socially marginalised, and structurally discriminated against. I experience the pleasure, the privilege of insights, and sometimes the pain of inhabiting one of those bodies.
Because when your body is the target of discrimination, it is a challenge to not internalise some of the nonsense that is directed at you by others. Even when you are a strong individual who powers yourself from within – which I am (most of the time). I re-listened to a podcast earlier this week, that reminded me of the importance of body acceptance work – for people whose experiences moving through the world are coloured by other people’s prejudices against their “different” bodies.
The podcast was Lena Dunham’s Women of the Hour, Episode 2. In it, Girls star Aidy Bryant shares what it is like to be an actress happily living in an overweight body. Ethiopian writer Hannah Giorgis discusses the politics, style and magical bonding that connects Black women who embrace their (often stigmatised) natural afro locks. Young musician Mindie Lind, who has no legs and rides around on a skateboard, explains how being a “crip” is a daily creative process (a brilliant description), and talks about being the object of sexual desire.
Episode 2 also features writer, TV presenter and activist Janet Mock, answering questions about her experiences of being a transgender woman of colour; plus filmmaker/writer Rachel Fleit, who has alopecia, sharing truly beautiful insights from her journey of “coming out” as a bald woman. Rachel says the way she handles people’s weird reactions to her baldness, completely depends upon what she calls her “spiritual fitness” on that day – something that really resonated with me, in general.
In fact, aspects of the experiences of all of these women resonated with me: Aidy’s carefree joy in her body and positive professional experiences within it, despite the rampant discrimination people often warn her about; Hannah’s bonding with her Black girl friends over hair and politics; Mindie’s sense of both power and vulnerability regarding her sexual life, and the creative adaptability that being a “crip” necessitates; and Janet’s simple desire for reciprocal love – a loving, public, respectful and equal partnership.
To me, the experiences shared in the episode highlight how people who inhabit bodies that are socially marginalised, often need to develop – through persistent, loving, self-acceptance work – a confidence in themselves and their being that can withstand and transcend the dumb shit they will encounter in the world. The late poet and disability rights activist Laura Hershey wrote: “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud […] you get proud by practicing”. For me, this simply means to continuously embrace and love your body.
I am practicing doing that again. In my previous post I wrote about how I am in the process of gaining my physical strength back after recovering from PTSD – integrating a new health and exercise routine into my daily life. At the age of 31, I am closer than I have ever been to realising a permanent, unconditional love for my body, that transcends all the harmful false beliefs I have allowed to exist within me in the past – all of which were internalised from negative experiences in the world, related to the way my body has been accepted (or rather, not accepted) by others.
These experiences started from the age of three. This is the age I was when I first experienced racism. A Japanese girl (funnily enough) at my pre-school told me at length and in great detail (quite alarming, given her age) why my Melanesian body – skin, hair, facial features – were ugly and not as lovely as people whose features were Asian or white. I was the kind of completely open-hearted child who believed everything the world told me at that age, so naturally, in that moment, I internalised it.
But it actually didn’t scar me too much, as I grew into a sensitive but confident child, with many a limerence-afflicted boy admirer and a healthy amount of affirmation from the people in my life. Nonetheless, the “bug” of that incident of racism was still embedded in my psyche, reinforced by the pro-white biased culture I was immersed in, and triggered whenever experiences of racism occurred. And when I say triggered, I am not talking about merely remembering the first experience – I am talking about feeling, in the moment, as inferior and uncomfortable in my body as vulnerable 3 year old me did in that pre-school playground.
I cannot pinpoint an exact moment when I started to “de-colonise” my mind, and completely purged it of the white/light supremacism that permeates much of the world. But I do know it had everything to do with connecting with other Black people who already had unburdened themselves of the bullshit. Since racism begins as body-based discrimination, the unburdening process naturally involves a positive reclamation of the body – specifically, of all the traits that white/light supremacism deems unacceptable. Going natural with my afro-curly hair in my mid 20s was not only an aesthetic choice; it was a political act. A freeing, personal expression of both my antiracism and my feminism.
Becoming sick at the age of 13 presented another psychological challenge to overcome – more layers of body dysmorphia, discomfort with my physical form. I was a naturally athletic and sporty child, so losing the ease I always felt in my body was a shock to my system. And, just as my unconscious discomfort with my Melanesian features owed completely to the experience of being immersed in cultural white/light supremacism, my discomfort with the effects of illness (which in my awkward teens included scoliosis, scars and reduced muscle tone) owed largely to the unkindness of other people – and societal attitudes about “different” bodies.
Unburdening myself of that particular form of internalised -ism, happened strangely and miraculously when I became a paraplegic, at the age of 21. Given my medical history (the illness I battled in my early teens affected my spinal cord), becoming disabled was the one thing I was most afraid of. Ironically, though, I became healthier in the aftermath of that particular trauma. For the duration of the year after that life-changing event, I worked out every day, my skin glowed, my appetite improved and I felt extremely present (and, yes, fly as fuck) in my body… until I started full-time work in an office and no longer had time for it. Different story.
So here I am now, 10 years later, recovering from another extended period of trauma. Not only can challenging times in our lives seriously harm our physical and emotional health – they can also seriously damage the relationship we have with our bodies. For me, I think these last six years have really been marked by a desire to take care of and embrace mine… but an inability to do so consistently and effectively. The PTSD symptoms totally depleted me of the energy, stability, and clarity I require in order to be able to take care of myself as a disabled woman.
2016 for me is about giving myself that energy, stability, and clarity. I have designed my new health/body routine to ensure I am maximising the amount of vitality, gratitude and joy I feel within it. Because it is this amazingly resilient form – this Melanesian, disabled, female body – I will live my long, long life and dreams in. And it is by really, truly loving and caring for it – embracing everything the unconscious world around me signals in subtle and overt ways is unacceptable, every day – that I will be strong enough to make those dreams come true.
Just watch me 🙂