Part 2 of a 6-part series. Radical, Militant, Uncompromising Self-Care: A Black Woman’s Manifesto.
I have been at war with my body for as long as I remember. At first, my mom was at war with my body. It didn’t shed baby fat fast enough. My breasts got too large too soon. The hourglass figure needed to be hidden because I was too young for all those curves. And there was that fat again.
For a while I let that be her battle. I felt just fine. I was strong and active. But when I decided to go to boarding school, my mom panicked. I was about to go and live among white girls. I had to look better. They were all going to be skinny. I needed to get skinny too. So, my mom took me to a nutritionist who weaponized her ostensible medical training and told me I would be unloved and unsuccessful as long as I was fat.
I went from a size 18 to a size 14 in 1988. I was proud of my accomplishment. That hourglass figure of mine was a thing to behold at size 14. My mom bought me this beautiful peach house dress with a tailored bodice and a full skirt. I was going to be a black princess in the dorm.
In August of that year, my father came into my bedroom while my mom and siblings were away and tried to rape me.
I have only recently begun using the word “rape” because I didn’t want to say it or think it. It wasn’t violent, so it couldn’t be rape. He was trying to use every tool in the box to get me to provide some form of consent. I imagine that way whatever happened would be my fault. It is was horrifying and disgusting.
He seemed to give up and walk away from the room. I wasn’t sure if or when he would return. I jumped out of bed, closed and locked the door, got dressed, climbed out of the window, and ran to my aunt’s apartment under 1/2 mile away. In the middle of night.
When my mom came to collect me, I screamed like someone was trying to kill me, begging her not to make me go back to that house. That night I climbed into the same bed I had fled, this time with my sister next to me like everything was normal.
During the family counseling that followed, I learned that it was my fault for prancing around in that little peach house dress. He was doing his job as a father to prepare me for the world that awaited me when I left the house. I don’t recall that moment when a therapist is supposed to stop the proceedings and tell me directly and unequivocally that it was not my fault. I don’t know that anyone ever said that to me. They may have.
I escaped to boarding school in September of 1988. I gained 70 pounds by Thanksgiving break. I weighed more than I ever had. When my mom saw me at the airport, I could see the heartbreak in her eyes.
Just as I am, my mom is a product of her world. She didn’t trust that I would be safe among white people, especially if I were so different from them. She didn’t have many real life examples of marriage or “traditional nuclear” family life to draw on, and the ones on TV weren’t helpful. My mom loves her children fiercely in the way she knows how. My academic and professional successes are in part due to her commitment to bringing out what she saw in me. She sacrificed a great deal to make me happen. It has taken more than half my life to forgive her and to see the choices she made from her perspective. I am grateful she gave me the opportunity by asking for forgiveness and explaining her choices. Forgiving her, however, hasn’t translated into absolving myself.
I’ve made several attempts over the years to lose weight, but there is this pattern I can’t break. I get to a point where everything is working. I am losing weight. I’m toning up. I look in the mirror and see my glorious hourglass figure. It’s not long after that that everything falls apart again.
I’m taking a new tactic now. In addition to confronting the trauma of that event head on, I’m taking the smallest and most feasible steps to physical wellness. Unlike years past, I’m not going to dive headfirst into some massive plan. I’m not going to try to compete in a triathlon in a few months time. In someone’s reality, that would be totally feasible, but in mine, it will only set me up for failure. I’m doing things that don’t trigger flight or freeze. Things that just make me feel good.
I have hated my body for what it did to me. I have resented it and wanted to ignore it. I have lived as a disembodied head. Now I have committed to fully occupying my body. If we can’t have comity, we will have détente. Maybe I will prove myself a worthy caretaker over time.
We’ll shall see.
In February 2015, I shared my story publicly for the first time at the Memphis Monologues, an event of Planned Parenthood of Greater Memphis where local women reimagine Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues and share personal stories.