As far back as I can remember I’ve always felt small when it has come to other women. This wasn’t rooted in my own insecurity as much as it was passed down to me. My mother is a light skinned woman who grew up in New York in the 80s and 90s. She was the “darkest” of all her sisters who were light enough to pass in those days. She was constantly bullied by her peers for being too dark and too lanky and this insecurity was only heightened when I was born. I’m dark skinned and have always been around women lighter than me. At the slightest bristle of not fitting in, I was staunchly told by my mother that it was because I was dark and all of my friends were mixed, light skinned, and more desirable to my peers. I was reminded often that I would never be seen as beautiful if I continued to surround myself with lighter skinned women and many other such rebukes.
My two best friends growing up were, you guessed it, light skinned biracial women. So when I would come home feeling like I couldn’t get a guy to like me, I was again reminded that these girls were the enemy. I was only not as beautiful to the little boys I desired because of them. Which was so weird to me, because I just knew it was because my hair was wild and I couldn’t dress to save my life. But I listened to my mother because, after all, she was an adult who’d lived longer than me and knew better…or so I thought.
Although growing up I had more trouble being the only Black woman present more than the only dark skinned woman in a room, I didn’t allow the idea that my brown skin is what kept me from suitors or from making friends with women around me. My Blackness has always been more of a barrier in the rooms and places I’ve found myself in. Thankfully, especially now, I’m standing more in my Blackness and surrounding myself with people who don’t see it as something they have to get over but rather a part of me that makes me, me. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I need to start a little further back for you to truly understand.
As any other teenager, I suffered from hormonal acne during my puberty. While it was bad enough having my classmates point out my major breakouts, I found it even more unbearable to hear my mother fawn over every little bump or imperfection. If it wasn’t my acne, it was my “uneven” skin tone or my unruly hair. It almost felt like I would never measure up to what her ideals were. But the worst of it came with her unhealthy obsession with my weight.
Growing up, my mother always struggled with her weight. As a military woman, she was accountable for maintaining a certain weight to pass her assessments so this added to her obsession and crash diet cycles. I often wondered what made her this way but being able to look back at my mother when she was younger and realizing that she was 95 pounds soaking wet prior to my birth and a strong 150 plus afterwards, I could see where she felt she was not where she wanted to be. At 5’8, my mother was never truly overweight but this didn’t matter to her. She was constantly trying new diets, exercising until she couldn’t move, and of course, commenting on everyone else’s habits in the meantime.
I was 5’7 by the time I was in middle school; taller than most of my classmates and shapely to boot. (I had a size C breast cup at 10.) I was often mistaken for a teenager even as a pre-preteen and it bothered my mother to no end. She would obsess over my figure and how it always seemed that no matter how much weight I gained, I gained it in the “right” places. I wasn’t allowed to wear a lot of normal things because I had a “womanly” shape and my mother didn’t want me to garner any more attention than necessary. In some ways, she was protecting me but in many more she was fearful of the way I was perceived due to her own perceived shortcomings.
This became even more obvious to me as I entered college and completed a one year internship. During my first year of college, I walked everywhere and went to the gym 3 times a week faithfully. I was incredibly fortunate to not gain the Freshmen 15 but rather lose 20 pounds. Then during my internship, I was developing a deeper faith walk (or so I thought—but that’s a story for another day) and I fasted each Saturday out of reverence. Of course, during this time, I lost even more weight. My mother’s obsession with my weight and eating habits became a topic of discussion at almost every meal. She was convinced that at this time I had an eating disorder and was hiding it from my family. I distinctly remember eating out with cousins I hadn’t seen in years and being followed in the bathroom as I went to wash my hands. This was, according to them, suspicious since I didn’t eat much and they wanted to make sure I wasn’t purging as my mother suspected. Had my mother actually been sincere in her attempt to regulate my health, I might have found this endearing but it only added to my own warped self image.
Years later, I’ve found myself filled out and plump. Some days I hear the haunting voice of my mother picking apart her body and then my own and other days I honor my body for carrying me through to see another day. Although it hasn’t been easy to deprogram my brain from the insecurities looming down my ancestral line, I am learning to love every lump and bump as it comes. I don’t fear weight gain or loss as much as I once did because I now know to listen to my body. What is it telling me when weight falls off? Am I working out? Sick? Depressed? When weight gain comes, am I happy? Depressed? Fulfilled? It doesn’t matter what a scale says to me because the most important aspect is my mental and emotional health these days. These have more of a bearing on my weight than anything else because of how I respond to changes in them. When you can recognize these things about your body, then you can learn to love it as it fluctuates. Honoring every change and knowing when to change course whether physically or mentally.
As I’ve grown I’ve come to understand the trauma that shapes us and the way we pass down these things. Whether in our genes or by our actions, we can perpetuate self-hatred through no intention of our own. I don’t have it in me to fully blame my mother for passing down her own insecurities because I understand that often times we don’t recognize the roots of these things. This, in turn, makes it harder to identify and prune them from our own psych. But I have suffered well into adulthood at the hands of her own inability to love herself.
Thankfully, my story doesn’t end there though. I’ve had to parent myself in my 20s and unlearn and relearn how to be a better person in society and even more-so to myself. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that the hatred we have for ourselves can manifest in how we treat those around us. (If 2020 has taught us anything—again, a blog for another day…) However, the most important lesson to take from our life-long development is how we overcome and how we redirect these behaviors. When we know better, we can do better for the ones who come after us. I, for one, have renewed hope in the generations to come that we will love ourselves better and teach our children to do the same. We can and will change a generation if we just hold on and keep pressing onward.