I passed the full-length mirror about a dozen times that morning. I was rearranging furniture, attempting to maximize on the non-existent space in my bedroom, wondering at each five-minute mark why I even bother to try. I finally stopped to take a swig from my trusty reusable water bottle, and found myself legitimately wide-eyed to catch my own reflection in the mirror on the adjacent wall.
You can probably tell that I may not have a great relationship with reflective surfaces, and you are right, I don’t. Call it what you will: a latent case of low self-esteem, or a deeply-rooted history of feeling like my body was not in my own control. Heck, it is most likely a combination of the two. Despite this, I found myself move closer to it, filling the space as I got closer, and swallowing a dozen cringes a second. I cringe because, despite my years of studying psychology, gender studies, and slowly implementing new strategies to better appreciate my own existence, I am still haunted by my long history of disempowerment about my appearance. From random men ogling my newly ‘developing’ body as a preteen, to constantly fielding judgements, scoffs, and ridicule about my weight and ‘broad-ness’, I learned over time that my body, my whole existence for that matter, was not in my control. Everyone else seemed to have an authoritative role over it, except for me.
For too many years, I didn’t like myself. I viewed my body as a heavy armor that I was forced to carry around with me: punishment for some unknown wrong deed from a past life that I would have to pay for throughout this current one. From my toes to the ends of my hair, I could list hundreds of faults I’ve found since the fifth-grade, when I unfortunately became aware of how a body can affect the way that people in the world navigate your existence. From my status as the resident “fatty” to my early-onset of puberty in particular places, I became quickly hyper-sensitive about what this body would mean for my life.
I stood there in the mirror for what felt like a full hour, but was probably only ten minutes. I couldn’t really tell the difference, because my mind found itself wandering more than usual to events as early as my pre-teen years to recent run-ins with what I have grown to call the “Body Police”.
“What a bumpah big, eeh!” He leered at me, as I willed my legs to move at the speed of light to get home after running an errand in my community. He was a grown man, and that made my eleven-year old skin crawl to the highest intensity, the tears clouding my eyes. I spent at least the next four years of my pre-teen/early-adolescent life perfecting what I now call the ‘Arrow Walk’ - walk as straight as I possibly could, without swinging of young hips or slightly-protruding derrière. Needless to say, it required a lot of energy and willpower, and despite teasing from my own family members about my weird new gait, it was the only protection that I felt I could give myself against being “seen”.
I can’t say that it worked, as I still encountered countless leering eyes and cat-calls that spelled nothing but danger to me as a young Jamaican girl with full hips, butt, and breasts that made themselves known quite early on.
18 Years Old
I saw them as soon as I rounded the corner. I haven’t been back to my island home in about two years, and after just finishing my first year of university, I was ecstatic to be back, and even more excited to spend time with my loved ones who were waiting for me outside of the Arrivals hall at the airport. I went straight in for a hug, and was met with, “Bwoy, what a way you still fat. You couldn’t lose some of the weight while you were away? All you seem to do is eat, eat, eat!”
I kept a strained smile on my face, as my waist was grabbed, squeezed, and jiggled, in full view of the rest of patrons also awaiting arriving passengers, my face growing warmer by the second. I gave a small chuckle, and shrugged it off. I learned to pretend to not be bothered by such comments at an early age. It was really only pretend. This body of mine is commented on because it was being seen, and I shrank myself just a tad bit more, hoping that if I made myself small enough in my mind, the unsolicited opinions would stop coming.
This fear of being seen has changed shape many times over the past decade, but still comes down to one premise: my body is a source of unwanted attention that, for as long as I can recall, made me feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and without control of my own. Even while in a long-term relationship throughout college, I felt that my not-so-svelte physique was a burden on my partner; a constant source of dispute. This particular experience led me to disordered eating habits, and a continued discomfort with being seen eating, or even expressing the most natural state of hunger.
My relationship with these thick thighs, huge feet, and fat cheeks, has been rooted in lack of self-appreciation, and only recently have I taken the time to start unpacking what that truly means for living the kind of life I would like to live. As I stood in front of that mirror in my messy room, I kept repeating this statement to myself: “Body, I know you love me, and I’m trying my hardest to love you back.”
Shanice J. Douglas is the founder of Witted Roots, a mental and emotional wellness platform for millennial women experiencing turbulent life transitions. She is also the author of the Rooted Reflections Journal, a guided reflection journal that encourages self-reflection.