AYANTU | DEAR FRIEND
In celebration of International Woman’s Day, I’m going to shut my mouth and give the platform to a woman with something to say. This is for all the women who mean so much to me, most of all, my wife and daughter.
When I look at you, I see happiness. I see grace. I see confidence, and I see humility. I see a killer sense of sarcasm that’ll knock you on your ass before you even know what hit you. I see beauty. I see strength. When I look at you, I look for myself in your cracks and your flaws, and am bettered by you. When I look at you, I look for myself in your virtues, and am inspired. When I look at you, I see you for everything you are, everything you are not, everything you have been and might become. I see you. But I wonder, what do you see of yourself? I ask this because I must confess that when I look at my own reflection, I’m never quite sure what I’m looking at. Who is this looking back at me in the mirror? Is this really me? Is this what you see? When I was little, I looked at my reflection and I saw fat. I would go to bed at night and pray that when I woke up in the morning, God would melt away the extra flesh on my prepubescent belly and thighs so that I could finally be happy like my skinny friends. But every morning when I would wake up and find a fat pair of eyes staring back at me in the mirror, I cried and cursed the heavens for wishing such misfortune on my innocent soul. When I got a little older, I looked at myself and I saw hideous. The seething, stinking, wicked essence of the baby fat of my youth had spread like a virus, seeping not only into the rest of my body, but into every corner of my mind until I was convinced that I was just as seething, stinking, and wicked as this hideous body I inhabited. During this period of my life, I was afraid to wear clothes that fit me too tightly, because I did not want to repulse anyone. My body was the leprosy that I had fallen victim too, and I felt guilty exposing others to my disease. As time passed, I grew tired. Every diet tried and failed left me tumbling down into the inevitable void of unhappiness that my fatness left in its wake, and in my mental and physical exhaustion, I began to rebel against this inevitable war with my own body. I suppose you could say I had an epiphany, of sorts, one that started like a silent thumping in my ear, and slowly grew louder until its sound consumed my thoughts and pulsed through my veins. What would it mean, I wondered, if the inevitability of my war against myself was not the product of my intrinsic unworthiness, but rather was the outcome of years of exposure to the wrong idea? What if this idea, that fat bodies are not worthy of happiness and love, was a lie? What if the only thing I needed to do to feel happiness and worthiness was to change the way I think? It was at this time that I was introduced to a new idea. Body-positivity. Instead of obsessing over photographs of thin, coifed Caucasian women in magazines, I followed plus-size models and fashion bloggers on social media. Instead of judging other women for happening to exist in fat bodies, I considered the possibility that fat women could be beautiful (and happy!) too. Instead of scrutinizing my reflection in the mirror and numbing my unhappiness with whatever mask I had chosen to wear that day, I stripped down my own layers of self-hatred and ridicule and forced myself to stare at my naked, vulnerable reflection in the mirror. I inspected my fat, my cellulite, my inadequacies, and then I looked into my own eyes and lied to myself- “You are beautiful.” Every morning for years I would wake up and tell myself this lie. I’m not quite sure how it happened, whether it was magic or God or my own wave-like persistence eating away at the shores of insecurity, but one day I looked in the mirror and was shocked to find that something miraculous had happened. I was finally starting to believe it.
Sometimes when I think about this ultimately insignificant journey of mine, I can’t help but feel a little pissed off. My dear friend, why is it that we teach our girls that their truest value is derived only from their aesthetic desirability? I am so struck with the fear that we are nothing more than a polished battalion of dolls, waiting to be chosen. As we sit on our respective shelves, and judge each other across the aisle from behind our tinted panes of cellophane, prospective buyers peer down at us as nothing more than the objects we have become. Pretty dolls. Should one of us fail to measure up, she is thrown to the back of the shelf, to the bottom of the shelf, made to believe that no one could want her, that no one should want her. And if by the grace of God someone decides they do want her, she should count herself as lucky, but nothing more. But friend, when I look at you, I have hope. I’m realizing that for my entire life, I have never truly seen myself. The reflection in the mirror upon which I’ve alternately validated my self-hatred and my self-acceptance is nothing more than a mirage.
The reason that I look at you and am so overwhelmed by your beauty is that I am seeing your power, your radiance, your expansiveness. My reflection, on the other hand, is just a fragment of my self, a fragment that has been craftily distorted by years of exposure to the wrong idea. Upon realizing this, it stands to reason that I too might contain the power, radiance, and expansive beauty that I see within you. I can feel it- when I speak my truth without fear of judgement or retribution. I can feel it- when I sit by the river with my best friend on a hot summer afternoon and watch the sunset, in awe of how small I am in relation to the glorious natural world. I can feel it- when I nourish my body with good food and good company, when I use it to ride my bike to school and to do good in my community, when I use it to traverse the globe and to embrace my friends. I can feel it- when I feel sorrow, the kind that knots itself up tightly in my stomach and wrenches tears from my eyes, reminding me that I am alive and that life is precious. I can feel it when I love, and am loved in return. In these instances, and in so many others, I can see my truest self, a self that is much larger than my physical form, but which is at home in my body. And boy, am I beautiful.
So my friend, I ask again- when you look in the mirror, what do you see?