This is the first time that I am writing about my body from the other side.
At 15, I came home from school and marked all of my “problem” areas with a marker before crying myself to sleep. The marks began with my chubby cheeks, expansive forehead, and my nonexistent belly fat and ended with my right arm and its bent fingers and my right hip and leg. By the time I finished pointing out my problems, there was no unmarked space left. I was my first tormentor, eager to hate my body as much as I believed the world did. This hatred was a thing that the world and I had in common. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. I knew hatred and self-pity like the back of my hand; we moved in sync, like a carefully choreographed dance routine. Together, we were destructive, tearing ourselves and our self-worth down. Admitting that there is comfort in pain is a strange but necessary truth. Happiness and acceptance still take more work for me, and that is also a necessary truth. The art of actually trying when you spent years sitting and marveling in the pain you inflicted on yourself is a whole new ballgame.
This other side of self-hatred is appreciation, care, and positive affirmation, and it is new territory — the cute new shoes that hurt because they haven’t been worn in yet. There is so much about it that feels foreign enough to frighten me. Each day is like dipping my toe into uncharted water, but I press on. You see, there is no going through trauma, even self-inflicted trauma, without emotional and physical scars. My scars and I have a new relationship despite how old most of them are. We are figuring out our new dynamic the way that you must when you want to grow with someone or something, and change is the necessary catalyst for growth. The other side looks at the reflection in the mirror and smiles; it winks at her scars like old friends with inside jokes. The other side doesn’t give a fuck, not anymore. I am both here on the other side and I am the other side itself. There is power in both being in a place and knowing you yourself are that place, in being saved and saving yourself.
Saving myself was not easy. There were times when those markers that marked those problem areas were blades. I cut myself open just to see what was inside, in the hopes of finding pieces of myself I could love. I was unsuccessful, but I relished the controlled pain and the ability to punish myself the way I thought I deserved. These cuts were never in places anyone could see and small enough not to sound any alarms. I wanted to die, but not that way; I watched too many movies that alluded to such an end being too slow and painful for my liking. The fear of death’s permanency kept me alive long enough to save myself, but I did not know it yet.
From 15 to 23, I marked my body with marker and blade while setting end dates for my life: after high school graduation, during my freshman year of college, in 2009, so my mother would not have to find me. That plan fell through when my grandmother passed away the same year and I was too worried she’d be disappointed in my decision. Grieving that loss took a lot out of all my family members, and so I quietly declared that I would get my college degree first. I received my degree in 2013, but while I was still searching for a steady job, we lost my uncle Scott a year later. I decided not to end my life then because I wanted God to suffer knowing that he created someone so physically and emotionally imperfect. Killing myself was letting him off the hook. I wanted to punish us both. Punishment was a dominant theme in my life for those years — the punishment I thought I was to the people who loved me and to the earth.
How does someone stop thinking that and start seeing their worth? I accidentally found the answer to this question in 2016. One of the strangest things in life is to live in a body you have spent most of your life hating, only to wake up a few days after Christmas and feel genuinely cute for the first time since your high school prom. I woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror, and said aloud to an empty bathroom that the girl staring back at me was “kinda cute,” even with her morning breath, messy hair, and aching body. I would wake up every day after that for two years and say four things I like about myself. Now, two years later, I say four things I like about myself in the morning and at night. I have spent the better part of two years trying to figure out what it was that changed in me to wake up and feel cute that day. Was it divine intervention? I think part of it was, but the bigger part, the true hero that led me to the other side, was effort. I did not allow the “kinda cute” thought to be a passing one. I spent each day choosing a life worth living in my body. The road still isn’t easy; effort is still necessary to keep myself in this happier mindset. I say the four things still to remember my worth and save myself from myself every day.
I saved myself, but I am still being asked to answer for my body. In being a black woman with cerebral palsy, I find myself on the defense more often than not, defending my joy and my desire to be loved. I have to, because bodies like mine make a lot of people uncomfortable. The truth of this is most apparent in public spaces. I often liken it to the animals at the zoo—the forced attention on things and people who just want to be without performing for a mouthwatering crowd. When I walk in these public spaces, I do so with a limp; my knees make sounds when I bend down to pick something up; my spine is crooked, and so are my fingers. I have one leg that is much shorter than the other. I limp every single day, and there is nothing revolutionary about it, so the constant scrutiny is puzzling. My existence seems to surprise people for a myriad of reasons. There is the fact that I am young, 26, living in a society that assumes disability is both an elderly issue and a mind-over-matter mentality for those of us still considered young enough to have it easier than elder generations. People my age have our whole lives ahead of us, though that mindset changes when you are physically disabled. You are pitied for what you are assumed to have lost because of disability. There is also the fact that disability is viewed only through the lens of mobility aids like wheelchairs and walkers. Any of us without these aids are presumed to be faking, and because I am a black woman and the face of disability is unbearably white, the sympathy and empathy don’t often extend to disabled people of color.
For most of my life, I was uncomfortable with my body too, so in some ways, I understand the scrutiny I face. My body has never not been unruly and complicated. As a young girl and woman, I was desperate to disappear until I could appear somehow anew and “normal,” which translated to able-bodied. I did not want to see myself in media and the world, because to see myself was to face the fact that I was going to be like this forever, with my marked-up problem areas and my disdain for living. First came resentment, and then frustration, until they quickly joined forces and I was hell to be around. This body of mine was an inconvenience and a hindrance to the life I thought I was supposed to live of fortune, romantic love and adoration, summer homes like the one in the Mary-Kate and Ashley movie It Takes Two.
This is why I scoff at people who say representation is not important. Imagine how many people would feel better about their bodies if they had a positive representation of their body as a child. The ability to see your body without disgust and without the influence of a culture that sees your body as an inconvenience is something we all deserve. Selfishly, I want so much more for myself and my community—to be seen so that no one else feels the need to mark their bodies the way I did or feel the urge to be someone else simply because the world expects us to hate our bodies the way they hate our bodies. The good news is that this unruly body is one that I love now, even on the days when it is aching and I hate it, even when self-hatred and sadness come knocking at my door, looking for a trip down memory lane.
My body is unruly, and that’s what makes it beautiful. I don’t need to fit in or disappear to escape the inevitable. There will be days when I find myself unable to look in that mirror and smile or wink at my old scars, and there will be days when I grow angry at the fragility of my aching bones and limited range of motion, but on those days, I will and I do try to remember all that I have done in this body that I and many before me have deemed unruly. You want to know a secret? Every single body is unruly. Every curve, every bump, bruise, scar, body roll, mole, and freckle create an unruly body. All of our bodies are unruly, and that’s why the idea that we should be ashamed of such unruly bodies is silly. The work of shifting that frame of mind isn’t easy. It took me 24 and a half years, but it is necessary work.
I believe in the power of reclamation. I reclaim my space and the amount I take up every single day. The fear of inconvenience is almost gone. There is still work left to do to unlearn my destructive behavioral coping mechanisms, and I will in due time. I reclaimed and reclaim the very things that were used to negatively define me, because it is an everyday process. As a black person, I revel in my black skin and my culture that is rich with magnificently flawed and beautiful people. I sit in my womanhood and am proud to identify as such, while understanding that it takes on many forms, just like blackness and disability do. As a disabled woman of color, I claim the space I deserve within the disability community despite sometimes feeling ignored due to the nearly nonexistent representation of disabled people of color in mainstream media and the community’s insistence on ignoring other identifiers for a watered-down version of representation that reads very white and male anyway.
My body is mine, and because I am important to myself now, so is my body in its every scar, bump, fat roll, and bruise. I haven’t reached for those markers in years, but if I decided to, I would circle the same areas—and some new ones—because my body has shifted and changed. There are new parts of this body that are uneven and likely considered ugly to enough people. I would circle these parts still if only to celebrate being all that I am and still wishing to live and thrive in the world. No one body is worse just because it comes with limitations and because it does not fit the tired and unrealistic standards we set for bodies. Yes, our bodies are unruly and often unpredictable, but so are the human beings inside of these bodies. That doesn’t make us any less worthy of a life full of love, respect, understanding, and patience.
There is so much power, joy, and relief in reclamation and the act of taking back control of the identifiers and words once used to cause you pain, but there is even more power in self-acceptance and the ways in which we view our bodies.
When you look in the mirror, what is the first thing you do? I used to busy myself with the task of pointing out all the things I thought were wrong before deciding that the sink was a better alternative than watching the body I hated as I brushed my teeth. I used to frown at the reflection in the mirror before closing my eyes tight in the hopes that when I opened them again all of my “problems” would be gone. Now, however, I do smile at myself and wink at my scars, because my real power came when I shifted how I viewed my body from the lens of the world to the lens of the person living in the body. The view of ourselves in our unruly bodies is what matters more than the label of unruly itself. We can be the versions of ourselves we are proudest of during every bad and good day or moment. We can wake up and live happily. For the longest time, I did not know how to navigate the world in my body. I was uncoordinated, often unsure and uncomfortable. I am still uncoordinated and unsure of a lot of things, but not my body. This is the first time I am writing about my body from the other side, but it won’t be the last.