Muddled Lenses: Who Taught You to Hate Yourself?



“Did you hate that part of you before someone told you you should?

I did not see my breasts as small until a boy told me that they were.

I did not see my frame as frail until fingers poked and prodded the bones at my hips.

I did not see my nose as ugly until voices told me I should get it fixed.

I am no longer whole but parts and pieces put into categories of satisfactory and flawed.

The World Will Plant A Seed of Doubt Within You Do Not Water it.”

-LE Bowman

One of the prompts for my Master’s application was to submit a 3-minute video describing what makes you unique. I had taken a few shots framing different stories on what made me unique, but I kept messing up or being interrupted. I attempted to create the perfect video for hours on end to no avail, although, to my surprise, I wasn’t getting flustered. To me, the challenge was enticing and the blunders comical enough to keep me in good spirits. This realization showed me what truly made me unique and I finally settled on what I would submit for my video application. I strung together a compilation of all my bloopers and then provided context towards the end. I shared that what makes me unique, is my ability to enjoy the journey in any stage rather than fixate on the destination. It’s my ability to have fun in the process, and realize that there’s no such thing as perfection, just progress. One journey that I’m on right now is self-love particularly when it comes to appearances.

I was watching a Baller Alert interview and an up-and-coming rapper was talking about how he had trouble with girls because they misconstrued his honesty for rudeness. He shared a story about his relationship with his last girl; she asked him if she looked fat in what she was wearing. He responded by telling her not to ask him dumb questions because he doesn’t care if she’s fat, and that if she’s fat it doesn’t matter, they were going to be fat together. His girl got upset because he didn’t answer the question with a simple “No.” His rebuttal was she shouldn’t get mad at him for hating herself and dragging him into her self-loathing bullshit. He said she should’ve never been looking for external approval about herself to begin with. After the interview ended, I was thinking damn this guy is cutthroat but what he said was real as fuck – Why do we seek external validation from those closest to us to refute our own insecurities?

I was never acknowledged for my looks growing up – I wore big harry-potter like glasses, I had jacked up teeth with a front gap I could slide my pinky through, racoon-like circles around my eyes, a protruding forehead, a cleft chin, a witchy nose, and a round figure. I’m not saying this to be negative or to bash myself – it’s really the truth. I was never complimented and got clowned endlessly and was told I’d be prettier if I tweaked things about myself, e.g. if I lost weight or didn’t show my teeth when I smiled. The positive reinforcements that I received were rooted in how smart and kind I was, so I unintentionally embedded my identity in that. It wasn’t until late-high school/early college that I finally grew into my body and features. People that knew me in childhood never fail to mention my glow up, and elders who haven’t seen me in years are shocked when we’re reintroduced. Being “pretty” is a double-edged sword *cue Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts*. It’s great in the sense that pretty privilege is a real thing, and it comes with a lot of perks. On the flipside, it’s shitty, because it comes with a lot of expectations. When you’re deemed “pretty” a lot of people just reduce you to your looks so there’s a lot of pressure to upkeep your maintenance or else you “fall off”. This past year, I’ve been hearing a lot of murmurs from my guy friends about how I fell off. I unintentionally gained over 30 pounds and intentionally cut off 14 inches worth of my hair. These two instances resulted in a tug of war between confidence and insecurity, nonetheless, they both completed transformed my self-image.

Natural Hair Journey

“I went on and did what I had to do

because it was time to change my life

to become the woman that I am inside

I looked in the mirror for the first time and saw that

I am not my hair

I am not this skin

I am not your expectations”

– India Arie

Most changes to ourselves happen internally and, in the shadows. However, making the decision to shave off my hair was going to be both public and drastic. I was always intentional about 2018 being a year of transitions and manifestations. There’s something about hitting the 25-year-old mark that makes you reassess what life you want for yourself for the remainder of your 20’s. My theme for 2018 was letting go of dead weight and of things that inhibited growth. – My hair included. Over the years my hair was frail from straightening it every day and from the tension of clip-ons and weave extensions. I fried my hair from coloring it with different at home box dye kits which left it fried and lacking any curl pattern. When I would hop out the shower all I’d see were thin and dead-straight hair – even though it was long, my hair was terribly unhealthy, and it had to go.

Before making the final decision to go through with the Big Chop, I watched YouTube videos for a whole week. I’d cry as I watched clip after clip of women shaving off their hair and their journey afterwards. I watched women who looked like me on the screen scream, cry, rejoice, laugh – go through a gamut of emotions, only to feel triumphant in the end. I figured if they can do it, so can I. I booked a same day appointment at I AM Natural Beauty salon in Rainier Beach. I was feeling extra bold that day and didn’t want to schedule an appointment further out incase I’d talk myself out of it. When I finally got to the salon and sat in the chair the stylist started tossing my hair and asked if I just wanted to do a trim, it was an easier transition. I told her I wanted to shave off all my hair and she was taken aback by my assertiveness – I could tell she was nervous. She started off conservatively trimming my split ends and after each round she’d look to me for approval to go shorter. After about an hour I became impatient and reiterated that I wanted to do the big chop and start off fresh. So, she brought out the razor and the grey hardwood floors soon become covered with black strands. After the cut, wash and finger-wave style I looked at myself in the mirror in shock that I had went through with it – there was no turning back now. How on earth does a girl who used to don 22-inch weaves get to this point?

The gym where I did group personal training was conveniently located next door and my plan after my haircut was to go directly to my gym session. My friend met up with me and was shocked when she saw my hair and said I was incredibly brave. Shit, what I was, was cold. Nobody tells you when you shave off your hair the temperature drops a few degrees. I ended up bailing from my workout and telling my friend to go without me, I wanted time to digest the change alone before opening myself to attention from my other friends at the gym. I hopped in my car and cried the entire ride home as I ran my fingers over my virgin coils. Once I got home, I locked myself in the room trying to pull myself together teetering back and forth between what the fuck did I just do and wow I did that. My roommate knocked on the door to see my cut and I made her promise not to laugh. When she saw it she gasped at how short I really went and asked how I felt. Her boyfriend came down shortly thereafter and they were both cracking up jokes hyping me up. I felt really refreshed after that conversation and it reaffirmed that I had made the right decision. I didn’t want to deal with that shock element every time someone saw me with my new haircut for the first time. So, I put on some makeup and started snapping pictures. I remember carefully selecting the caption “The Queen Makes the Crown” and with the click of the Post button, I ripped off the band-aid.

After the post, I got a whole bunch of mixed reactions – from close friends, former lovers, and even strangers. Some people told me they loved the style and praised me for my audacity, others stated they were concerned with my mental state and thought I was having a breakdown, and then there were the others that thought I was just dumb for cutting my hair. I found it kind of funny because I noticed that how people interacted with me based on my hair cut was a projection of their own attachment to their hair onto me. But, I didn’t care – it was just hair, I wasn’t a Samson caricature – I didn’t feel like my hair defined me nor was it my source of confidence and strength. The best response I received by far, was from a surprising source, it was a distant male friend of mine. He said that I had made a power play, and by overtly shaving off my hair I was reclaiming my power. On the other end, the worst reaction I received was someone telling me that I had lost my attractiveness and should’ve spoken to them about it first – as if I needed their approval to begin with. I learned a lot about my friends during this time – those who critiqued me were their own toughest critics, and those who celebrated my change were paving out their own self-discovery journeys. The biggest shock to me were the women who reached out to me saying I inspired them to cut their hair and begin their own natural hair journey.

This past October marked my 1-year nappiversary. During that time, I got to see my hair go through all its stages from buzz cut, to finger waves, to afros, to ponytails, wigs, you name it. I used my hair as an outward expression of creativity and I was having an absolute blast. Not once, did I put any chemicals or heat on my hair. I nurtured my scalp with oils and only used natural products on my tresses. My hair, and I, grew freely. Fast forward to now, and my hair is the thickest it’s ever been, I can’t even wrap ponytail ties twice around it. I wear high buns, low buns, and sometimes I just rock it out untamed. My curls are springy, and it has shine again. Every time I look at my hair now I just fall more in love with it, and with myself.

There’s a saying that when a woman cuts her hair, she’s about to change her life – and it couldn’t be any truer. I gained much more confidence, and I carried myself in a way where I demanded the world to treat me in a certain manner and it responded back to me warmly. The big chop was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and it allowed me to grow in more ways than I could’ve ever imagined.

Embracing Imperfection

“I was never at war with my body

It was a casualty

A bystander

An innocent caught between what I thought it was

And what I thought it should be

Both falling short of the truth”

-LE Bowman

Invisibility is a superpower and I’ve never coveted attention. I enjoy blending in with the background and observing life behind the scenes. Public speaking or any other instances that require me to be the center of attention make me extremely uncomfortable and I immediately plot an escape plan. I’ve always liked to look nice, dress well, do my hair, makeup etc, but it was always for me and not for external validation. Something that I’ve been working on is being as confident in my appearance as I am in that my name is “Rahwa,” but sometimes, other people’s opinions can take a toll. I’ve always felt like my body was policed – when I was a kid everyone was constantly monitoring what I ate because I was considered overweight, then when I got older I lost a lot of weight and then the doctors scrutinized me for being underweight (how the hell did that happen?), lastly, once I fully grew into my body (sort-of) I was constantly on the receiving end of comments on my body. Hence, the birth of the nickname “BBR” (acronym for big-booty-Rahwa).

My first time at a Hookah Bar was at one of my best friend’s 19th birthday. Slices of cake were being dispersed to everyone that attended. I was excited to have my bites because I could use a full mouth as an excuse why I couldn’t talk to the people I didn’t know that were there (I have the worst social anxiety). I remember as I was going in to take a bite my homegirl yelled out to not take a bite because my ass couldn’t afford to get any bigger. In a room full of people, I felt beyond embarrassed. I was thinking this bitch got me fucked up so I looked her dead in the eye and took a big bite of my cake. Wasn’t nobody going to tell me what to do with my body – besides, why did it make her feel uncomfortable if I was okay with it? Comments like these began to surface more as I started hanging out with more diverse groups and my body type was fetishized. In high school and prior, I hung out with predominately white people so my curves were never seen as desirable. After I started college, it seemed the invisibility of my body transitioned into hypervisibility and it just attracted a lot of unwanted people and comments. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my body – I just hated how others interacted with me because of it.

Nobody really prepares you for how your body changes as you get older. Once I hit 25 I gained about 40 pounds – it most likely stemmed from “relationship weight”, being sedentary from working and going to school full time, paired with drinking on the weekends, and my metabolism not being like how it was when I was younger. The weight snuck up on me and I didn’t know how bad it was until I had to swap out my jeans for leggings. I was at the heaviest I had ever been and I started developing body image issues. I tried a whole bunch of crash diets (e.g. Keto) and hired a personal trainer. This intentionality behind taking care of my body and physique was all very new to me as I never had to give it a thought before. I told my trainer that I wanted to lose the weight that I had gained over the last year, and after a few weeks’ worth of sessions I got frustrated that I wasn’t seeing any results. So, I booked an appointment for a liposuction consultation at a plastic surgeon’s office.

I went to an immaculate office located in Bellevue, and the receptionist took me into a nice private room in the back to discuss my problem areas and the work that I wanted to get done. I said I wanted a flatter stomach, my back rolls suctioned out, a smaller waist, my butt sculpted, and my cellulite smoothed. She asked me to then strip down to see my problem areas and whether I was a good candidate for surgery. So, she left the room and I stripped down and looked at myself naked in front of this full body mirror. I stared at my light stretch marks in my inner thighs, the dark lines on my hips, the cellulite on my butt, and thought to myself despite my imperfections I really love my body – who taught me to think otherwise? I thought about how my body was sort of like a map of places I’ve been, a testimony of my experiences – this stretch mark is from a summer of drinking alcohol at the loop, this stomach bulge is from eating out with friends. The lady came back and started circling the areas I had mentioned on my body and began telling me what the end results could look like. I nodded as she delved into her explanations and sales pitch. She leaves, and I shimmied back into my clothes and looked through the before and after pictures in their sales brochure until she interrupted my inspection with a knock the door. She provided me a quote of $10,000 to get the work done – gotdamn! She went over the costs in detail and asked when I’d like to move forward with scheduling an appointment. I took a deep breath and started questioning myself. Is this something that I want to do, for me? What brought me here in the first place? Am I going to fall down the rabbit hole of perfection? Is it worth the risks? Will I feel more or less confident after? I had a million things racing through my head.

I stood up abruptly and thanks the lady for her time, but I wanted some time to think on it before moving forward with a final decision. I walked back to my car and thought about how my curiosity will one day lead to my demise. I was happy I allowed myself to be open minded and explore this as an option – but really, it just wasn’t the right one for me. It’s wild when you think you want something, but then when it’s presented in front of you, you realize you don’t. I realized that at the core of what I wanted wasn’t a perfect body, it was my old body – when I felt lighter, healthier and just more comfortable. I felt like at my current weight I wasn’t myself. I was venting to a good friend of mine about how I really want to lose weight, but it’s been hard, and he gave me a wakeup call. He told me that I was one of the smartest and most ambitious individuals he knew, and that my inability to lose weight was because I didn’t want to put in the work. He was right, I was sluffing and complaining after I didn’t put in any work – made so sense. I figured I’ve worked my ass off for everything else I’ve accomplished in my life and losing weight would just be another task I’d check off on my to do list.

When I moved to DC I wanted to improve myself holistically, and one of those elements was prioritizing my health. I stopped eating out and started eating a plant-based diet and significantly reduced my alcohol intake. I bought a Fitbit to monitor my physical activity and ensured I had consistent sleeping patterns. I hired a personal trainer and nutritionist for biweekly sessions. When I met with this trainer, he asked me what my goals were. I told him about my weight gain and how although before my priorities were to lose weight, now – I just want to be healthy and learn how to take care of my body. I wanted to be strong, agile, balanced and was hoping that losing weight would be a gradual outcome of these goals. My trainer, and just my health overall, was the best investment I’ve made in a while.

It’s interesting how as humans, especially in the social media age, we prefer to appear to look good rather than actually be good. I want to hold myself to a high standard where I prioritize health over appearance when it comes to my hair, my body, my skin etc. I’m at an age now where I’m starting to think about when I want to begin a family and I’m having nieces and nephews sprout up left and right  – and they learn from watching. I want to start emulating my own values so that I can instill them in the next generation of young girls just from them seeing and hearing how I treat myself. I want to take care of my body where 30 years down the road I’m not paying for the mistakes I’ve made in my youth, and I can spend the latter part of my life in my best health with those I love most. Being comfortable with my appearance was a battle between being invisible and hypervisible –but, I don’t want to be desired by a lot of people I just want to be valued and enamored by a few me.

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