After the end of my first relationship, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the relationship was a fluke. Or, rather, that my ex’s attraction to me was. Was the desire he’d claimed to feel for me ever real? In fact, was I desirable at all? Would I ever feel another man’s desire for me again?
Maybe these questions and self-doubts are typical for after a breakup, even a mutual one. And in response, I did what many people do: I decided to start dating again. Although dating as a Black woman is hard, I knew what I wanted, I knew my boundaries, and I felt sure I would not repeat past mistakes. I remember a friend telling me how great I would feel when I had all these men complimenting and begging to take me out.
And she was right. Talking to new guys, being told how beautiful I was, and being asked out made me feel confident and desirable again. I felt like I was finally becoming That Girl. But this spree of rebound dating was relatively short-lived. Soon enough, the same men that complimented me ghosted me, or did something that earned them a block, and just as quickly as my exciting dating life began, it was over.
At first, I was okay with this. I had a lot of fun and met some… ‘interesting’ people. Most importantly, I put myself out there and learned so much more about myself. I was proud of myself.
Then, my ex told me he was seeing someone new.
My initial reaction was to laugh, an uncontrollable laugh that I couldn’t silence — and that quickly turned to tears.
I had expected my ex to date again; I was a little hurt, but I wasn’t surprised or shocked. The real reason I was crying was that I was jealous. Not over him, or his new partner — I was jealous that he’d found someone so soon and so easily, while I hadn’t. I was met with my familiar conclusion: He is desirable and I am not.
I am not desirable.
As a Black woman, I’ve wrestled with this feeling for most of my life. Even as a young child, I was deeply insecure and hated my black skin and kinky hair. These thoughts didn’t occur in a vacuum — it didn’t take long to notice that the people who were considered beautiful did not look like me or have my skin tone. Whether in the media or on the playground, my experiences led me to believe girls like me could never truly be loved, desired or beautiful.
As I got older, however, I believed I’d outgrown this insecurity, that I’d learned to embrace and love all parts of my identity. I’d even go as far as saying I was comfortable with the insecurity as, on many occasions, I’ve spoken openly about it.
But this breakup showed me that I hadn’t left it behind after all. This insecurity was bigger than me. I felt ashamed by how deeply I believed that I wasn’t desirable. My entire being seemed to know it was true — almost. There was one small, miniscule part of me that pushed back, challenging me, asking me: Where does that thought come from?
I knew the end of my relationship and my ex’s ability to move on weren’t solely to blame; I was just using these events as the most recent evidence to “prove” to myself what I already thought I knew. After all, hadn’t I questioned my desirability during the previous relationship too? I remember joking with my ex about how I had immediately written him off because I knew ‘guys like him’ would never be attracted to ‘girls like me.’ When he proceeded to ask why, I told him he fit with what was deemed as ‘conventionally and socially attractive’ and I did not. He assured me I was wrong. But I didn’t believe him.
Within our society, desirability is not about personal preferences or craving validation, it is political. Writer and organizer Da’Shaun L. Harrison describes the politics of desire as “labels that which determine who gains and holds social and structural power through the affairs of sensuality often predicated on anti-Blackness, anti-fatness, (trans)misogyny, cissexism, queer-antagonism, and all other structural violence.”
It may seem like a stretch to associate desirability with politics because desire and preference are “just what we like.” However, this is precisely the intention of desirability politics. Author Hari Ziyad writes in an article for Everyday Feminism that “all oppression relies heavily on our belief that power discrepancies are just the natural way of things.”
Society wants us to believe preference is innate and irrefutable because if we don’t question it, we won’t challenge it. We’ll ignore the research which found that overweight workers are less likely to be hired or that jury verdicts can be influenced by attractiveness.
As a woman, we are constantly told our desirability comes from men, and from adhering to beauty standards — white Western beauty standards. As Black women, society continuously and unwarrantedly tells us that we are undesirable. In a blog post from OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder in 2014, Black women were rated least attractive in comparison to women of other races and ethnicities. Additionally, backhanded compliments such as “you’re pretty for a Black girl” continue to illustrate to us that desirability is not afforded to us because of our Blackness.
Is it any wonder, then, that I continued to believe I was undesirable? It was the path society had laid out for me. In fact, my belief in my own undesirability ran so deep that, when I first heard that my ex had moved on, the jealousy I’d felt was shot through with another emotion: relief. Letting myself believe I was undesirable felt comfortable, because I had been faced with that message for so long that part of me had come to accept it as fact.
This is the essence of desirability politics, and as Ziyad writes “these [beauty/desirability] standards affect how we treat ourselves when we don’t meet them, with internalized self-loathing that can take a toll on our health and well-being.”
In retrospect, it’s interesting that the solution I’d used to disprove my undesirability — dating other people after my breakup — was actually enabling my insecurity. You are not desirable, so get a man to desire you. But how do you get a man to desire you when you are not desirable? And as I experienced, even when a man desires you, the attention or validation does nothing to actually validate one’s inner self. I felt undesirable when I was dating, and when I was single; when I was a child, and an adult.
This could have been the end of the story; I could have let the research solidify the insecurity I felt. But instead, I used the research to challenge my internalized misogynoir and break down these rigid structures that can create so much harm. That one, small voice that first pushed back against my self-doubting thoughts became louder and more complex. She began to ask: Who told you only a man could validate your desirability? What do you find desirable?
I also had to find ways to reclaim desire. I had to find out what I liked, and what I found desirable within myself.
I found these questions easy to think about abstractly, but more difficult to turn into actions, and I initially hated working through them. Where should I even begin? What should I do? How long will it take? The language of reclaiming desire and self-appreciation was foreign for the Black girl taught to hate herself. But I knew it was important to work towards it.
It took a long time, lots of revision which felt like regression, crying and laughter, sadness and joy — but I found a sweet spot where I could learn, and continue to learn, desire. For me, reclaiming desirability meant detaching desire from external validation and its impact on my self-worth. Reclaiming desirability meant not waiting for a man to choose me, but to choose myself. It was reclaiming autonomy.
As cliché as it sounds, I had to intentionally spend time with myself; buy myself flowers, compliment myself, and enjoy finding out what I liked and desired, not just what I’ve been told to. I began to treat myself as someone I desired, which built up that small inner voice into something stronger and louder.
For now, I’ve stayed single. For me, it was important to not be in a relationship during the initial process of reclaiming desire, because I had to learn to stop solely relying on external validation. More recently, however, I’ve started thinking about dating again, and honestly, I’m terrified at the prospect of opening myself to someone. What happens if I fall back into old patterns, get hurt or rely on external validation?
To get through it, I sit with the uncomfortable feelings — every ounce and drop, every panic and twitch. I write it down or speak it out and then, when I’m ready to hear it, I counter-argue and balance the feelings. I remind myself there are amazing new people I will meet, and amazing people I have met who love(d) me. I still want a relationship where I’m hyped up — but I won’t be dependent on any future partners to understand my self-worth.
Life isn’t linear, and I am not perfect with myself. Every day is not a grand romantic gesture to myself, and I’m not immune to self-doubt and insecurities. But the way I see it is, allowing myself to continue to learn, while practicing patience and grace toward myself, is another way I’ve reclaimed desire — because I am worth the time. I am slowly, purposefully, uncovering the truth: I am desirable.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.