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Ever since puberty, I found my body to be a site of shame, something I desperately wanted to escape.
A transplant to predominantly white Catholic schools on Long Island, I was immediately deemed ugly. I had an older sister, but we were close enough in age that we were navigating puberty around the same time. As second-generation daughters of immigrant parents, we were on our own as far as navigating the personal and social meanings of our bodies.
A lot of hurdles were awkward for me. I grew flustered and self-conscious when relatives felt no qualms about making unsolicited comments about my body.
“You’ve got boobs now,” an aunt told me bluntly when I came over with my mother once. How could she mention them? I was mortified.
I could avoid it for a while by wearing starchy undershirts under my school blouses, but soon, I couldn’t hide my growing breasts anymore. I crossed my arms over my chest in an attempt to hide my nipples as they showed through my shirt, but I might as well have been wearing a scarlet A. I felt like there was something wrong with both them, and me. The few breasts I’d seen in R-rated movies were white women’s, with small pink nipples. Why wasn’t I normal like them? Why were my nipples brown, large, puffy buttons?
I remember finally mustering up the courage to ask my mother to go bra shopping with me. Instead of going somewhere with fitting rooms or getting training bras, we headed to the bustling flea market held in a movie theatre parking lot on weekends. There, she bought three bras for me with loud geometrical designs that announced themselves under most of my clothes. It was mortifying, and the experience perhaps encapsulated how the black female body was dealt with in my family – completely ignored, undealt with.
When I had my period for the first time, two years later, I thought I was incontinent because the blood had turned brown by the time I went to the bathroom. My mom told me I was menstruating. Because I was a "real" woman now, she dictated that I tell her everything I know about sex up to that point. A ball knotted itself into my chest. I felt embarrassed, put on the spot. This wasn’t how I’d expected The Talk to go. Wasn’t she supposed to tell me what was going on? That’s what the parents on TV did. After I rattled a dry, technical, and probably highly-inaccurate list from my 12-year-old idea of what sex might be, she deemed it sufficient and sent me on my way.
Watching music videos with my sister was a rite of passage for us. This was how we kept up with the zeitgeist, broke out of the lonely suburban immigrant culture bubble, and found out what music was cool. My sister had used her powers of persuasion to finally convince my mom to let us watch MTV, and we soon became addicts, plunking ourselves in front of the TV to watch Total Request Live, a top-ten of music videos in the pre-Youtube 2000s.
Going in a loop from MTV, BET, and VH1, it became clear to me that black women’s bodies were placed in music videos because of their overt sexuality. I wanted to disassociate from both sexuality and blackness, which seemed one in the same in black and white culture. For white people, it was something to essentialize our character by. All black people knew how to dance, and if a black person danced, it was explicitly sexual, right? Sure, you acted “normal” in class, but there was an essential blackness you could automatically tap into, and when white peers asked, you were expected to perform accordingly. I felt upset when other black girls would dance in their friend groups and it was seen by my white peers as a spectacle put on for their entertainment.
For blackness, my positionality to my body was surrounded by ambivalence. Although I could’ve read the videos as a celebration of black women’s bodies, a possible script for being comfortable in my skin (male gaze aside), we were also made to understand that these weren’t women we were supposed to aspire to be. If my mother walked in at an inopportune moment, she’d demand we change the channel to the news and “learn something” if too many video vixens were gyrating on screen. Soon, we furtively clutched the remote by us, making sure we had Nickelodeon queued up as a recall channel just in case our mom decided to drop in.
I’d received the message loud and clear: black bodies were shameful, something that should be covered up.
I also avoided friendships with other black women, afraid of what other people would put on us; afraid I’d be associated with the same stereotypes of being loud, of being sexual, of being up to no good. I avoided black men, too. Despite the machinations of my classmates, who were all too eager to matchmake me with one of them, I found, regardless of race, the boys in my grade were all too eager to remind me of my ugliness. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them.
My years in elementary school were lonely, but I took solace in my solitude. My parents had stressed education as the key to make it in this country, and I took to my books, my tattered manila folder, and the world of academia to transcend my blackness. I convinced myself I was an independent woman. I didn’t need friends or social support. I convinced myself that I was better than the other girls, who wanted boyfriends as an acquisition, something they could flaunt. I didn’t need to talk about boys at all. I wasn’t even interested in them. Only the world of the mind mattered. If I had to talk about sexuality, I spoke in the distanced voice of my four-paragraph essays, a language of calm, detached omniscience that didn’t implicate me.
I saw myself doing this out of necessity. My parents made it clear that dating in our teens was unacceptable, and being transparent about my feelings and my sexuality wasn’t an option for our relationship with them. Education came first, and our degrees were our “first husband.”
My father’s idea of The Talk was showing us vivid images of STIs from one of his medical books. The implication: if you had sex, this would be what would happen to you, and it was your fault. You were warned. I could never hope for any semblance of a normal sexuality: nervous first kisses, or holding hands on the way home from school. I was the most unpopular girl in school; I’d never date anyway. I even isolated myself from my sister because my performance of a disinterested, desexualized person had to be ironclad. I couldn’t reveal crushes, or even that I found a person passing by to be attractive.
Developing a healthy sexuality as a now-adult is still difficult work for me, and it’s certainly not a linear process.
What’s been most critical to me has been starting to peel apart the confusion and contradictions I felt around growing up in the ‘90s, where the rhetoric of colorblindness and tolerance clashed with the reality that race still was a huge marker of experience. In a way, my silence around my sexuality reaffirmed my undesirability. Instead of challenging cultural depictions of black women as ugly and tertiary to white people’s needs and space, I simply assumed it was right black sexuality was left out of the discussion altogether.
The other thing that’s been crucial to me is my realization that no woman is an island, especially when it comes to sexuality. Social-justice-centered communities I’ve found on both Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental for me in making me feel less alone. One of the greatest things about the Internet in its current iteration is that it’s so much easier now to find voices who would have been otherwise silenced or marginalized in mainstream outlets. Mikki Kendall’s recent discussions about #FastTailedGirls made me think about how the fear of hypersexuality made me disengage from my sexuality for so long, and how crucial it is for us to have these discussions out in the open.
Slowly, I’ve been starting to build friendships with other black women and women of color, which has helped me to see a multiplicity of different voices and perspectives to model. While we’re at different points in our process, what unites us is our commitment to grapple with these questions and make the connections between the larger cultural messages we’ve received about our bodies and our worth as sexual beings and finding creative ways to resist these messages and carve an authentic sexuality that works for us.
I’d love to hear in the comments where you are in your process around developing a healthy sexuality as a person of color. Who inspires you? How have you started to center yourself and your needs over society’s perceptions of who you might be?
We are always looking for more writers to add to this important section of our blog here at Scarleteen. Interested? Drop us a line, a piece or a pitch here.