Getting under my skin

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“I believed, and still do, that our bodies are ourselves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

– Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me”

One of my earliest memories of self-consciousness was when a classmate drew a clumsy depiction of a round female with huge breasts and labelled it as me. I started to wonder if my body was bigger than that of other girls.

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(Photo by Jaquan Leonard)

I was five.

That question, the adequacy of my body, has followed me every day since then. In third grade, a group of young boys followed me around the school gym loudly asking me why my “tits” were so small.

In 10th grade, at the age of 15, I was feeling utterly repulsed by myself. When I looked in the mirror, I hated what I saw; a dull face covered in acne. A shapeless, protruding stomach. Weak, ineffectual limbs. Breasts that were supposed to be these wonderful things but ended up just making me uncomfortable. I hunched my posture and walked around with my arms crossed to hide them. Feelings of inadequacy overwhelmed me every single day. It started when I woke up and continued until I fell asleep, often keeping me up at night as I ran my hand over a belly that was not flat enough.

I dug my fingernail into the skin of my left shoulder. My eyes unfocused, my hand tightened. I did not notice that I had broken skin until several seconds later. A small red crescent, hanging in the sky of my skin like a blood moon.

And that was how it started.

I learned that my body — the physical reality of my existence, the lump of muscles and fat that I hated and could not escape — could bleed. And that was enough. I could control that.

I used my fingernails to widen the divot. I used a pair of nail scissors to make lines. On my foot and my forearm, the edge of a razor’s blade gently nicked raised veins under hot water and I watched the blood emerge in tentative, slow-moving swirls. Later, when I was 18 and living in the dark, I made five lines on my thigh, each bigger than the last, that bled a little too much and hurt under everything I wore and screamed in the reverberating shower stall I hate me I hate me I hate me I hate me I hate me.

In college, I perversely learned how to value my body through the eyes of others. The objectification I felt under the male gaze was gratifying. It was trading one hatred for another; I might not be happy with my hair, but he liked my eyes. I might hate my belly, but he likes my legs.

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(Photo by Jaquan Leonard)

I do not believe, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, that the body is the entire self. I believe in the soul. Indeed, my belief in the soul is one of the few things that helps me quiet the voices in my head that start to whisper and scream when I look in a mirror. It has taken many years to develop an alternative voice, one that reminds me that my true worth is not in this body. My identity includes my body, and honors my body, but also lies beyond my body. This voice is my Lazarus, a miracle-voice that I resurrect each morning and nurture all day. I cannot live without it. I cannot be alone with all the other voices that rise, unbidden, from their graves in my mind.

There is no “garden variety” female body. Every new sun rises on a thousand different varieties, each with its own subtle beauty. Marigolds wake up and shake their hair out before taking their kids to school. Irises and black dahlias laugh as they take seats next to each other on the bus. Sweet jasmine rolls over and around her lover before drifting back into sleep. Chrysanthemums and carnations call loudly across the street as they open up their clattering storefronts.

And yet we have let ourselves be tricked into believing that there is one right way to be. Is it any great shock that the plastic surgery industry in the U.S. last year was worth $13.5 billion? Or that about 236,000 of the Americans getting plastic surgery each year are younger than 19?

The altered images in magazines, the boys who comment on the breast size of an eight-year-old, the man who sprawls his body against yours on the bus, a hundred other assailants that walk the streets of America and reach out with invisible hands to strike our bodies and our minds. They do more than peddle platitudes and lies. They take our blood, in the thousands of surgeries. They take our money, with a $62 billion cosmetics industry.

British journalist Dan Hodges remarked in 2015 on Twitter that, “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” The sentiment can be applied here as well. Once America thinks it is ok for children to have surgery on their labias, because they don’t like the way they look, we have lost.

I do not have some ground-breaking solution. I cannot tell you how to fight all of your voices. But I do not want to just remind you, wherever you are when you read this, that you have a Lazarus voice as well. You can feed that one, instead of the others. You have a miracle voice, and that is the one that is really you. Listen to yourself.

Nobody gets to tell you who you are except you.

*This article first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Yard.

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