Recently, I had a very healing conversation with a relative where our broken relationship due to familial strife and discord was mended by the grace of God. She called to share her own experience with grief. I think her vulnerability was what melted the barriers I had erected around my heart for anyone who has or will hurt me. We ended up reminiscing towards the end of the conversation; she told me about how I was such a pretty little girl. We laughed at tales of how tender-headed I was and she revealed that I would only let her do my hair. While I didn’t remember that part, our talk jogged my memory and I remembered that I did, in fact, spend a lot of time visiting her as a young girl. Ever since then, we text regularly to check on one another, share pictures with each other and affirm each other’s beauty.
What does it mean to be beautiful?
I have often pondered this question ever since I was a child. Hearing that you are beautiful and believing it are two very different things. In Haitian culture, comparisons are always being made which sometimes causes rifts in relationships of those being compared instead of motivation as intended by parents. For me, there have been times when I just didn’t like things about myself. What I had was an overly-critical lens that I picked myself apart with. I never measured up, was beautiful enough, funny enough, etc. because I often compared myself to others.
My first memory that made me feel like I wasn’t beautiful happened in the first grade. I was about 5 or 6. Although I had been told that I was beautiful by my family and family friends, I remember being in Catholic school and having to be paired up with a “big sister.” My “big sister” switched and paired with a girl who was lighter-skinned and had extremely long hair. While I didn’t have a name for what it was back then, I can identify it now as colorism. Colorism is the favoring of someone because of how light he or she is—definitely a by-product of racism and slavery.
Embarrassed and ashamed, I never talked to anyone about it, I just shelved it in my memory bank and tried to mask my hurt with nonchalance. I remember the first time I felt beautiful after feeling like an ugly girl for many years. I took my eighth grade picture and, to my surprise, I thought I was cute. I even got compliments. Unfortunately, we often base our beauty on what other people think. So if you feel unseen and unnoticed therefore you’re not beautiful. I think my definition of beauty and being beautiful was based in vanity, on my looks, and how much attention I got from guys.
There was also that one time when one of my coaches told me, in front of my peers, that if I wanted to run faster, I would need to lose more weight. I think I was about 100 lbs and 5 ft 5 in. at the time. Because he was no-nonsense when it came to training, I reasoned that this made his comment ok, but it stuck with me. You see, I have always had curves. Maybe he saw potential, but instead, I felt shame. Some might even say that I was too sensitive. I definitely had a complex about my body in high school. Here again, I silently shelved away this experience in my mind.
I remember going back home for my uncle’s funeral after college as a newlywed in 2004. The community that once embraced me, unknowingly, sent me into a silent retreat and a path of hiding. I was excited to introduce my Black American husband to my Haitian church community. However, what he witnessed was me literally shrinking back as a large group of people engulfed me hurling the Haitian Creole phrase, “Ou gro! Ou gro! Ou gro,” at me. It means, “You’re big!” “You’re fat!” At that point, I wore a size 10. One woman explained that they were just concerned about my health. Hassan, who has always taken his role as protector seriously, didn’t know what they were saying but based on my facial expression and body language, he knew I needed rescuing. He came and took me away from the crowd.
I never imagined this would happen to me, no less at my uncle’s funeral. Was that the proper place? Were they even qualified to weigh in on my body and what being healthy was? I will say that while their intent may not have been to hurt me, the negative impact is what I have carried with me through the years. This cultural norm of body-shaming needs to be challenged and changed. At the time of the funeral, it had been five years since the last time they saw me. Believe it or not, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited NJ since and have yet to visit my childhood church, sadly. This is a major reason why I had distanced myself from my Haitian community for a period of time. I was hiding.
I have many more stories I could share but this post would get very long. So, I share an excerpt of these experiences for my own healing and freedom from the bondage of allowing someone else to deem me unworthy because of what I looked like and how much I weighed. I also write for other people who may have carried the pain of being body-shamed around with them to let them know that they are not alone. There are also those like me, who have had medical and life challenges as well as impediments such as stress and sleep deprivation that have been conducive to weight gain and/or affected weight loss.
What is it about our society where it is acceptable to body-shame people and think it’s going to magically spur that person on to lose weight? Beauty, as the world sees it, is based on subjective measures and trends. Somehow, I learned that beauty was based on external characteristics and the views of others. As I watched how others were treated, heard what was said about them, and experienced disparate treatment due to weight and other external features, I internalized it all. However, as I grow older I have found that it is what is on the inside of a person that beautifies the outside. Inner beauty is reflected and radiated on the outside.
I thank God daily for uniting me with my husband, Hassan. He encourages me not to hide and to be seen no matter how big or small I am. He has affirmed me by telling me that I am beautiful and that I have to live regardless of my size. He has done exactly as his name means—beautified me with his words. Recently, our focus as a family has been health and wholeness so we often exercise together. When you are loved you for who you are, it is such a beautiful thing! The love of my husband and children has been refreshing and restoring.
I am no longer absent in pictures because I feel ugly or fat. I am embracing who I am and what I look like and resist the temptation to hit delete. I have lost valuable memories doing just that. Like a flower, I am blossoming and it feels good. Such a peculiar statement to make during this time, right? I don’t fully understand it either. But over the past 17 years of marriage, I have often confessed that I will flourish in times of famine and bear fruit in every season. (Jeremiah 17:7-8) It’s so interesting how a person can hold on to a promise and not see it manifest until it does. You realize that God didn’t forget about you. He really sees you and loves you for who you are regardless of how you look. Years ago, someone prophesied that if I could be loved, I could do anything. Well love, I welcome you. I receive whatever you have for me. Yup, I am learning to embrace me. This is what makes me beautiful.
I am so grateful for my community of “framily” who affirm me and have loved me no matter how small or big I am. They have shared weight loss tips, joined me on walks or in exercise classes, challenged me competitively, and have even gone as far as giving me exercise equipment. With them, I feel safe to be broken and share this struggle that was once a personal one. They don’t call me names or make me feel bad or unworthy; they love me too.
While I’m not where I want to be in terms of my weight loss goals, I am focusing on enjoying life, enjoying my journey, and healing from past hurts. With the help of the Lord, I am steadily charging at my insecurities refusing to let anyone, anything, or even my own self to keep me in a box of shame. God has called me out and is making me bolder than I’ve ever been and I refuse to hide any longer. I will not shrink back. This is me and I love this girl. I will no longer seek permission to live or to be accepted or to simply be who I am.
What does being beautiful mean to you? How are you embracing who you are? What is your manifesto on beauty? How are you breaking free?
New Jersey Native. Proud Haitian-American. UNC-Chapel Hill (First-Generation College) Graduate. Double Tar Heel who obtained a Doctorate from NC State. Educator. Devoted Daughter and Sister. Loving Wife and Mother. Lover of People. Photographer. Poet. Home Chef. Singer. Worshiper. Preacher and Motivational Speaker. Virtuous Woman. I am who I am by the Grace of God.