Photo: Courtesy of Joy Bryant.
No one ever told me I was beautiful when I was a young girl, even though it was all I dreamed about hearing. “Joy, you are beautiful,” the world would sing to me, and everything would be wonderful. Because if I was beautiful, I would be cool, and then people would love me! (Poor baby.)

Little did I know back then that it doesn’t matter what the world sings to you. Most of us are tone deaf anyway, and the world can be off-key.

“You’re no better than anybody, and nobody’s better than you,” my wise grandmother would say. I am damn lucky to have had that woman in my life. It’s because of her that I even have a life. My mother was too busy being pretty to really give a damn about me. But Nana taught me that even a poor black girl can dream big, that I can be anything, anyone I wanted in life.

“It’s what’s in your head that counts.” Education was my ticket to the world. I just had to do the work. So I did.

“You are smart.” I got that a lot.

But it wasn’t what I really wanted. If I could look the right way, then I would be a “somebody” instead of just “anybody,” or worse, a “nobody.”

I grew up in the South Bronx, in a predominantly Black and Latino community filled with super fly beauties whose bodies defied gravity. I thought everyone looked better than me, dressed better than me, had cooler hair than me, was more "woman" than me. As if I even knew what a woman should be.

I just knew I hated me: I was too damn skinny and I wanted to be thicker.

I wanted titties, ass, flesh. I didn’t want to be no stinkin’ beanpole. I felt inadequate, out of place — and the world around me only confirmed my proportion distortion. Like my best friend’s mother telling me on a regular basis that I looked like a boy. Or that same best friend telling me I was lucky I was cute, or else no guys would ever talk to me because I was so bony. Or people telling me to put some meat on my bones. I wasn’t even in high school yet, but comments on my body, what it should look like, and whom it should please, were the norm. Oh, the things women say to other women, women to girls, girls to each other, girls to themselves. I felt like a sidelined player keeping the bench warm as everyone else played the game I so desperately wanted to be in.

***

I joined another team.

With my good grades, I got a scholarship to a prestigious New England boarding school: a super-white waspy world where J.Crew and Laura Ashley reigned supreme, and thin was most definitely in.

“You are so beautiful,” a girl told me on the first day.

Me? Beautiful? Ha! I thought she was nuts.

Then another girl said the same thing, and another.

Wait, you mean being skinny is cool here? Shit, count me in! Kool-Aid never tasted so good. I was in the game! I got to hear the song! Finally!

Since my body was deemed acceptable, I could accept it in a way I couldn’t before. For the first time in my life, I started to like what I saw in the mirror. I was no longer the skinny loser.

I was the cool Black girl I always wanted to be.

But as liberating as that was, I soon found out why these girls thought my body was the “ideal.” It wasn’t because they had some next-level understanding of body acceptance. Turns out, they felt just as shitty about themselves as I as had about myself. In some cases, even shittier. Being thin was so prized in their world; it was prized by their mothers and other women in their lives, prized by their culture.

our great unifier was our low self-esteem. That’s fucking terrible. So much for girl power.

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For some girls, the pressure was unbearable. I’d never heard of anorexia or bulimia before going to Westminster, but I soon got a strong whiff of it. At first, I didn’t understand why anyone would purposely starve themselves for non-political reasons. Being on a diet when you’re already underweight didn’t make sense to me. And I couldn’t wrap my brain around forcing yourself to throw up after eating a meal, especially a good one. I just wanted to shake them and tell them, “You are fine just the way you are! Why is that not enough for you?”

But then, I’d have to answer the same question.

We were different in so many ways — race, socioeconomic status, family upbringing — but our great unifier was our low self-esteem. That’s fucking terrible. So much for girl power.

***

I thrived academically at Westminster and graduated as a confident young woman on her way to Yale, ready to take on the world. But once I got there, my world fell apart. My grandmother died during my freshman year, and with her, all the reasons why I even wanted to be there in the first place. I lost my biggest cheerleader, my rock. Being “smart” didn’t matter to me anymore. So when the fashion world came a-knocking, I thirstily opened the door.

I didn’t become a model because I was into fashion. I didn’t become a model because I was into art and photography. I became a model because it was a great opportunity to make money and see the world.

But, real talk, I wanted to model because it validated me.

It meant I was “legitimately” beautiful, perhaps even more beautiful than others. I got just what I always wanted: to be admired for what I looked like. Fuck being smart!

The world was singing my song, and I was gonna get up and dance for as long as it was on. If my grandmother were alive at the time, she would’ve told me to go clean out my ears and sit my ass down, because that song was nothing but noise.

Model Beautiful was very different from High School Beautiful. After being told for most of my life that I was too skinny, now I wasn’t skinny enough. And yeah, I was beautiful, but so was everyone else, and our beauty depended on who was looking and what was in style.

yeah, I was beautiful, but so was everyone else.



Luckily, my look was “commercial,” meaning I could make good money doing catalog work. Once I got in that door, I worked constantly. I should’ve been happy with that, but my thirst for more beauty accolades kept me stuck-on-stupid for a while. I was a commercial girl who wanted to be an “editorial” girl: she who slays the magazine pages and sashays along the runways. That girl was really beautiful, and I wanted to be her. Here I was, finally in the game, starting on the JV squad, but I wanted to ride the Varsity bench just to say I made the team.

Geez. It’s just never enough.

After standing in line for hours at a show casting in Paris and having the famous designer tell me to my face in his thick French accent, “Joy, you are so beautiful, but I’m not using black girls this season,” I started to realize that this team sucked. They all do, actually, because no matter how much of a “somebody” you become, there’s always somebody else quick to remind you that you are still a “nobody” and that you don’t measure up. But I dealt with the indignities of racist Eurocentric beauty standards and straight-to-the-face rejections, because at the end of the day, I was a working model. I was still cool. And I was one of the beautiful ones, even if it was with a lowercase B.

***

Models had a bad rap in Hollywood by the time I got to town.

A few not-so-stellar performances had poisoned the pot for the rest of us. So no one rolled out the red carpet for me because I was in a Tommy Hilfiger ad — they probably would have rather rolled my ass up in it. I knew that acting was an art and actors are serious about their craft. But Hollywood is some whole other shit. Of course substance is respected and highly valued, but style ain’t too far behind. Image is everything in show business. Nothing wrong with that. You just have to be careful about what image you buy into.

People now told me all the time how Beautiful I was, how perfect my body was. They even liked my smart parts. I relished in the attention. A hot ingénue with a big smile and a tiny waist: I was killing it. I was cooler than I could have ever imagined in my early days. Having the model frame meant I could easily wear whatever designers sent my way. Being thin also meant that since the camera adds 10 pounds, I would look just right on screen. I was good to go.

Until I wasn’t.

This business is filled with so many ups and downs, feasts and famines, “almosts” and “never shall be”s, it’s a hard wave to ride without losing your shit, especially if your shit wasn’t all the way together in the first place. My body started to change once I hit my mid-30s, filling out here, there, and everywhere. The young Bronx girl in me would have welcomed the change with open arms. The Hollywood me wasn’t so sure. I’d been naturally thin for most of my life, so I didn’t know how to handle the extra flesh gracing my frame at first, especially when it seemed like everyone else was getting skinnier. It wasn’t even a drastic weight gain, just more than I was used to. And as for work, while I was on a great show, Parenthood, I was tripping on other shit. Why wasn’t I doing more? Why didn’t I get that part? Am I not hot anymore? Do people still love me?

I’d been naturally thin for most of my life, so I didn’t know how to handle the extra flesh gracing my frame at first, especially when it seemed like everyone else was getting skinnier.


Having wind continuously blown into every orifice of your body is a dangerous thing. At some point that balloon on top of your shoulders is gonna pop. If it doesn’t on its own, there’ll be someone standing by with a pin waiting to help you out.

That pin appeared compliments of my mother, a woman whose talents and physical beauty were stunning, but whose emotional absence was soul-crushing. She wrote poetry, was a great dancer, and was one of the baddest bitches around. She was a Bronx beauty who could have had it all. But she made terrible choices, and most of my life was spent trying not to be like her because of those choices. That will never be me, I told myself. I thought I was better than her because I was making something of myself instead of relying on men to take care of me or relying on my beauty to...to win the world’s affections. Guess we had more in common than I thought.

It took my mother’s death in order for me to realize that we were in the same low-self-esteem boat, looking for love outside of ourselves, instead of within. She never found it.

I’m still searching. Thank god for therapy.

***

In my experience, much more often than the You Are Beautiful song, the world likes to sing a tune that goes something like this:

This is what you should look like, this is who you should be,
who you are is not enough, it’s perfection you must seek.

And when the world sings that song, sometimes it’s hard not to listen, hard not to agree. But I’ve danced to that tune for too damn long. It’s time to clean out my ears and flip to another station.
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It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.
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