Like a lot of people on this planet, body image has always been a slippery slope for me. As a teenager, the amount of serotonin I got when someone liked my picture on Instagram or reblogged me on Tumblr was truly embarrassing. And when it came from boys, this validation was worth twice as much.
Seeing women being objectified and sexualised on TV all my life had completely distorted how I viewed myself.
There was barely any ethnic representation at all and those that did exist were highly fetishized.
All the brown women I saw were tall, slightly curvy, had big boobs and bums, and were just brown enough to be ‘exotic looking’. So obviously that was the ideal body right?
I spent most of my teens struggling with diets, dressing in the baggiest clothes I could find and shying away from any opportunity to be photographed. I’ll be honest, it was sad as hell and took a huge toll on my mental health. Realising that this ‘ideal body’ that I was chasing was something created by and for the male fantasy was a real eye opener. It made me question what exactly I was trying to achieve.. Validation? From whom? (boys, don’t know why I’m asking), Satisfaction? From what? Having no fat on my stomach?
I’ll admit, unlearning these harmful attitudes is an ongoing process. One thing that really helped was reading the work of authors who wrote for the female gaze (created for women, from a female perspective). Especially those who were also queer. This made me feel a lot more comfortable in my struggles because they were now a shared experience. So I thought I’d share some of those poems with you.
“What A Cyborg Wants” by Franny Choi was one of the first queer poems I read which was written by a woman of colour. It follows the internal dialogue of a ‘cyborg’ (half human, half robot) trying to navigate the world. “What a cyborg wants is to work perfectly/To stimulate pleasure perfectly. To not cry at dinner/”.
Choi uses this narrative to comment on the idea that women are expected to be perfect, people pleasing robots. Robots whose bodies are designed solely for the approval of men. “To have the face of a pretty American/who makes you smile when she says/Right this way sir/” . As if we are not ‘real women’ if men do not find us attractive.
The sheer desperation of this ‘cyborg’ to want to be appreciated and valued like an actual human being rather than an object really spoke to me. “To not want so badly/to be touched, badly enough to slice herself open,/to trap a man in a corner,/to peel the skin from her face/and not let him go until he looks.”.
And as a queer woman, I needed to unlearn the inherently heteronormative idea that existing outside my gender stereotype would ‘scare away all the men’.
Although, realising that I could never have to romantically interact with a man again if I wanted was truly liberating (I’m joking…. for now).
The next poem I thought I’d share is “once a marine biologist told me octopuses have three hearts” by Denice Frohman which was the first poem about female intimacy I ever read. In it, Frohman imagines what it would be like to be an octopus. “see, I only have one heart/ & I know loving a woman can make you crawl/ out from under yourself, or forget/ the kingdom that is your body”.
The way Frohman describes intimacy with a woman as an almost out-of-body experience really stuck with me. And she was right, when I didn’t care about what I looked like and just focused on having a good time, the sex was way better.
Reclaiming ownership of your own body is a running theme throughout these poems. In other words, you know your body best so you know what’s best for your body. Which is, of course, easier said than done. Sometimes, you have to fake it until you make it.
Which is exactly what the poem “I Guess By Now I Thought I’d Be Done With Shame” (also by Franny Choi) is about. It details her efforts to be a ‘modern woman’. Rather than shy away from the things that society deems ‘inappropriate’ for a woman, she embraces it. She starts talking back to the men who question her, starts being more sexually liberated, begins celebrating her body and stops shaving.
But all is not as it seems. “I guess by now I thought I’d be done with shame/but I opened my coat to prove a point/and kept coming home with colds”. It turns out that the shame wasn’t as far behind her as she thought.
For me, this was a powerful statement about how deeply internalized these thoughts really are. “I sang about my body like I was proud. / I was proud. / I was- “. Here was this woman trying to unapologetically live her life but couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that she was supposed to be ashamed of the way she was behaving.
And I could relate. Learning to embrace my body and sexuality came with its fair share of imposter syndrome. I felt like I wasn’t truly living my ‘best’ life because I still felt trapped by my own insecurities. “Somewhere, / there is a version of me that isn’t neck-/ deep in her invented filth”.
And I still have days where I question the extent of my ‘body positivity’. Have I really stopped trying to appease the male gaze? Do I truly love my body despite not looking the way I want it to? Honestly, I don’t know. And I think that’s okay.
Body image is a particularly complicated issue to detangle within the queer community because it can affect so many parts of our identity.
The pressure we put on ourselves to look a certain way or fit into a certain social group can be emotionally exhausting. For queer people of colour, the impact is worsened- we also have Eurocentric beauty standards to compete with (smaller facial features, straight, thin hair, light eyes, you get the vibe).
Acknowledging the existence of these societal biases is so important because it stops us from making unhealthy comparisons.
And personally, I know that my journey to body acceptance is a long way away. These internalised feelings don’t disappear overnight. They take a lot of work and in some cases (like mine), therapy. And while I don’t expect instant results, seeing my struggles represented by people who look like me quiets the little voice in my head and reminds me that there are other people out there who are also looking for that light at the end of the tunnel.
Written by Nithila