When I was eleven, I remember looking in my bathroom mirror at my body. I was a bit big for my age. My cheeks bulged when I smiled and my thighs and hips were wider than almost all of the other girls in my grade at school, including my sister who was widely known as “the pretty one”. Most nights after showering I’d step out onto the bath mat and inspect myself, praying that miraculously I would emerge from the steam skinny. I never did, and I’d dry myself off each night and head to bed disappointed that my body was still the same.
Even so, for some reason that night was different. I had started my period a few months earlier, so when I looked at myself in the mirror, I thought “This is a woman’s body. This is what women look like.” I had stubby leg hair, patchy pubes, thick thick thighs, tiny breasts, and awkward, protruding hip bones. Instead of looking away quickly, as I often did when I saw something I didn’t like, I tried to conjure up the image of a woman that looked like me. I thought of Beyonce Knowles.
Disclaimer: I look nothing like Beyonce and looked even less like her at the age of eleven, but I had seen one of her music videos earlier that night and loved the way her body moved. I loved that my body was capable of the same sort of power. She was full and radiant, and before I knew what I was doing, I propped my right leg up onto the bathroom counter, slapped my thigh and watched it jiggle in the mirror. I tried singing a song from her Destiny’s Child days and wiggling my hips. Laughing and embarrassed, I decided I wanted to try to love myself like I was sure Beyonce loved herself.
Almost twelve years have passed since then. Some days after washing up, I throw back the shower curtain and do a playful double take. “Hot damn, is that me?” I ask the air, then pose and flex and grin at the living breathing woman in the mirror. Other times, I step out of the shower and see a body that is not right in so many tiny ways that I know I can’t ever possibly win. When days like those come around, I try and comfort myself with the thought that everyone knows what it feels like to look at themselves and not be satisfied. It’s normal. We all want to be beautiful in some way and that desire isn’t inherently bad. A problem only crops up when other people start to control your definition of beauty.
The year that I stood in the mirror, shook my hips, and sang “Bootylicious”, I was in either the seventh or the eighth grade. More importantly I was in Mr. Brown’s health class and one day he, for reasons that I can’t recall, began talking to us about beauty standards, the beauty industry, and physical/mental health. Normally I didn’t like him as a teacher and I dreaded his class. He joined in with some of the students in teasing me,
switching the Asia in “Mai’Asia” out for different countries, continents, islands, and localities. I was most commonly known as Mai’Europe to him. Sometimes Mai’Chile, Mai’Antartica, Mai’America, Malaysia as well, but never Mai’Africa. It could’ve been seen as a little racist.
Anyway, to his credit the beauty and health lesson that day was good. I don’t remember much, mainly just the PowerPoint presentation that flashed out of the room’s projector. On one of the slides he had embedded two video clips. One showed your typical fashion model strutting down the runway in an intentionally casual outfit: a stylishly loose t-shirt, wrinkled khaki shorts, and boat shoes. Her calves were so thin and straight they, in the right lighting, could’ve have been mistaken for baseball bats.
The other video showed a plus sized model in underwear. Nothing too risque, just a pair of panties and a matching with camisole. Compared to the first model, she was massive. He elbows formed little dimples when she straightened her arms. Her face was round and broad. Her stomach lolled out into the space between the hem of her shirt and the elastic of her panties’ waist band. I could see stretch marks on her sides and almost feel the weight of her steps as she made her way back down the slim runway. Simply put I was charmed. I didn’t know models could get big like that. When Mr. Brown asked us what we thought of the two clips, one of the boys didn’t even wait to raise his hand. He called out “It was gross. She was so fat.”
Every day we are bombarded with images of what “perfection” looks like, brainwashed into believing that our bodies aren’t enough and will never be enough. Once we begin to believe that, all we have left are products and their promises: This dress will give you the proportions of a Kardashian. This yoga mat will tighten your buns and enlighten your mind. This $30 cream will grow your hair at least an inch (check label for side effects).
Most of the time, what the beauty industry is selling when it offers up its potions and its tools aren’t what one needs to be beautiful. It’s the very idea that beauty isn’t something that we can create for ourselves and from ourselves. It’s selling the idea that without it we could never be beautiful.
When I was eleven and wanted to be skinny, it was because everywhere I looked all I saw were skinny girls whose bodies were nothing like mine. Our skin colors were different; our hair was different textures and colors; and our bodies came in different shapes and sizes, but that’s not what the stores and the magazines, and commercials showed, and so I grew up thinking that type of beauty was the only type of beauty, and to reach it I’d have to invest in it. I’d need make up, clothes, diet pills, work out gear, oil treatments, hot combs, anything and everything those in charge of beauty prescribed. It got so bad at one point that I wouldn’t let myself eat come my senior year in high school, and I still couldn’t lose the weight. For so long, I wasn’t able to relax in my own body, but making an effort to love myself for the last two years, even when it was hard, has helped so much. Now, I think a little differently.
It has been a journey reaching a point in my life where I truly want to take my own body into my own hands. For the last two years I’ve been regrowing my hair to remove any trace of the relaxers my mother regularly applied. I love to feel strong and healthy, so I work out. Recently, I’ve begun making my own beauty products for my hair and skin in an attempt to take real control over what beauty is to me. It has been wonderful and liberating to know beauty is something I can make on my own with my own two hands in my own handy dandy kitchen. It is something I can create and customize and trust. It is not something I have to buy from others, but rather something I am in control of.
It might seems silly to say that I’ve felt more beautiful in myself for making these changes in my life, but I really do. Some nights after work, I whip up a homemade hair treatment and work it into my curls giddy with the thought of how my fro will look in the morning. My favorite ones are the ones I mix cinnamon into. Other nights I make sugar scrubs and oil infusions from my favorite herbs. There is something about returning to the basics and forgoing the chemicals and flat irons that feels natural and alive and so, so right. When I use my products on myself, I feel proud because I am capable of self-sufficiency and that, in itself, is beautiful. And why shouldn’t I be happy about that? Doesn’t everyone want to be more than a pretty face? Beyonce did, and look at her now.