My Beautiful Black Body: A Trek to Black Womanhood by way of Mental Illness
(Article featured on BlackGirlInOm.com)
My Blackness has always been put to question in a social setting. In the treacherous jungle known as middle school, I fought to prove my authentic Blackness to others, while trying to maintain the authenticity within myself. My light skin, long permed hair, standard American accent and vernacular didn’t help my fight. Despite what the naysayers believed, I always tried to convey that I was simply Black. But what does “simply Black” mean? Does being simply Black mean that I am strong, outspoken, unaffected by the weary ways of the world? Not always.
My Blackness, soft and tender, has felt weak and distraught by the ways of the world. Despite always dealing with social anxiety, I never realized how closely linked anxiety and depression were until reaching adolescence. My closest encounter with mental illness as a child was my close yet, turbulent relationship with my mother, who battled depression from childhood. With my parents getting divorced at age 5 and my constant identity crises I upheld as a Black child growing up in white spaces, I can recall moments of my own childhood that felt lonely and confusing. I have lived with mental illnesses that I spent every single day denying their existences. I am a depressive, meaning that I have battled depression and some days continue to deal with some of the symptoms. I had a life-threatening eating disorder, something that brought deep shame upon me not only as a woman, but as a Black woman. All of these elements of my being were physically painful indeed, but more so mentally painful in the long run. The scar of shame runs deep within my veins. I remember days when I was ill with my eating disorder I would mourn my Blackness, as if it had also departed from my body. Black women aren’t supposed to wallow in their sadness, they aren’t ashamed of their bodies, they do not conceal the loud and proud aspects of their Black being. I did.
It began in 2010. I stood in front of a bathroom mirror, West African hips, thighs, and all, and decided I didn’t want any of it. I didn’t want the hips and thighs genetically bestowed upon me. I had hips and thighs that are considered treasures, sacred, full of life, full of lovable goodness...and I didn’t want any of it. I didn’t want the changes that my body would inevitably go through at age 15. I felt like I had no say over what my body did. I wanted “perfection”. I felt like my face was pretty thanks to puberty, but all the extra stuff that comes with puberty, I had no use for. I made the conscious decision to take control. I wanted to control every single thing about my life. I wanted to show other people how perfect I could be despite how inferior I felt on the inside. I wanted perfection and I took it out on my body. I began to restrict my food little by little, slowly gaining a false sense of control.
I lived in a fog for nearly two years making excuses to myself about why I am doing a good thing for my body. As restrictive as I was, I didn’t believe I was anorexic because I still ate SOMETHING every day. It wasn’t until I reached 95 lbs that I realized that something might be wrong with me. My deep shame came when I had to get treated in a hospital for malnutrition. I had to see a therapist weekly. Until then, I didn’t realize how much of my life this disease had taken from me. From developing OCD behavior, to becoming deeply depressed, to self-harming, to shutting people out of my life, this disease took complete control and I became a shell of the person I once was.
I never told anyone in high school. I told two people in college. Now I am telling the world. Living with this secret never erased my shame, it only compounded it. I was so ashamed to be a Black girl with an eating disorder. I was so ashamed to be a Black girl who needed to see a therapist weekly. People finally saw me as person who had her life together, when in reality, I was falling apart at the seams. I had struggled to be “Black enough” for so long for people who hardly deserved my friendship. I felt like my disease was the cherry on top to my inadequacy as a black woman. On top of speaking the way I do, looking the way I do, acting the way I do, I chose to starve myself so that I could have a body that was never destined for me? How shameful. How self-hating. How insecure. Black women aren’t supposed to be full of shame, or self-hating, or insecure. The Black women I’ve always looked up to walk with a zest in their stride and gold in their crowns. I felt even further ostracized from this idea of Black Womanhood.
While in the process of recovery, the depression spiraled. I felt even more out of control as I was gaining weight and trying to force my body into figuring out how to function again. I felt even more alone. However, I got to know myself on a truer level than ever before. I got to look myself in the mirror and be honest with Nia for the first time in a long time. It was a grieving of sorts that was so needed. During the process of my illness, so many mental and physical functions of the body began to atrophy. Helping my mind and body relearn some habits was extremely difficult, yet powerful. I began to realize how much of a temple my body is. I began to realize that my body is my lifelong best friend. Before anyone else, my body deserves the most love I can give.
Around this time of recovery, I took up yoga. After having been an athlete for most of my teenage years, yoga was a beautiful change of pace. Yoga taught me that there is strength in stretching. There is strength in being gentle. There is strength in yin energy, something I’ve always had more than enough of. There is a strength in being with your body and mind in the absence of striving. There is strength in staying on your own mat. In the incubatory process of recovery, I began smiling more at myself in the mirror. I found joyful parts of myself that I had locked away. Although I cried many tears along the way of this journey to wellness, I also discovered a beautiful part of my Black being; my resilience. Resilience is the most unwavering trait of the Black soul, especially the Black female soul. I re-appropriated my identity as Nia, the Black Woman.
Many years have passed since the onset of my illness, but thoughts and emotions I experienced have always stuck with me. That fact that those thoughts and emotions were so visceral made it hard to share them with anyone. However, I decided my shame was not worth its pain. My shame, no matter how deep, was not worth the time and energy of me feeling inadequate as a Black woman. This is a shout out to all women and particularly Black women: NO ONE gets to define who we are but ourselves. The amount of self-knowledge and self-clarity I have gained from letting go of perfection and expectations is precious. I discovered the richness in self-love and self-acceptance. It is truly beautiful to look in the mirror and recognize yourself. I look in the mirror today and see a person I can fully claim. I see a person who I am proud of. I see a person who is strong. I speak out on my mental illnesses not to boast, but to show other Black women who’ve had similar experiences that they are not alone. They are not forsaken. In fact, they are more strong and worthy of best quality of life than they could ever have imagined. Today, I am in one piece. Not fragmented, not compartmentalized. Today, I am whole.