It had been a long and peculiar day. Some frustrations, but still, a number of creative wins. I was somewhere between weary and expectant as I walked around my room switching off my fairy lights: The white hearts hanging over my closet; the paper lanterns around my rocking chair; the glowing roses dangling next to my affirmations; and my favourite new additions: bronze geometric polygons that cast shapes across the back wall of my room. There were more, but you get the drift. I have a lot of lights.
I lifted my duvet, the one I love with the elephant spread on it, and got into bed. My eyes widened with amusement when I realised I was naked. It’s not that it was unusual. I sleep naked as often as I can; and even when I go to bed clothed, my pleasure can escalate into nudity very quickly. It was more the unconscious way I had done it that marked a change for me.
I’ve spent a least a decade disassociating from my body; like that boyfriend you break-up with but keeping going back to. A toxic cyclical relationship that was showing no signs of change. It started with my hairiness and all the questions it sparked about my gender and femininity, and this was in the late 90s as a tween, before we were debating intersectionality and queer Blackness in public spaces. I added to my list of errors: my lips were too big, my nose was flat, my skin wasn’t soft, I was very porous. It went on and on and on. I thought it was pretty at least, but if I enjoyed that for even a second then God would meet my vanity with a face altering disaster. There were no remedying visible practices of self-love when I was growing up. God was to be the only object of affection, and so I never reconciled my teenage bodily anxieties. I abandoned blood and bone and funnelled all my self-worth into my intellect.
As I became a woman I made my body a dumping ground for my unwanted experiences. I emptied all my feelings of unworthiness onto my figure. An artful personification. I found myself in my twenties with a shape I didn’t recognise, or like very much, and more self-loathing than my arms could hold. Every attempt to get fitter, slimmer or stronger over the past ten years collapsed into defeat. I just couldn’t get my body to commit whilst I was reproaching it. I became fixated. I felt like if I could just lose some belly fat, and lift my bum back to its former glory, whilst maintaining D cup breasts… then I’d be worthy of love. It all sounds so juvenile to me now, so unconvincing. I kind of want to re-write that sentence and pretend I believed something a lot more complex and sympathetic. But nope. That was it. For years.
The whole thing becomes quite mundane and you just get on with it. I eat a delicious Chinese meal and then I feel really fat. You’ve heard it all before. Even whilst writing this I’m a reluctant about being compassionate with myself because the story is so pedestrian. So we’ll move on quickly. Sex. Sex is interesting when you hate your body. My last love, we’d been having nasty, passionate, connected, spiritual sex before I offered him my shrinking disclaimer: I say something like “I hope you’re okay with my body, I’m still working on it.” He tells me he loves it, and more importantly he appreciates me for me. So the next time we are together he stands up completely naked and tells me to undress. “Take it off” is what he says. I obey and he watches me. I’m standing in front of him and he touches me, kisses me everywhere, and holds me, before lying me down to do my favourite thing. Magic. I thought about it for days. How compassionate he was. How he heard me and the shy request for small acts of affirmation hiding between the things I said. I was so happily lost in his warmth. But as beautiful as it was that shit is battery operated. It doesn’t last. Oh you feel mad sweet after. Like your thighs drip with honey and your mouth is a treasure chest. But you didn’t put that love there and you use it up too quickly. In a few days I’m back to abhorring my belly fat and resenting my shaving routines. Ground zero.
Even before him I started to have the sense that I was going about things all wrong. That I didn’t need more squat challenges or body pump classes or long walks on the treadmill desperate for change. I’ll be honest: I didn’t have a deep awakening about loving my body and accepting myself. Isn’t that what all the exercise was for? No. The only thing I knew was that it was mentally and emotionally exhausting and I wanted to stop.
Around the same time though my friends got really serious about #bodygoals and this was awful for me. Just when I was trying to do away with my fixation on my appearance it becomes a core value in my circle. While they’re extolling flat stomachs and big booties my isolation and sense of unworthiness is deepening. I don’t say anything, because I’m too ashamed. I suspect they know anyway, and I think I planted little seeds of resentment over the empathy I expected of them, but could never ask for. I negotiated myself into the worst middle ground possible: I gave up the exercise and the compulsion to look differently, and I kept all the unworthiness that was fuelling it in the first place.
Not dealing with shit is like constantly treading water. And if, like me, you have a mood disorder to throw into the mix then that sea level is rising daily until you can’t breathe. I’m getting better at seeing my Tsunami’s approaching. Whenever I feel depression stalking me there is some feeling, some experience, I’ve been avoiding. But before I learnt this about myself, had this realisation, I had to drown.
I’d been entirely alone for two weeks. Avoiding all phone calls and concerned messages from friends. I stopped eating, and the insomnia was so biting, that I was drinking half a bottle of wine just to get a couple of hours of sleep at night. I was feeling weak and the tremor I’d developed from starving myself as a teen became even more pronounced. More shame for me.
I ended up in hospital but that’s a story for another time. Fast forward a couple of months and I leave London to hide out in Leeds. I coped the best way I knew how. I read. Everything and anything. Until I found the book that was a game changer for me. I was familiar with Brene Brown from her TED Talk on vulnerability. She was an example of the type of academic I want to be; relatable and unapologetic about researching the things this culture says are meaningless – like love and compassion. I’d been trying to unlearn my perfectionist compulsions since 2010, so her book The Gifts of Imperfection was a natural choice for me.
Brown talked a lot about authenticity, and it was a word I had been quite sceptical of because of my tra
ining in critical race theory. “Authentic Blackness” and the politics of belonging is something we are always contesting. But in this context I began to see how meaningful authenticity could be for me. It allowed me to see how excessively concerned I was with people’s perceptions of me, with being a “good person”, and getting everything right. What I thought was self-awareness was actually critical awareness of my faults, and a refusal to see myself in context. I was constantly looking away. And in that blindness I didn’t believe I was worthy of love and belonging as I was. The desire to change my body was just the beginning. I was working a complete project in becoming someone else.
The language of authenticity allowed me to face myself without pretence. I was feeling alone and uncared for. This former fundamentalist Christian had ended up believing the world was a cold and chaotic place. Deep down I knew neither extreme was true for me, and it was time for me to cultivate a spiritual perspective that would help create emotional and mental resilience. Doing that work brought me balance. I stopped seeing my body as simply ornamental and orgasmic, but as a vehicle for self-actualisation. It allowed me to inhabit it so that I was not constantly holding it up for criticism. I didn’t just go beyond being self-conscious, but that night in my bedroom I was unconscious of my nakedness. And completely at home with myself.