On Beautiful, Burdensome Self Love
It’s a Friday night in February, I’m rushing down the stairs to the New York subway platform and I swear one day my stilettos will slip from under me. But that’s okay because today they make me feel tall and as far as I’ve come, some days I still need that. Today they carry my 5’4” overly eager body onto the train the way they always do. I almost never miss it. And I smile to myself because I made it. I don’t just mean I made it onto the subway, but I mean I made it. I survived myself and I survived a world that makes it so difficult for women to survive themselves. I made it. Here. And the next stop is Washington Square.
So I pop in my headphones and press play on the playlist I titled “Just Enough” around this time last year. It’s a mixture of German slam poetry and feminist rap and I know every word perfectly. I scroll through to find my favourite song and press play. I wait for it to tell me, “You are the only person alive that holds the key to your healing” and I settle in.
I inhale and take in all that surrounds me. My sociologically trained eye always looks for the advertisements first. The breast augmentation ad from the D train has made its way to the A train and now it has invaded my M train. I bite my bottom lip. And I consciously notice this because years of yoga have made me way too in tune with my own body. I do this when I feel uneasy about something. My lip is chapped.
There is a middle-aged woman sleeping beneath the ad. I wonder if she is tired in the same way that I get tired. Self-love is exhausting, and I hope she didn’t get the chance to see the ad before she fell asleep. Because seeing chopped up women whose bodies have been disfigured by Photoshop might have made self-love even harder and she didn’t deserve that today.
I decide to open my book. I read the same books over and over again. Sometimes five or six times and I have been reading Unspeakable Things by Laurie Penny since July. I’m not ready to put it down just yet and I know that that’s okay.
Penny would have laughed at the breast augmentation ad. She has a beautifully sick sense of humour about these things and I know she would probably just rip the ad right out of its plastic frame. “It’s all part of the neoliberal mythos of womanhood,” she’d say as if it was no big deal.
But she’s right. Being a woman is hard in this world because we are constantly told what womanhood is supposed to be or supposed to look like and none of it is actually attainable anyways.
As a woman, you have to be independent, but never self-sufficient, never too successful; you have to be quiet, but acquiesce to those who speak for you; thin but not too thin because “real women have curves”; naturally pretty, but skilled in the art of contouring and blending and winged-eyeliner; desirable, but never desiring; you have to restrict, restrict, restrict— ladies never indulge; you have to be small but know your worth. Girl, know your worth but when they call you beautiful say “thank you”. Act surprised. Because to this world, a beautiful girl is the greatest feat only if she does not know that she is beautiful. We have been taught to be consumable. As women, our entire femininity is up for sale, but it’s never ours for the taking.
The most intimate parts of me were never mine to begin with.
It’s January 1, 2015. I am hypocritically making my first New Years resolution. I always say I don’t trust people who wait until the New Year to make a resolution, because if they were truly committed to change then they’d do it right away. But, I just cut out the most toxic part of my life and it is time for me to become whole again. So, it’s January first and I am making a New Years resolution.
I will no longer say negative things about myself or my body. If I fail, I will not punish myself, only start over. Again and again, I will start over. And that will be okay.
It was hard at first. Loving yourself is hard, especially when no one has ever really taught you how to do it. Women are taught—conditioned really—to love, but never how to love themselves. And, it seemed that in the two and a half years that I loved that man, I undid any self-love that I had ever really cultivated in the first place.
So, I started putting sticky notes all over my college dorm room that said, “you are enough.” I hid my mirror in my closet; I began taking my yoga classes seriously and listened to spoken word poetry in my free time. I called it a mass exodus of everything that ever told me I wasn’t enough. Or worse, that I was too much. Instead of buying magazines, I picked flowers. Instead of painting my nails, I lit candles. I took down the curtains in my bedroom. I let my hair dry naturally. I bought bath salts and essential oils. I started collecting coffee mugs and loose-leaf tea. I was teaching myself how to survive.
I was getting there. By September I had not only stopped saying negative things, but I had stopped thinking them all together. I was beautifully and unapologetically in control. And then one day I wasn’t.
On October 2nd, a man broke into my apartment and my school mandated that I complete a full Title IX investigation, in which he was not found responsible and the police report and no contact order were simultaneously destroyed. The language of the report used words like “alleged.” He “allegedly” broke into my apartment. I “allegedly” asked him to take his hands off of me. He “allegedly” didn’t listen. I “allegedly” felt violated. And, when asking for the word “alleged” to be removed from the report, I was told that I was being offensive. My request was too much. I was too much.
I began to seek validation from those around me. My own self-validation was no longer enough. Not now. I broke my New Years resolution and the conditions that came with it. I stopped sleeping. I failed papers. I cried all the time. I started missing the men whose hands had taken my body for granted. Self-love was too hard right now.
One day, my victim’s advocate gave me a list of “100 Ways to Take Care of Yourself.” It took me some time, but eventually I put the list up on the fridge and began to check off the items.
Take a nap when you need it. Check. Visit a museum. Check. Take a hot bath. Check. Dance in your living room. Check. Scream. Check. Meditate. Check.
Say “No.” Check.
Ask for help. Check.
Little by little, I began to validate, respect and even love myself again. After all, I am worthy.
I am worthy.
I am worthy of love.
On the subway, the woman’s hand falls from her lap and she startles herself awake. She looks around to see if anyone noticed how absolutely human she is. To me, she is lovely. I hope she knows this.
I smile at her and I think about my Mumma’s smile. It is soft and powerful all at the same time and I don’t know how she pulls it off. I want to be both soft and powerful. She calls me her Purple Princess, her Petal. I remember we used to sing Skinnamarink when I was little. I think about being little—about butterflies and fabric softener and Winnie the Pooh. I think about growth—about coffee and newspapers and freshly cut lavender. I think about how taking care of myself actually feels good. Being a woman feels good. I think about love. Beautiful, burdensome self-love. I think about how today, I made it.
I close my book and get off at Washington Square. I’ve never seen the arch before and I hear it’s beautiful this time of year.