Finding Our Light in The Dark: An Interview with Author Kimberly Dark
Adolescence often presents many challenges to self and self-image, and all the more so for LGBTQIA, fat and other marginalized young people, and those who have survived or are experiencing sexual abuse. Finding real and good conversations about these intersections isn’t easy. But someone spearheading these kinds conversations is veteran author Kimberly Dark.
An abuse and incest survivor, Dark is a force living and working as a writer, sociologist, professor and storyteller and deftly revealing and challenging the hidden structures of an oppressive society. Her books Damaged Like Me (2021), Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old: A Makeover for Self and Society (2019), The Daddies (2018) and Love and Errors (2018) are rich and personal guides to these fractures and some of the ways we might navigate and mend them.
In a phone interview with Scarleteen, Kimberly Dark opened up about her growing up with abuse, how coping was a mechanism for her to move forward and also how those who feel disfranchised can find their communities in a world that is experiencing waves of hate wave spreading through so many areas in society.
Scarleteen (ST): In your books, you talk about self-acceptance through your own journey for culture as a whole. Can you talk about the challenges for young people right now when it comes to self-acceptance, especially for those who don't meet conventional or white beauty standards?
Kimberly Dark (KD): When your society tells you that you don’t fit, or you don’t deserve rewards for any reason, that sucks. The mistake is in taking it personally, rather than organizing against injustice. I mean, yeah, it’s personal in our lives, but never our fault, or something we can fix by trying to conform.
ST: Can you reflect on what you've seen and experienced from the time you were growing up to what you see for young people now?
KD: The internet is the biggest thing!
The ability to find people across time and space that we didn’t have when I was younger. That is a big thing but listen: if you live in a community where people are really homophobic, then that is going to be just like it was back in the 1980’s, back in the 1950’s, back in 1940’s.
There is this idea that time is linear and we are moving forward and things get easier with time. It is not necessarily true! It doesn’t matter what time period we are in, we all are discovering the world when we discover it. Right? And that can happen when you are twelve or when you are fifty, suddenly something becomes salient to you.
Sexism, for instance, has shifted the way it looks, but in many ways, it has gotten worse since the feminist movement of the early 1970’s, and we have to remember that just because we reveal something or discuss something doesn’t mean the problem is solved.
ST: What would you say or offer to young people who are outside their current cultural standards? How can they find care and support and self-acceptance?
KD: First of all, I think we really need to remember that the mainstream is a construct that comes to us from consumerism, capitalism, advertising… It is a construct; it is not real. The idea that you are supposed to look a certain way in order to be loveable is not real, it is a project meant to keep you afraid, so you buy products and services that will help you to conform.
I think that the more often that we can remind ourselves that “normalcy” is not real, it is invented in order to sell us products the more often we remind ourselves and each other that the better we are going to do the self-acceptance and finding care and support.
It is also super important to connect with people on the internet and social media sites and also real-life communities, but some people live in very isolated areas and you can find this online.
Representation matters, so it is important to connect with communities where people who look like you and have your identities are seen as fully-wholly-being, brilliant being, confused, being smart, being angry, being happy being… Any kind of way that they need to be.
ST: Do you believe they can find or make their own community? If so, how?
KD: So, find people who look like you that you can love and see their diversity and their beauty and I don’t mean beauty in the advertising sense. I mean beauty in terms of the kind of light that we shine in the world that each one of us has.
“Can you make your own community?” Yeah. Listen, let me just remind everyone that there is nothing about human culture that was not created by humans, we are literally creating the world even as it creates us.
To me this is tremendously hopeful, it is hopeful because if there is something we don’t like, we can literally start to dismantle it by speaking and behaving differently in our everyday lives.
Don’t forget that you have that power to literally interact with people differently and that the way other people treat you does not need to define how you behave in the world, how you treat others.
We can absolutely make our own communities and I suggest you start with literally the thoughts in your head: how do you speak to other people and what are your actions. How do you point it out when something messed up happens that you have witnessed, like the moment you have witnessed something messed up like sexist or racist remarks, you have to decide, "What do I do, what do I say in response to this circumstance?”
Sometimes you want to say nothing but keep yourself safe, but a lot of times it is possible to be a better bystander and intervene.
ST: You are an abuse and incest survivor. How did you get through, especially through childhood and adolescence? What has your own healing journey looked like? What does it look like for you now?
KD: I am an abuse survivor and incest survivor, that is true!
I want to say first of all, that in any way that you figure out how to survive a situation that might make you not want to live? Any way that you come to do that is the right way.
This is such an important thing to hear because we see different coping mechanisms and it is kind of like there is a hierarchy, right? Like, yeah, if you can manage to do it, it is really great to take a walk in nature and learn to breathe deeply and do a little yoga every time somebody is horrible to you. But that is a lot to expect from ourselves. Other things work, too.
I think it is important, actually, to develop some really good habits, and I think that as a teenager I started doing that and I want to tell you — I’m in my 50’s now and I’m glad I had those habits because surviving things like child abuse or child sexual abuse is not a thing you just do once and then it is done.
I write about these topics and I talk about these topics and trauma is a thing that heals, but also, you revisit it again for new insight. You revisit it with the self of the day and hopefully, each new version of ourselves has more resources. It is different revisiting my incest experience when I was in my 20’s, then in my 30’s, then in my 40’s and then in my 50’s and good habits like exercise and yoga and connection with nature are really, really super important. So, whenever you can make those habits, do that because there are going to be times that you can’t make good conscious choices, but good habits can carry you through.
Those are the good habits but let me also just be really honest about how I got through this time period: I tried to kill myself a few times in the year that I was thirteen and I’m glad I survived that time period. One of the ways I did it was by smoking a lot of pot. Now, I don’t think this is a great thing to do in the long-term, but I think it is a fantastic thing to do if it looks like the option that is going to keep you alive until you see the light of another day.
I did a bunch of other drugs too, but pot was kind of a daily way to keep the assholes at bay in my life. I also stayed really focused on the fact if I could wait out the difficult times, I was going to be around than those people who hurt me. They were all older than me and this is a really important thing to hold on to and that is: You have a life that extends beyond most of the adults that hurt you. That is powerful, it is powerful as long as you survive it too.
Any of the things that let us live are good. It’s a paradox. I did things that were harmful to my body, but at the time, they helped me live. We have to be careful and keep an eye on the prize of surviving beyond the assholes! Whatever it is that you are doing: You are brilliant, your choices are valid, and don’t let anyone ever tell you that a label like “addict” or “anorexic” or “self-harm” —that any of those things are the sum of who you are. They absolutely are not!
You can change, and change, and change again.
You gotta stick around, and sometimes it is a weird jumble of strategies that gets you there. That doesn’t make you weird or crazy, it is really actually brilliant to figure out how to survive difficult things, because here is the thing: as much as we like to think, we should have control over what happens to us, it isn’t true. We can make choices but you know, sometimes even choices that look like they are going to be good choices end up being full of a bunch of shitheads that don’t treat you with the dignity that you deserve.
So, that is what my healing journey looks like, and it goes up and down. I do my best to be honest about my experiences and to connect with others, and to help form relationships that allow collective actions against things like sexism and racism and child abuse.
That is one of the themes of my last book Damaged Like Me, is that when you are traumatized you need help but then later once you have a few resources it is totally possible to be part of a positive force that influences the whole community, society, world in which we live.
ST: You have so many original, insightful things to say about bodies and embodiment. Can you talk particularly about creating a loving relationship with our bodies after abuse or other kinds of trauma?
KD: First I want to say that there are probably a lot of ways to do this and I am just going to speak to what has been helpful to me.
I already mentioned making choices that allow me to stay embodied. I mentioned smoking pot, I think of that actually as one of them because it may be a way to check out the mind for a little while but for me, it also kept me still in my body.
It was important for me to stay in my body because I realized that I would still be here later even though those asshats would be gone - those people that were harmful to me.
And so, sexuality became really important to me; loving your body involves actually touching it and looking at it and trying to see and understand what is beautiful there. I think masturbation is a really important part of getting to know and love our bodies and for a lot of people who are raised as girls we are told if you do that you are never supposed to talk about it.
But it’s such a tragedy that so many girls who have sex with boys and women who have sex with men don’t experience orgasm. You don’t have to ever have an orgasm to have a good life but the fact is, if that is available to you, it is an important form of self-soothing: masturbation.
So part of my answer for creating a loving relationship with my body after abuse and other kinds of traumas, is to come into the sensation of the body, the experience of the body rather than focusing so much on the appearance of the body. Sweat, get in the water, have orgasms, touch yourself, feel sun on your skin. Especially for girls and women, there are so many messages in society that say we are supposed to stay focused on the appearance of the body and I don’t think that is helpful at all.
ST: Let's talk about growing up fat right now. In a culture that is still so anti-fat, how can fat young people tune out all that messaging, find messaging that is supportive of their bodies and develop a positive self-image?
KD: Again… Representation matters!
It is important to look at fat bodied people online and in-person with love and kindness. It might take a minute to find love and kindness inside of yourself when you look at fat bodies because we have all being taught that fat bodies are gross and disgusting and lazy and stupid and [other] bad things.
But we really can change just by looking at images, just by looking at people we love who happen to be fat and focusing on their bodies and thinking: “No, no, I really love this person.” That is so important!
Here is a suggestion: I don’t know if you have ever been somewhere, like, a nude beach or where there is a hot spring where people go naked and are like a bunch of older people as well as younger people and there are just bodies around. That is a great way to desensitize our consumer capitalist notion of what a body is supposed to look like. Everyone looks FINE.
There are definitely loads of places online where you can find positive images. The Adipositivity Project has been happening for a while and that Substantia Jones takes pictures of fat people just being happy and good and doing things, being nude and clothed and kissing or smiling – just being normal.
It is powerful to look at those images and any other folks that you can find whose bodies are fat and you can look at them with love, you can look at them with care and that includes your own body.
So, what if you, yourself are fat? First of all, I would love you all to remember that the culture doesn’t love your body, and that means you have to work extra hard to love it. This is going to be the same message for people who are disabled, or people of color. Anyone who is not white and male and heterosexual, your body is not loved fully by your culture. Sometimes male bodies of color who are really masculine and muscular do get some love but it is a limited kind of love that only has to do with power and achievement and instead of their actual humanity.
Think this through in order to understand that when you feel a lack of love it isn’t you, it’s your culture, it’s your culture that is telling you what its requirements are. You can speak back to your culture and say: “I hear you and those are not the rules I’ll live by. Those are not the requirements that I’ll put forth during my lifetime. I’ll make a different life; I’ll make a different world.”
Folks, the main thing I hope to realize is that you are a very powerful social creator, no part of human culture exists without humans creating it and you literally have the power to do that. Of course, you don’t have all the power, but listen: power is not just out there in some kind of blob form, power is inside of everyone of us. We don’t have all the power but we have our power and we can decide how to use it.
And on some days that is easier than others, so you have to let yourself off the hook for that, too. Like when you are trying to be a better bystander, when you are trying to intervene in things that you don’t believe in and just be clear that if you messed up you are going to get another chance. Someone is going to be racist or anti-fat or homophobic and that is gonna happen again. We just practice the better world that we want to live in everyday over and over in the company of others. It starts to feel really beautiful as well to take on that power and responsibility.
ST: Is there anything else you want to tell our readers about?
KD: I want to invite you to an event that I do once a month for free, it is called the hope-desk and if you go to the bottom of my homepage, kimberlydark.com, you’ll find a zoom link. I talk about two topics related to social equality and inequality every month, 3 P.M Pacific Time, on the first Tuesday of the month. The idea here is that it is hopeful to me when enough people know just enough about a topic to enter into civil conversations about it. So, that is what I’m trying to do, it is to talk about two topics a month on things like diet culture or billionaires or racism in real estate or teachers unions. Whatever topics people suggest that they want to understand better.
I invite you to that, and I invite you to read my books and interact with me on social media. Thank you so much, Scarleteen. I appreciate the work you do too.