I love this. Jesi Taylor, a proud Black woman who has the skin condition Vitiligo, speaks about coming to a place of self acceptance, and gaining an appreciation of true beauty. I don’t have Vitiligo but I relate so much to her early hatred for her body, and the arduous journey of learning to love hers in a world that constantly sent signals to her that her body was wrong, weird… unacceptable. Listen to her lived-experience-earned wisdom:
I’ve written a lot about representation of bodies (specifically Black bodies) recently so I wanted to share some words I heard from writer/actor/director Lena Dunham during her interview with Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club. She was asked by co-host Charlamagne Tha God about her portrayal of her own body on the show – what inspires her in this regard. One of the things I love about Lena Dunham is her, shall I say, double consciousness regarding her (totally normal) form. She has an awareness of the way her particular body is viewed in a sexist and misogynistic visual culture; at the same time, she has the ability to not give a fuck (most of the time… she’s still a human being). Here’s part of her response:
“I think I had this feeling like, I need to expose a body that I know so many women have […] there was this part of me that was just like ‘see me, and don’t just see me, see all the women who look like me and understand that this is what a female body is. Because what we see is not real. And we all know that. And I think we’re moving more in a direction of people wanting to be more open about what the human form looks like … but especially when we started Girls five years ago, people had violent reactions to seeing me naked, repulsed reactions. And it’s so crazy because probably half the guys who are so horrified by this, ‘this is what your girlfriend looks like, this is what your mother looks like, this is… a body.”
It is still astonishing to me how regressive a-holes responded (and respond) to Lena’s body on film… and it says so much about them, who they are… their ugliness. Dunham’s ability to face all of that misogynistic, dehumanising vitriol (from men and women) though is magnificent to behold; truly. I cannot think of another pop cultural figure in the last decade who has challenged and subverted the gaze as much as Lena has; been regularly denigrated for doing so, but powers on anyway… and I continue to love her for that. There is a reason she gets letters from young girls (and grown women) who feel empowered by her ease with herself in the face of a visual culture that not only routinely affirms the body-loathing of girls and women, but that attacks her body specifically. The way she handles all of that is genuinely, truly, beautiful.
Some more beauty right here.
Looking forward to Season 6.
Continuing yet again on a theme! I’m still thinking about representation of Black women in various types of visual media, so was happy to come across this clip.
It is The Grapevine – “a fresh and innovative take on the panel style discussion. The show places the topics of today in the hands and minds of young game changers, artists, cultural innovators, and professionals to dissect what the impact is for this generation.” Created by Ashley Akunna.
This episode on colourism was published last year. There are new episodes (published in the last few weeks) HERE.
Loved everyone aside from the lady in the mustard sweater who thinks we should just see the light skin/dark skin thing as a “preference” (the light skin equivalent to white “colourblindness” that ignores systemic political reality and favours wishful thinking) and who wondered out loud when Black people will all get to a place of unity; the response to her query from the lady leading the discussion was good.
As someone who has experienced both light skinned privilege AND been told I was too dark, who has been bullied for being perceived as light skinned from understandably wounded dark skinned girls AND been compared by other “un-woke” Black people to lighter skinned girls, can I echo the sentiments of one of the panellists and say that the lady in the mustard sweater really needs to stop getting her back up and check her light-skin privilege. Everyone’s pain is real with regards to shade shade, but there is a bigger context here. Praise to the other light skin ladies on the panel who understand that.
My other favourite response is at the 15:35 mark; lady talks about the reality of colourism, about overt and pervasive light-skinned privilege in visual media, and how a shift is starting to occur with dark-skinned “identifiably Black” women creating shows and media that lovingly centre such women.
I really love the contribution of the men to the discussion too. But I’m really not doing it justice, so just watch it here:
“I just want you to think critically about what we do with the Black female body; why we imagine some things and not others.”
– bell hooks, during her introduction to ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.’
It seems appropriate to post this talk, to continue on a theme 😉 I recently re-watched this 2014 panel discussion hosted by The New School (NYU) titled ‘Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body’, and featuring bell hooks, author Marci Blackman (Tradition), film director Shola Lynch (Free Angela and All Political Prisoners), and author and activist Janet Mock (Redefining Realness). bell’s knowledge and provocations are great as always.
- I understand Janet Mock’s perspective that there is power for her in using glamour to affirm herself in the world, particularly as a Black trans* woman. But I am completely skeptical about her assertion that this is not done for “the male gaze” (when so much about the aesthetics of heterosexual femininity is about that. If heterosexual men and women found some flamboyant body adornment truly off putting, for example, I am skeptical that Janet and other women into feminine glamour would embrace it; we should acknowledge this). It should also be noted that in the past before publicly coming out as trans*, Janet was rarely read as a trans* woman unless she disclosed that she is; so adhering to the “standards” of cisgender femininity was also about safety, comfort, “passing”.
- I’d like to point out how stupid it is to not have a dark-skinned woman in this conversation; without it the conversation is skewed and incomplete.
- The Beyoncé TIME ‘Most Influential’ cover discussion – wow. The first time I watched this, I admit my reaction to bell’s use of the term “terrorist” to describe the images Bey puts out into mass culture was to immediately dismiss the hyperbole. But the context here is important; bell was talking about the impact on young girls (and their relationship to their own bodies). There is no doubt, for example, that Beyoncé benefits from colourism and her cultivated physical proximity to whiteness. What impact does this have on Black girls, experiencing racism in the overall culture and colourism in their own communities?
- bell’s point that the major assaults on feminism and women come from image making and visual media is TRUE. I appreciate her call for genuinely liberating image making (I am going to be hated for this, considering how problematic this person is, but Lena Dunham’s representation of her own body in HBO’s ‘Girls’ is liberating for a great many girls and young women because it is unheard of for a woman with her body type to be centred on a television show. She shows herself naked, she shows herself struggling to run, she shows herself compulsively snacking, she shows herself dancing, she shows herself having sex, she shows herself being loved by others… imperfect and real as she is. And she cops grief for it – see how much hateful and vitriolic abuse she gets for daring to be seen at all. She is a white woman and yet I find her representations 100 times more liberating than Beyoncé’s – even though I enjoy Beyoncé).
- I LOVE this from Shola Lynch, which I will just loosely transcribe, because it nails everything that I want to do:
“There’s a term that I discovered in college that is so relevant these days, it’s a feminist term for media studies, called ‘symbolic annihilation’. It is two things: one, not seeing yourself, and two, only seeing yourself denigrated, victimised, et cetera, and what that does to you. And I think that we can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze, and look for the images and the people and places that feed me. The more we create our culture – cultural images, the books you write, the films we make, the alternatives – these are artefacts that live, and they speak to people whether we are there or not. Bodies of work, that’s critical. [Shola tells a story of her young daughter, obsessed with blonde princesses and battling her naturally big hair, becoming proud of her “Angela Davis hair” after repeat viewings of her Angela Davis film]. So the more we create the alternative universe… which then creates the universe…” [end of comment]
- bell hooks talks about how the journey to freedom is also the journey of imagination; the capacity to imagine yourself differently… counter-hegemonically. Creativity and the uses of the imagination is what led each of the panellists to freedom and a self-defined life path; I love that.
- I love what Janet says about imagining she is worthy in a world that tells her she is unworthy; imagining that she deserves to have a book published, to be heard and seen, to take up as much space as she wants and to share a stage with bell hooks! Creating a foundation of self love and esteem in the face of adverse circumstances is both healing work AND a creative act. If you have to create a larger persona that you will eventually grow into, that is absolutely a creative act (I’m thinking of an interview I saw with Sampa the Great, an anti-hegemonic force if I ever saw one, who said her stage name was something she gave herself to grow into. She’s so dope.)
Last word from bell hooks:
“the incredible power of images. Image changes something. Little girls read ‘happy to be nappy’ and it changes something. We have to be about that work of creating the counter-hegemonic image in order for that transformation to take place.”
This short post follows on from my previous one, ‘ANTI-BLACKNESS/BLACK *BODIES* & THE ‘TOO PRETTY TO BE ABORIGINAL’ TALK.’
In that post, I identified anti-Blackness, anti-Black and non-mixed bodies, as the basis of the offensive, back-handed compliment “too pretty to be Aboriginal” and the superficial favour many people of colour who approximate whiteness (due to mixed ancestry, European ancestry) experience.
Sasha Sarago and Nayuka Gorrie had compelling presentations, Nayuka in particular (by that I mean many of her thoughts on the topic discussed applied to people of colour and the choices we make). Still, I could not help but think about Celeste Liddle‘s broad feminist critique of the ideas and assumptions that underpin the creation of things like Indigenous beauty pageants and modelling in general. If you don’t know who she is, look up her ‘Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist’ blog and her public writing.
If I was curating the event, I would have loved the Q&A session at the end of the two talks to be conducted by Celeste – for her to ask a few provocative questions herself, and then throw it open to the audience to put forth their questions. Celeste looks at things structurally and critiques the very notion of wanting to be pretty in the eyes of white and colonised folk – a really important idea that to me represents the next level of “wokeness” and decolonisation.
Here’s a quote of hers from this blog post: ‘I am very much of the “Audre Lorde” school of thought here whereby “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”. Buying into coloniser notions of blackness, as well as patriarchal notions of beauty is not going to change anything for the better in the long term.’
I enjoy beautiful (as defined within this culture) representations of people of colour, and appreciate how *individually* economically/self esteem empowering it can be for women of colour to capitalise on being able to conform to western standards of beauty or be attractive to/within the dominant culture. That said, Celeste is fucking right – *collectively* it doesn’t advance either people of colour or women generally. We can partake in the politics of western-defined beauty, and use it to empower ourselves as individuals, feel more confident and comfortable, et cetera. But we should not kid ourselves that this is liberation.
In Celeste’s blog post quoted from above, she also defends herself from (incorrect) accusations that by pointing out the flawed thinking behind beauty pageants she was committing “lateral violence”. I highly recommend reading it here.
BLACK BEAUTY, OR ‘BLACK™’ WESTERNISED BEAUTY?
One more thing… something that I thought about as Sasha and Nayuka discussed the gorgeous Black Aboriginal model from Yirrkala in North East Arnhem, Magnolia Maymuru; and representations of Aboriginal people/people of colour in media, magazines, and modelling shoots (including Sasha’s wonderful Ascension Magazine… read Magnolia’s extended interview in Ascension HERE). I wanted to ask them about it on the day but didn’t quite know how to phrase it concisely; I still don’t, so I’ll just put it here as an incomplete thought.
I enjoy consuming western-based ‘Black media’ – magazines, films, television, radio, podcasts, vloggers, and so forth. When it comes to ‘beauty’, I prefer (aesthetically and politically) natural Black hair and holistically focused Black media makers. My favourite Black beauty vlogger uses all natural and ethically sourced ingredients in her hair and body remedies, and though not against make-up, she does not wear it on a day-to-day basis (beating your face is fun, but time consuming and expensive). I find her work affirming and healthy – she emphasises health, feeling good from the inside but also embracing ones Black body as it is; that feels very Pro-Black (and Pro-Woman) to me. I also enjoy watching vloggers with physical differences (scars, physical conditions) who use make-up to empower themselves, and vloggers who use make-up to transform themselves into characters. It is fun, it is inspiring, it is art.
Scanning western BLACK™ media though, there are patterns of representation that, whilst presented as proudly Black, actually discourage and attempt to hide things that are, by genetics, hella Black: afro-kinky hair texture, skin tone, certain types of noses and facial features. I have seen so many tutorials made by and for Black women instructing how to use contour to make your nose appear more European like, westernised (it is never phrased in this way, but that is essentially what is being done). “How to make your nose look slimmer” tutorials. I have lost count of the number of tutorials in which Black women use a shade of foundation that is obviously lighter than their actual skin tone.
I watch and enjoy all of this (often playful) transformation, truly. But I also feel grossed out by some of it. I firmly believe in the power and importance of representation – and in particular, self representation – but it seems to me that even in self representations of Black people, particularly in more prominent magazines and on film, we shun physical Blackness in favour of Blackness™, a version of blackness that has “tamed” hair, evened out (with make-up or bleach or simply mixed genetics) skin tone, “prettier” (closer to white) noses. And I wonder whether we (in the West, particularly third culture Black kids) will get to a place where the bulk of our self representations as Black people will reject the projections of the coloniser regarding the genetically gifted traits that white supremacy and colourism denigrate and stigmatise… and fully embrace physical Blackness.
Just wanted to share a few wonderful clips that have inspired me in the last 24 hours: women with physical differences and “abnormalities” who LOVE the shit out of themselves (as they should 🙂 ) This is what body acceptance look like. (Note: this has already been a week of dealing with ableism, racism, sexism and gender policing, which has left me weary and emotional, so I personally needed the reminder to sure up my own foundation).
1. “She’s built a solid foundation for self-love.”
This clip I saw via George Takei’s fb page; a young woman who lost all her limbs and sustained scarring as a result of bacterial meningitis, but found a way to love and enjoy her new form through make-up. Now her make-up tutorials on youtube inspire people to love and enjoy their own forms too (I am against “inspiration porn”, but this is different; a disabled woman representing herself and moving others in the process).
George wrote, “She’s built a solid foundation for self-love.” Such a foundation is essential.
2. “This is who I am. I’m different, and I’ve learned to accept it, fully.”
Three clips on the beautiful Harnaam Kaur. I love this woman so much. The British Sikh, appearance and body positivity activist has polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition she was diagnosed with as a child. One of the byproducts of it is excess body and facial hair. As a child and teenager she tried desperately to maintain a hair free appearance through shaving and waxing, but doing so harmed her body and did not stop the relentless, sadistic bullying that came. Upon reaching adulthood, Harnaam had had enough and wanted to just learn to love her body, as is. With the support of her incredible (and equally beautiful) brother Gurdeep, she did (he said, “As long as she’s happy, that’s all I really care about.”)
With that decision, Harnaam found a foundation of self love that continues to inspire people to nurture their own; people who see the light that she most definitely is in the world. It’s not that the whole world embraces her – she still gets stared at, vilified, and threatened both on and offline by damaged, ableist, misogynistic gender police for daring to just exist unapologetically in her body. But her foundation is so strong that they cannot crack it.
This is Harnaam’s story:
This is a Aisha Mirza music video collaboration Harnaam starred in: “fuck me or destroy me”.
And here Harnaam is doing a live feed for Cosmopolitan, telling her story, answering questions, and looking so damn cute (click on the picture to open the video link). She talks about how she enjoys her body and femininity through makeup and beard care, too:
And here’s a previously related post on my own (ongoing) journey to body acceptance and self love: ‘I will live the life of my dreams… in *this* body.’
[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 🙂