One of the hard things about growing up on suburban Long Island and being the awkward “new girl” at my elementary schools was the endless barrage of taunting I received. I was socially awkward: singing songs I invented in the hallways, drawing and illustrating my own stories in my free time. But I wasn’t sure what brought on the endless barrage of taunts, especially when we first moved.
Maybe it was because I came to my first day of public school in my old Catholic school jumper, on my mom’s insistence. The moment I walked through the doors, I knew I’d made the wrong decision. The pall of mortification fell over me. When I got to my new classroom, I tried to hide myself behind the chair stacked on top of my desk as my second grade teacher introduced me. I didn’t want people to look at me.
I was a good student, unwary, and sincere. I approached my peers with wholehearted warmth, which they disparaged. I didn’t know to be mean, to be suspicious of the laughing clusters on line who asked me what scissors do, or who asked to see my drawings, and ripped them apart once I showed them. Most insults, eventually, zeroed in on my appearance. I’d never thought about how I looked before. My mom thought I was cute, and told me so regularly. But after hearing it day in and day out, I eventually internalized these messages. They had to be true, right?
I even picked myself apart when I was crying in my bed, my face cupped in my small hands. I even look ugly when I cry, I thought, sputtering in the safety of my room. I hate the way my nostrils flare out like that.
Eventually, ugly was an identity I embraced and even took pride in. As my peers in middle school shared salacious gossip over who was dating who and who was kissing who in the coat closet, I saw myself as above it all. By sixth grade, I’d ditched my dreams of distancing myself from my pariah status. My undesirability was intimately tied to my sense of self. I’d never date anyway, so there was no point in even thinking about which teenage heartthrobs or boy band members were attractive, or finding out what my “type” was. In an excoriating WordPad document I wrote when I was twelve, I remarked that if a guy were ever attracted to me, he would run away screaming the second he saw me naked.
Being deemed unattractive all my life made me feel like I was unworthy of even being able to ask questions about my sexuality, allowing myself to be unguarded and vulnerable. Wouldn’t they laugh at me for daring to think I was worthy of love? Conversations about preferences or what you wanted in a relationship was the province of the pretty people, interests I was quick to dismiss as shallow instead of integral to one’s identity. Even though at times, I wondered what it would feel like to have my love reciprocated, I kept my mask tight in my waking life. If any of my older friends asked me if I wanted to date in the future, I’d roll my eyes.
“Isn’t there a more intellectual conversation we could be having?” I huffed.
On Long Island, there was a very clear hierarchy of attraction, and black women were on the bottom of it. Between all the boys I’d known in my life thus far choosing white girls, and choosing to self-isolate by going to a single-sex Catholic school, nothing about the first eighteen years of my life challenged my perceptions of being indelibly unlovable.
All that changed when I went to college. Within the first month, I’d been propositioned by a cute staffer at Spencer’s and a friend who was into critical race theory. What was going on? Had I stumbled into a parallel dimension where down was up? I wanted to act, but even though I’d declared myself a proud atheist since I was fourteen, I still hadn’t warded off the years of internalized Christian guilt. I found myself backing off, wanting to keep myself desexualized and feeling like I had to play the gatekeeper.
Because being a teenage girl so often means acquiescing to others’ demands and never saying “no,” I had no idea how to vocalize my desires or my boundaries. Eventually, I ended up avoiding both of them. In future dates, I kept walking this tightrope. I’d been starved of positive attention from men all my life, so it had to be an anomaly whenever it did happen, right? Love would always be precarious for me, because deep down, I wasn’t worthy of it. I wondered if any man who expressed interest in me would be the last person who’d ever find me attractive, and my pathetically short dating history seemed only to further prove my point.
The first time I ever heard anyone write about the fear of never being loved in a romantic relationship was when I read Jaclyn Friedman’s workbook, What You Really Really Want in the summer of 2011. During her research period for this book, this was a recurring theme her interviewees mentioned. Good advice about love and relationships is still rare, and mainstream publications and websites seem more interested in obfuscation, assuming the most regressive sex roles for both men and women. (Think Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus). As often happens when I read amazing feminist writing, I felt like I finally had language for this fear I’d held all my life. This was a thing other women of color felt and were finding ways to unlearn.
Facing this fear means working on the ways I feel unlovable and challenging this narrative as immutable and static.
It means doing boundary work so I can believe that the rules I set for myself deserve to be respected. It means finally allowing myself to think about what I want in a partner instead of assuming that these things don’t matter as long as we love one another. It means my needs are as important as my partner’s needs, and deserve to be considered equally. It means I need to challenge cultural notions about love and infatuation being a force we’re unable to control, and accepting a person despite their flaws if those flaws endanger your sense of being safe.
It means loving on myself, whether that be through snapping shameless selfies, taking myself on a walk through the neighborhood, or putting on a bold statement lip. It means accepting the love I do receive from my friends and my family without making little caveats in my mind about how they have to say that, or ranking that love as less-than romantic love.