When I ask my 58-year-old manmie (mom) about the last time she felt beautiful, happy and feminine at the same time, she pauses and tells me she was 31. She tells me it was after giving birth to her first children. She doesn’t tell me about a time between then and now. And I am left to imagine what it was like for the moments in-between. I only hear her speak of her pride for birthing five children — all budding young adults making their way in steady strides.
She never speaks of herself or her womanhood. The only thing I know of femininity and womanhood is that sacrifice is the prerequisite.
Manmie willingly breaks her back at the altar of strangers’ feet, seemingly without resentment. I’m not exactly sure how she does it with such grace, but she does.
Somewhere between whitewashed popular culture and seeing many women break themselves into shapes to accommodate the comfort of those around them, I learned to do the same. When so much of what informed my understanding of femininity came from hair stories, the memory of my girlhood smelled like pink lotion, Dax pomade, shed hair and fried hair grease.In all instances it’s been made clear to me that playing small, both in my physicality and in my actions, was/is the rule for women who look like me.
When all the examples of femininity require bending and sacrifice, to sit with myself and figure out what my own femininity means to me feels almost like an unworthy luxury. I hardly know where to begin the work of reclaiming and defining femininity for myself.
At 26, after awkwardly crawling my way out of my once lanky body, the exotification of my body was how I knew I was outgrowing girlhood.
My body is a “thing” now; or rather, I am now aware that it is a “thing.” People stare at my afro first, then my body. I feel the stares when I choose to wear my afro out. When the blazing sun calls for less clothing, I feel the stares on my body. When opportunity brings me in a corporate office often filled with mostly white faces, I feel the stares on my hair. I don’t mind the attention on most days.
I know my hair is a thing, because people ask me about it. Children point and ask questions. I don’t mind answering questions, but after a while it gets tiring to have to explain why my body exists the way that it does. I don’t know how to fully take responsibility for what it does. I’m still not sure if that’s humility or low self-esteem.
I have a theory that in outgrowing black-girlhood, I’m constantly running two steps behind other people’s conception of my own beauty.
I wish I could fully own the comments about my beauty. Every now and then I do. But the little acne-faced shy girl still lives inside this body and I don’t know how to tell her that these comments are actually true.
I don’t know how to slap her into believing that she is worthy of such high praise. I also don’t know how to deal with the
inquiries made about my body when people ask questions about it. I question whether it is my responsibility to answer such questions. I sometimes don’t know how to decipher between the comments that exoticize and those that genuinely praise it. I also don’t know how to reconcile my craving of having the beauty of my body validated by others.
In my search towards defining my femininity, I found that I’m still carrying some of the trauma of being unwanted by, or unworthy of the men I am attracted to and the often-burdensome responsibility of blackness.
I am uncertain of many things about my body, but I have come to know this: I don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why my complex femininity and blackness is the way it is. I’ve come to realize that accepting my body and person in its trauma and physicality is a lifelong personal journey.
Although I haven’t quite figured out how to handle the discomfort of carrying a body that is exoticized and one that is visibly different than those who are around me, I choose to move with grace; the same grace exemplified by my mother and many before her. Like the awkward toggle between hand-me-downs and new traditions, the uncomfortable fit of wearing femininity and blackness in its complexity may be a thing to grow into.
Perhaps if time grants me the privilege of standing at 58 years old, I hope to speak of how, like my mother, I learned to carry on with grace despite the breaking. The strength to willingly and strategically break yourself into shapes for the sake of a better legacy for your children, as embodied by my mother, has set a hard precedent.
But it is one that I would be honoured to muster, if time allows.