Learning To Love Myself As A Black Woman
“Why are you so fat?”
I froze for a second, confused. “What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“I mean you’re fat and ugly,” she said, as if that were the most obvious thing in the world.
I was in seventh grade, a twelve-year-old pudgy, buck-toothed, frizzy-haired, acne-prone girl totally oblivious to my supposed physical flaws and shortcomings. I lived in my own sheltered bubble. I went to school, did homework when I got back home, and then played in the backyard with our neighbor’s kid. I went to the library with my mother a lot. Perhaps most informatively, though, I lacked exposure to most media. I watched TV only once a week and seldom watched movies (except for the occasional viewing of Dumbo). This fostered a sense of cluelessness about societal expectations of beauty.
But when I got home from school that day, I stood in front of the bathroom and looked at my naked body for a very long time. I examined every protrusion and fat roll. Grooved specks of cellulite peppered my thighs. I had never noticed them before. I had never observed my body critically before. I had always been at ease with my body, but for the first time, I felt as though I wanted to shrink and hide from the world.
And so I stopped eating. I started exercising for over an hour every day. I started obsessively counting calories. Every bite I took triggered a mental calculator in my head. I memorized the calories for over 30 different types of food, including those in half a banana. I tried to figure out how many calories were in a bite of chicken. I made excuses for not sitting and eating dinner with my family. Sentences like “I just ate,” or “I’ll eat later,” or “I have lots of homework” were quick to leave my lips.
My mom packed me lunches everyday. I felt bad throwing them out so I stored them in hidden places in my room — under my bed, at the bottom of my closet, and behind my clothes. There the lunches made with love sat, festering, while I struggled to keep my head afloat.
Around this time, I also started to realize that my Black and Muslim identities were becoming an increasingly major factor in the way those around me perceived me. My parents had been able to protect me from a lot of societal pressures and evils when I was young, but there was only so much they could do as I grew older. They couldn’t control what the kids at school did or said. They couldn’t stop the girl who sat next to me, who reached out to touch my hair one day and then pulled her hand quickly away, repulsively saying, “Ew. Why is your hair so oily?” They couldn’t stop the girls who tittered when I walked past, in hushed whispers giggling about how ugly my clothes were and how they fit weird.
I became hyperaware of my presence and my body. I was always on guard, constantly expecting someone to comment on my body, on my own skin and flesh. My quest to “”become skinny” (a process I would later be able to identify as anorexia) became an act of self-preservation. I thought that if I became skinny, those around me would treat me better. And they did. When I lost a noticeable amount of weight, plenty of people made observations about my body, like, “You’ve lost so much weight, were you on a diet?” or “You look so much nicer now.”
In tenth grade, I had to do a research project on anorexia. I looked at the Wikipedia page, “Anorexia nervosa,” and realized that most of the symptoms described me to a T. Over the past two and half years years, I had watched myself morph into someone else in the mirror: my cheeks had became gaunt, my nails had turned brittle, my periods had stopped entirely, and a soft fuzzy layer of hair now covered my limbs like down on a newly-hatched bird. I was always fatigued, I cried every day, and my anxiety increased.
Mental health and eating disorders are blatantly ignored in the health care system in Saudi Arabia, where I live. When I told my mom that I was having issues with my body weight and that my period wasn’t consistent, we went to the doctor. The doctor mentioned that anorexia could be a possibility, but scoffed and said she didn’t think so. She prescribed me vitamin B and vitamin D supplements and told me to take care of my body.
My journey of loving myself started with wanting to flip the bird to Eurocentric beauty ideals. I wanted to be fierce, unapologetic, and non-conforming. My feminism was my defense — it was supposed to prevent me from falling prey to power structures that undermined aspects of my identity. And by constantly wanting to be skinny, I was harming my mind and body, not as a result of an internal desire to to look “beautiful,” but as a result of social conditioning that had made me become obsessed with being skinny. I did not want to conform to these ideals because, after all, my very existence is a defiance. I am a Black Muslim woman who wears a headscarf. I realized that I would never be able to conform, and I became determined not to want to. I realized that my body was mine and nobody has the right to comment on how I look, what I wear, what my hair looks like, or what clothes I wear.
I still don’t have a solution to knowing how to wholly love my body. It has taken time and effort. I made the conscious effort to stop mentally counting calories and deleted my CalorieCounter app. I tried to eat more, exercise less, and redirect my attention towards more challenging things, like reading empowering books by Black women such as bell hooks and Sonia Sanchez. Even so, every now and then, I poke the fat on my belly or on my thighs. But then I tell myself that I am beautiful, aloud. Because I am. My body is my home and I no longer want to destroy it, especially when society is already out to do so in so many ways. I love the jiggly thighs that I inherited from my mother that she inherited from hers. Being a Black woman and loving myself is a radical idea.
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