For four straight weeks, I had the privilege to live with a great friend in Haiti, on the fringe of Port-au-Prince near Petionville. I haven’t been stateside for even a week yet and already the reflections are revealing just how much I did learn (although, had you asked me then, I’d have little to nothing to offer). Over the next few weeks, I hope to be able to honour the time I spent there and my experiences with penning, as best I can, some of these ideas. Ergo, the first here.
I went for a spontaneous run today when I found my gym hours had changed while I was away (closing a full three hours earlier than normal…). This meant taking my butt in tight yoga pants and a hoodie into the crowded public to look a fool as it’s been literally months since I’ve been out for a run and I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do. Under normal circumstances, I’d cringe at the idea of the attention I would be subject to without wanting (I live on the rather thick side, bottom heavy), and would just go home and pretend to work out in my living room and regret it later. However, my mind needed the movement so away I went without much consideration to my attire.
We’ll sidestep the egotistical dialogue that could be had about my personal victory of triumphing issues in my left knee to have an 11:59 uphill mile without having run in several months, and return another day to the different definitions of structural and natural beauty and the privilege of having both in a country. Fast forward past a yoga break to my brisk walking back to the car, at which point the sun is setting over my right shoulder. This is key. This small detail is what leads me to face my inescapable foe and friend, frequent reminder of my solitude, shortcomings, and presence in the physical reality – my shadow.
Stay with me here. For someone just shy of 5’2″, often ridiculous hair at whatever length, and hasn’t worn anything below a size 10 pants since puberty, a shadow can be a little intimidating, forgiving the smaller blemishes while exaggerating everything else from nose length to hip width. Here, I must confess, for all my curvy #selfie lady pride, much self-consciousness has still lived in me – it began with the fact I had to work to accept my image, on many levels, had to learn to disregard others’ non-acceptance, and had to continue to remind myself against all the many images that perversely insert themselves into daily Western living. That curvy lady pride is damn well earned because I fought for it.
And then I went to another country.
In this particular country – the “oldest” black republic and the first of the Western hemisphere (you know, according to when Europeans started recording history; we’ll disregard all the black republics that existed before European powers crushed them in their domination) – as you might correctly guess, the majority of the population is black, which, at least by my definition as crafted by experiences growing up, equates to instant beauty. Every variation from hair texture to body shape, the entire people are beautiful, but what attributes to their beauty is a sense of... and here, I hesitate to call it pride, so as not to be confused with a vanity of self, but something more like a self-awareness and self-respect, for themselves in all ways, including their physical representation. Despite buxom assets (with which many were blessed), women, for the most part, dressed conservatively, not pressuring one another – as is the American way – to compete with cleavage or short skirt offerings. Despite obviously cut physiques, men followed suit. Make-up use was minimal and there wasn’t a great deal of materialistic show being made.
As someone with very little knowledge of the language (although I learned some – mwen anprann enpi ye… perhaps), I spent a great deal of time being shy and in observation mode when we were in public. Personal space is almost non-existent on public transportation, for everyone tries so hard to accommodate another rider, they squeeze until you have a mush of human bodies. Where I previously felt a blush when my thighs threaten to flood the bus seat next to me in DC and someone adjusts themselves with silent discomfort, I was not judged for taking up the space I did – I was allowed that space, especially if I didn’t mind squeezing up to the woman beside me with thighs as thick (and there were a few). Thick and very big even were clearly non-issues, nor were tiny or very tall, nor dark nor light-skinned. Everyone seemed to accept one another all the same – everyone squeezed a little tighter, regardless of the passenger; everyone greeted one another; everyone was willing to be helpful to a stranger, braids, curls, shave, small, big, old, very young. My “ghetto booty” was not addressed as an oddity, nor even addressed at all (although, I’m told by my dear friend it still gathered as much attention, simply without the same cat-calling). I brought my straightener to the island and never once felt compelled to straighten my hair to “look the part” – my version of natural doesn’t produce the same effect, but I was still allowed throw some paste into it and rock on. No one was giving a damn except me. The standard of beauty was simply personal care and self-assurance – to be and respect yourself.
Four weeks later, I’m home with a wrap around shave and ten-eleven pounds more than I left with, literally. The day of my flight, I wore jeans that I had worn the first weekend I arrived in Haiti and was embarrassed to find them so snugly fit. I was assuaged by my friend (whose influence I have severely downplayed, as he played much a role supporting me before and during my stay, which only doubled the effect of being in an environment without a singular standard for beauty) and then sent on a plane back to the states without another thought to my physique. My luggage with all of my clean clothes was conveniently lost in Miami, so I had only my smallest sized work pants and a fitted shirt to wear to work the next day.
I wore them and was surprised when three different co-workers asked if I was losing weight – I wasn’t surprised that they thought I was losing weight as much as I was surprised to have people taking notice of my physique and so directly. Four weeks of wearing anything from jeans a t-shirt to a very small bikini, I hadn’t really had anything about my body directly said by anyone other than my good friend, and it wasn’t anything other than compliments and generous declarations coming from him (we’ll suffice it to say there was romantic involvement and you can understand the word choice here and how it’s different). I even had a few students point out differences in my body throughout the day, although the greater distraction by them was lamentation for the loss of my long hair.
While I wasn’t sure why people thought I looked better, especially since they were saying thinner and I was up ten real pounds, I didn’t give much thought to it.
And then entered Shadow.
Except, this time, Shadow did not harass me with her own judgment on how inappropriately thick were my thighs, didn’t remark on the shortness of my stature, didn’t compare me to the lean shadows of those walking by. Instead, she showed me how fluidly even my little legs could move as I ran or walked fast, highlighted how great and appealing my curves looked (and did whisper to me then, where much of the ten pounds went, widening my hips), even pointed out the relative smallness of my waist to be seen through my thick hoodie. She walked along side me, no longer an enemy sent to mock and degrade, but a friend echoing in a voice not too unfamiliar, all the niceties my own physique had to offer – above all, that it worked and that it was my own and personalized to me. She and I watched many other women – thick and thin – walk by and admired the qualities they physically possessed but retained pride in our own. It is such a simple and, by no stretch of the imagination is it a new concept, but finally, we had mastered it: at last, my Shadow had learned how to stop comparing us to others and adopted the same mentality on beauty we’ve been striving for, that was inherent in an entire country free of such strong Western influences – the realization that every person and every thing is its own standard of beauty. We need only respect it in others and ourselves. And, maybe, kick Kim Kardashian out of the public eye. Or, insert a hell of a lot more diversity into it with equal front-page play.