My recent trip to Jamaica turned out to be one of healing and empowerment and I have the women of Jamaica to thank. My first trip ever to the beautiful tropical country, I was impressed with how the women, no matter their size or occupation owned their beauty. They walked with a certain unbothered confidence. Whether a housekeeper or executive, size two or 22, they owned their beauty. The American women is imprisoned by unrealistic and strangling beauty standards and expectations. No matter what she does, the normal woman is always bombarded by beauty standards she will never measure up to nor should she. But yet we’re reminded daily that we don’t have the so-called perfect body. Though stretch marks and cellulite are part of the woman experience, we often unconsciously allow those so-called flaws to make us feel unpretty. Not the women of Jamaica. This impressed me. There was a certain freedom I felt. I hadn’t realized how unfree I was till I saw just how free they were.
For me, my body has always been both a blessing and a curse. When I was ten years old, I went to sleep and woke up a C cup bra size. There was no gradual growth. Nope. There was no A cup then B cup. I shot straight to C. So here I was this ten year old child with the body of a woman. Men and women looked at me differently. I became a bit self-conscious. How could I not. Men gave me a certain look and women gave me a judgmental look. I was just ten years old. Along with a size C cup, I had this booty. A booty I’d try to hide and not bring any attention to. I wanted people, my peers to just see me, but they were more focused on my body.
Teen years were better because in high school, everyone had a body. So I wasn’t this anomaly. But I’d still get certain looks from men and women. Men lusted. Women judged. Church in my 20’s weren’t any better. About 13 years ago, I was in church. Anyone who knows me knows I love music and during worship time at church I’m always on my feet clapping, dancing, singing. One day an usher, came over to me and asked me to sit down because the married woman behind me was upset that her husband was looking at my butt. I remember telling the usher to tell her to stand up and dance, if they were both standing up, my butt wouldn’t be a marital distraction. I continued dancing but I was a bit hurt and angry. Somehow in churches women are responsible for the spiritual health of the men. We can’t wear this. We shouldn’t wear that. Anything that could “tempt” him, we must barred from our closets. But this wasn’t the worst of the experience.
Few months after this, I came to church feeling good. I’d just bought a new skirt suit. With four small kids at the time I felt rich being able to buy myself a stylish new suit. After service, I was leaving church when an usher told me that two of the female ministers wanted to have a word with me. I went into an office in the back and two older ladies, church’s only female ministers at the time, sat me down. They told me that the pastor’ wife wanted them to meet with me. They started to read random scriptures, which they interpreted that my looks could cause a man to stumble. They said they’d gotten complaints from many wives about my looks, my body. There was a certain calm that came over me. I wanted to cry but my strength wouldn’t, in that moment let me. I sat there and listened to them put the weight of everyone’s marriage on my ass. At one point, one of the minister knowing I was from west Africa said, “In America, white men like boobs. Black men like butts”. I remember saying what the heck does that have to do with me? So I listened to them use God’s word to judge me for wearing a suit that showed my curves, curves I didn’t buy and could never hide. I looked at both these older women and I told them my story. I said when I was ten I went to sleep flat chested and woke up a C cup. Everyone looked at me differently. I told them it took the power of God to help me see myself as He sees me and not as everyone else. He freed me from the trapped image and perceptions of others, and I wasn’t going to allow them to put me back in that prison. Those men’s spiritual frailties weren’t my responsibility and I won’t allow them to take me to a place God had delivered me from. I said goodbye and left. I went home and cried. I never wore that suit again.
Last year I wanted to undergo surgery to reduce my breasts and get a tummy tuck. I have four children and out of four kids only one natural birth. Other three were c-sections. I bear the scars of those procedures. I was excited about the idea of having smaller boobs but the plastic surgeon refused to do the procedures. Two years ago, after six weeks of debilitating headaches, an MRI showed I had cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, which is a blood clot in the brain. I still live with it. I’ve never been sick in my life, and out of nowhere I get this frightening diagnosis. I guess I’ve always been quite the over achiever.
I remember finally going to get this MRI and being told I was lucky to be alive and needed to be admitted to the hospital right away. First thing I thought of “I need a Chipotle steak burrito.” If I died I’m sure there’s no Chipotle in heaven. So I had my steak burrito, went home, packed a bag for what ended up being eight days in the hospital. The same day my son Eli Apple and the Ohio State Buckeyes football team were visiting the White House, I was being admitted. Now I sat in this plastic surgeon office and he was telling me if I had this procedure I could have a seizure and die. I was like well just bury me in a bikini cuz I will have the best dead bod ever. So I left his office with my oversize breasts and imperfect tummy.
My body issues have always been an issue, not with me so much but with everyone else. This is something most women live with but in Jamaica, there was a certain healing I didn’t even know I needed. When I’d go to the beach or pool, I’d wear cover-ups, as if the sun belonged only to the skinny and cellulite-less. But in Jamaica I wore a bikini without apology. I embraced the body I have and just enjoyed myself. I was in awe of the freedom I felt. There’s a certain popular inferiority the unskinny American woman lives with constantly. None of the women in beauty magazines look like her. She’s made to feel her body isn’t beautiful. It’s all a lie that we’ve gleefully bought.
The women I encountered weren’t self conscious. They were life conscious. Their focus was on enjoying life not counting calories or diminishing under the cloud of comparisons. They walked as if their beauty was assured, without need for outward validation. They didn’t question their beauty or value. They just lived.
In the movie, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, when Stella went to Jamaica she got her groove back because she found a man. I got my groove back because I rediscovered my beauty, thanks to the fierce women of Jamaica.