When I was in high school, I wanted to look like anyone but myself.
I thought I was too big, too dark but not dark enough at the same time, with acne and dark marks from picking at my face. My hair wasn’t long enough for my liking. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn’t know what it was to consider myself beautiful. All I wanted was to fit in, to be more easily be described as a type – slender but curvy, with long hair and a more even complexion. I would look at my friends and classmates and wish I could look more like them. I’d look at their features and think I wish I had her skin, I wish I had her hair, if I had a body like that I’d be happier. I didn’t know how to look in the mirror and love my whole self. All I did was look in the mirror and pick myself apart.
I had to learn how to see my reflection and smile back at myself. I had to learn how to embrace all of me – my always plus size body, my acne and hyperpigmentation, the hair I didn’t know what to do with. I had to learn how to love all of me, at every step of my journey. I learned to embrace the things that made me different, the attributes that caused me angst but eventually led me to create Afrobella. When I was a teen, I felt so alone with my feelings and struggles. Now I realize that was so far from the truth.
Many of us who are uniquely beautiful face this learning curve of self-love. Now there are so many avenues of expression, so many ways to share our beauty with the world, so many ways to find recognition in the images of others. I think teenagers in the world today are lucky in many ways. Lucky to have role models like Khoudia Diop and Winnie Harlow and Harnaam Kaur to blaze the trail. Lucky for books like The Beauty of Different by Karen Waldron and Hunger by Roxane Gay to identify with, to strike those chords of internal recognition. Lucky for publications like Teen Vogue to uplift and inform them that they’re not alone in their struggles.
Recently Teen Vogue featured an article on natural and unique beauty that stopped me in my tracks. 6 Women Celebrate Their Defining Features by Ezinne Mgbeahuruike shared the stories of women who have also had to learn to love their whole selves, who were “…told (they were) too ugly, too odd, too black.” Women who have had to learn to come to terms with, celebrate and love the things that make their beauty unique.
One of the women included is my friend, fellow Trini, Brooklyn-based anthropologist and curator Niama Safia Sandy — a woman who has shared these kinds of feelings, has learned to love her beauty on her own terms and now lets it radiate to the world. Niama generously offered to share the rest of her story here on Afrobella – all questions originally posed by Ezinne Mgbeahuruike to Niama Safia Sandy.
Writer/Creative Director – Ezinne Mgbeahuruike Instagram: @ezylivin
Photographer –Jordan Tiberio Instagram: @jordantiberio
Q — What advice would you give to your younger self about your beauty?
A — I would tell her to embrace, learn and respect every aspect of herself inside and out. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge of self and the confidence that grows from that.
Q — Why is society afraid of curviness and thick women? Why do you think fat shaming exists?
A — Standards of behavior and beauty that dictate women should be dainty, delicate and diminutive in stature are no mistake. In this culture, the act of occupying space is a charged one – it implies power. Accordingly, based on that thinking, women who literally take up space are seen as more difficult to control and push into submission. We are flying in the face of centuries of white men’s desires and viewpoints dictating the rules of the game. As much as we’d like to believe we are beyond women being looked upon as second-class citizens everything that we are seeing right now tells us otherwise. This is not even beginning to delve into the level of complexity that is added when the color of the woman’s skin is added to the conversation. There are a lot of things happening there but I do think patriarchy/white male hegemony is certainly at the root of it. Shaming exists because weak people need a mechanism to try to reset the dynamics of who is in control.
Q — Have you had any negative experiences with your body or others making you feel bad for how curvy you are?
A — I’ve never been skinny so I have grown to be very comfortable with this body of mine. I wouldn’t say it makes me feel “bad” but I have been experiencing grown men catcalling and harassing me in the street since I was in elementary school. As such, I have always had a sort of complicated relationship with accepting compliments. It’s this sort of weird space between shellshock and acceptance. Of course, I know I’m beautiful but when I’m walking down the street I don’t need someone to yell at me, make noises, or make skeevy sexual comments as I’m walking by. That, in all it’s hyper masculine glory, has always made me deeply uncomfortable.
Q — How do people react to your eyes? Do you like their reactions?
A– People are usually awed by my eyes. I would say the reactions are 50/50 – some people just stare; and the rest of the time people are vocal and will tell me how beautiful they think they are. In general, – without this seeming overly confident- it’s something I have come to understand as a part of my life.
Q — What advice do you have for women just as curvy as you but haven’t embraced it?
A — For women who find themselves lacking confidence and hiding their curves behind baggy clothes, and lacking confidence – I advocate looking at who you believe yourself to be, mind, body, and soul. Build yourself so strong that no one can shake the love you feel and practice for yourself. When you have done the work of learning and loving yourself – whether it’s meditating, being more active, keeping a journal, looking at yourself in the mirror everyday and believing that you are beautiful – everything changes.
Thank you, Niama! You gave me so much food for thought, so much to chew on, so much to nourish my spirit with.
And thank you to Ezinne Mgbeahuruike and Teen Vogue.
Bellas, talk to me about your natural beauty, the things you were born with, the things about you that make you different. How did you learn how to love your difference? What advice would you give to someone who’s still learning, or to your younger self?