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.