I went to New York to see a show and speak on a panel about afrofuturism last week. I hired a photog friend who recently moved up there to capture some shots of me speaking so I could use them for my personal website. After the panel, I rode the train with my photographer friend and playfully told him to delete the ones where I looked particularly fat.
I thought he’d laugh, but instead he said, “You’re serious? I always thought you loved the camera.”
“I do, but only when I control the shot.” Then, more shakily, I told him, “I just have a lot of stuff I don’t like about the way I look on camera, and plus I’ve gained weight. It gives me anxiety. It always has.”
He looked genuinely confused at that point. The train was coming and more people had gathered close to us, so he asked the question loudly. “But…why? I mean, do you ever ask yourself why that is?”
I just looked at him as I thought about all the horrible reasons that I know exactly why that is.
Before I could conjure a self-shaming joke to mask the tension, he said, “I think you should write about it.”
So here we are.
Logically, I know that I may remain decent looking for twenty more years. I base this assumption on the way my mother and grandmother look. I also know that no lover has ever protested my weight, whether it was at 143 (a size 6, the smallest I’ve ever been in my adult life) or 232 (size 14-16, the largest I’ve ever been in my adult life). Beautiful, flawless bodies have stood before me in the nude and rendered me humble, and still commenced to make love to me in a way that let me know that they saw me the way I saw them.
But secretly, I never truly understood that.
Most of my life I’ve felt that my body was ugly and inadequate, even as people praised it. I’ve always obsessed over how it will be received, even in spaces that encouraged body positivity. Like in my yoga class, with my friends, and with the folks I performed music with for years. But, I do have my reasons for feeling this way.
Let’s pause though.
I need a second to get myself together here. Someone asked me to write this. I already told you that. So if this post seems raw on a level that makes my other posts read like Chicken Soup for the Soul, I apologize in advance.
If you’re related to me and you’re utterly embarrassed that I’m taking a huge dump on my Islamic upbringing by writing this, I also apologize in advance.
But it’s like this. Someone (who I actually fuck with) asked me to write this, and I’ve decided that since I’m a writer, and 99.9% of the income I earn, panels that I’m invited to speak on, and general sense of joy I (sometimes) feel in my heart are due to my writing, then writing has become, for me, a part of what makes me whole. I’m terrified of it and drawn to it and calmed by it and galvanized through it, all at once. And since god almighty gave me the ability to write, if someone asks me to write something to help them, myself, or others, I tickle these plastic alphanumeric ivories in service to the art of writing, and the healing in it. So yeah, someone asked me to write this and I’m stalling right here because the next part is actually (really fucking) hard to write.
But here it is.
There was a guy who molested then fucked me from around 11 to 14. Well, I think he started the actual fucking when I was 13, but potaytuh, pottatuh, right? Right. I knew him by the name “Simba.” He lived in River Terrace one street over from my grandmother’s house, and he’d been watching me. I didn’t think about that until years later, but I figure it must have been true. Anyway, he saw me having a water fight with some friends outside one sunny afternoon and I guess my prepubescent nips poking through my soaked shirt was too much for him to bear. Anyway, he walked me to his home, told me that he was my secret boyfriend and did what he did.
I will pause here to say that I was chubby, had frizzy hair, and wore glasses. That’s important to know. I had no street smarts and knew nothing about sex because everyone I asked about (in my world) just told me that it was haram unless I was married. I still pilfered lemon cookies from the kitchen to eat while I read Narnia books until I fell asleep. At that age I dreamed of growing into the gazelle of a teenager that my older sister was, with slender arms and long, dark hair. But I just wasn’t. I was nearsighted, had few friends, and was, as I’d overhead it put by a teacher or two, “a shy, sensitive child.” So naivety and body issues were already bubbling into an emotional doomsday cocktail in my pudgy little body before my panties ever saw their first droplets of blood.
I was already in need of an intervention in which someone would hug me and tell me that there was no such thing as secret boyfriends for children.
I was already in need of someone to tell me that I was enough, that I was beautiful. But my family is big and I slipped through through the cracks, and no one got the chance.
Men got me first.
Still, the way I view my body and the relationship I have with food is just a frame. An ugly, splintered, dusty frame. The next part of the story is the mirror frame holds, and what I see when I look in it. When I remember it. I’ve written it in every journal I’ve owned and then burned since twelve years old. I’ve dulled it, but it survives. It’s this:
Since I only saw Simba during the summers that I was at my grandmother’s, he never actually saw me turn into a young woman. I just came back one day, and suddenly was.
I ran up the steps to his back porch with more things jiggling than I’d had the year before. He opened the door and his smile faded. He still waved me in, though, because that’s what good secret boyfriends do. What happened next is something I hope never happens to anyone’s child at any age for the rest of human kind’s life on Earth and other terraformed space balls.
He looked at me for a long time. Really, it was probably only a minute, but it felt longer. I remember it that way because I can still recall my internal dialogue as he stared at me. I still remember it even though I can’t remember which pants I wore last week, or my own nephews’ birthday.
As I stood there in my Maidenform bra with the little bow in the middle, wearing the type of pink Hanes underwear that comes in a three-pack with different colors and patterns, his eyes crawled over the fresh batch of stretch marks on my hips and the swell of my breasts. Then, he grimaced at me and told me that I’d gotten fat.
Yes, you read that right.
The twenty-something year old man who’d fucked me from the time I could still fit cartoon themed footie pajamas missed the taut smoothness of my former child-body and regarded my budding, feminine curves as fat. And like the rest of the lies he’d told to contort my view of reality, I believed him. I collected my clothes as tears streamed down my face. This was death for me in my teenage mind.
my father don’t want me he loves his horn more than me. my boyfriend don’t want me because my new body is ugly. my momma? i can’t tell her anyway. everything i did was haram. my grandmomma is busy with everyone else and no one wants me dear god. dear god. oh god. im nothing. im used up and im worse than nothing. im ugly.
I didn’t even fully grasp that I’d been molested. By the time I realized the scope of what happened, I was so ashamed and embarrassed of it that it turned me into a totally different person. But I’ll skip the next part about me becoming a nihilistic monster and behaving in an ugly manner because I assumed that I was ugly. Besides, that’s a book I’ll probably write and this is simply a blog post about why I struggle with my body image so much, and have a disdain for candid photos.
Something horrible did happen to Simba years later though, if that helps any. It wasn’t by my hand either. The universe just kicks ass like that sometimes, especially since it has no fucking statute of limitations.
Anyway, after he told me I was ugly, it stuck, and I’ve been trying to wash it off for years. But there’s another element to the damage he did, and that took therapy and work to uncover:
I place so much value on the way people (specifically men) judge my looks because the sexual violence I endured from men has left me with a subconscious need to perform for them, and be desirable to them. Being told that my body was ugly by someone who had already manipulated my vulnerability in a despicable way did lasting, deep damage to my self-esteem. So much so, that when I gain weight and people remark on it, I hear his words in theirs and I feel erased.
But little by little, I’m making myself a bit more opaque. I remind myself that it’s unhealthy for me to base my self-worth on my outward appearance, but not unhealthy for me to want to be attractive. Most people have this delicate understanding built in, but for me, the concept is after-factory add on, and I’m still working the kinks out.
And, speaking of kink, know that I like women and always have.
Some of the overeating in my adult life is connected to my attempts to process that. I’ve been attracted to women since I was a teen, and I accept that it isn’t going away. So one of the reasons I eat because I know that my inner acceptance of it is brimming with implications for my family life. It’s an affront to my faith. My family hates it. It’s troubling to my ex, who is also the father of my child.
So sometimes I eat because my head, heart, and genitalia are at war and pleasure from food gives me something else to focus on.
Because ultimately, being LGBTQ in a Muslim family is pretty much like opting to not be part of that Muslim family. But two years ago I met the most beautiful woman I’d ever met in my life, and ironically, we bonded over being Muslim.
I want to say “we slept together” right here, but that demeans what we did. No; we melted into each other in a vortex of soft skin, pink lips, and subtly escalating shudders.
And usually I wouldn’t go there, but the latter is actually an important part of my recovery story. And my body image story. And my life story. Men took something from me and a woman gave it back to me. Even though she’s younger than me, she made me feel safe. She saw my body and delighted in it, and I left her side with my head held higher. The experience she gave me was important; I’m still learning from it now.
She’s covering her face in the photo because we’d both just gotten up and hit the cafe in the hotel, but she’s quite beautiful when she wakes up. You’re just going to have to trust me on that.The first night we spent together a few years back, she told me a story about the first and only time she tried to go to an underground LGBT club in Palestine. She went with her friends, was having a good time, and then someone threw a Molotov cocktail through one of the windows while they were inside and set the place on fire. So each time we intertwined I felt like we formed one big middle finger to the bull: fuck the patriarchy, fuck the homophobia. The future is female.
I don’t know that I’ll ever fully let go of the angst I feel about my body or feel comfortable in my own skin. But with her (women??), I felt it less. There’s no history of violence there. There’s nothing I feel I have to perform. With men, I circle them as they circle me and regard them as fragile, just as they regard me as the same. But I don’t hate men. I’m incapable of that. Also, I have a son, and the person I made him with ain’t half bad.
But yeah. I still stress and I still eat. I eat because I don’t know how to tell my mom my that I never released my book of poetry, Woman In Sujud, because it’s not about finding solace in prayer, but rather, a collection of poems about the eroticism I feel in the masjid because of all the embracing, whispering, and separate, woman-only space it provides me. I eat because my brain goes haywire trying to plan for my son’s future. I eat because the pressure to write something brilliant before I die looms overhead, tangible and omniscient.
But guess what? Eating for those reasons is not so bad and I choose to forgive myself. I’ll also be very clear on the fact that I’m in no way stating that being molested made me fat; poor eating habits did that. Rather, I’m saying that I’m still working through the way that affected my body image and makes me feel irrationally shitty when I sometimes gain weight. Eating disorders that stem from trauma are tricky that way, I’m told. So I’m coping. And I’ve certainly seen people do worse things than I do to cope, so I must not be doing that bad. Hell, at least my regimen is simple:
- I’ll keep taking pictures and videos of myself and forcing myself to love them–or at least accept them.
- When I lose weight again, I’ll teach myself to accept the things I hate about my skinnier body too.
- I’ll try my best not to yo-yo back and forth between the two, and just maintain a healthy weight. I’ll fail until I get it right, but that’s life.
Also, I’m going to keep telling my truth even if it’s cringe-worthy because I’m a writer with a pretty effed up childhood, and that’s just the sort of shit we do best.