Aala Marra's glow is enough to illuminate an entire room, which makes it easy to spot the autoimmune survivor amid the buzz at lower Manhattan's Ludlow House. Her radiant skin, framed by natural curls, is a testament to her commitment to wellness and a nod to her ability to flip the darkest chapter of her life into light.
It's hard to imagine that nearly four years ago, the vibrant spirit who has amassed and inspired thousands of followers, was at the mercy of a debilitating disease. It started with drastic hair loss. Merely two months before ringing in her 23rd birthday, Aala woke up to half of her waist-length hair on the floor. "I thought I was dreaming at first," she tells xoNecole over lunch. "It was absolutely traumatizing."
The dismal moment prompted an instant trip to the doctor but left her with unanswered questions. As she bounced from one medical professional to the next, Aala's symptoms took a grim turn and her mental health followed suit. Working for an investment bank at the time, she crumbled under the stress of Wall Street and the weight of eczema, migraines, and muscle spasms.
It wasn't until her last doctor visit that she discovered she was battling an autoimmune disease, which heavily mirrored lupus yet had no name of its own. With the revelation also came the reality that the medication proposed to her would put her at risk for additional symptoms and, ultimately, would not address the source of her failing health. "At that point in my life, I was in such a dark place. I couldn't afford any more symptoms financially, emotionally, and physically," she stresses. "I respectfully declined the offer to get medicated some more, and I walked out with no plan."
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"At that point in my life, I was in such a dark place. I couldn't afford any more symptoms financially, emotionally, and physically."
Shortly after, a conversation she had with a woman who raved about her journey to wellness with the late herbalist Dr. Sebi earlier in the year sprang to mind. While Aala didn't seek treatment from the Honduran healer, the testimonial swelled her desire to do research on herbs, gut health, and the ancient African diet.
The Brooklyn resident went on to craft a cleanse grounded in what she learned, increasing her water intake and eliminating inflammatory foods from her diet in the process. The results were dramatic. Her symptoms not only reversed within two weeks but were completely erased three months later. "I wasn't even back to normal. I was glowing. I was energetic," she reflects as tears well up in her eyes. "It never gets old."
Though fiercely private at the time, Aala couldn't resist the urge to share her story in hopes that others would find solace in her triumph. "I knew that there were people who could identify with it or it could at least reach people that needed to hear it, and it's just my truth. I wanted to celebrate it and definitely advocate for wellness and health and destigmatize it," she explains.
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"I knew that there were people who could identify with it or it could at least reach people that needed to hear it, and it's just my truth. I wanted to celebrate it and definitely advocate for wellness and health and destigmatize it."
In less than two years, she drew thousands of eyes to her Instagram page. "It was super organic," she points out. "It was all in response to what people wanted." After revisiting her cleanse in November 2017, Aala's followers tagged along. When they asked for recipes she infused into her diet while recovering from her disease, she released Aala Marra's Cleansing Cookbook two months later. As supporters requested an even deeper look into her journey to wellness from start to present day, she granted them access through her September title I Am the Cure...And So Are You.
The health enthusiast, who also teaches an online course on her cleanse, hasn't limited her influence to the virtual world either. While returning to New York from Coachella last spring, she took an impromptu detour to Kansas City to directly work with a follower named Keyonna who couldn't see past her multiple sclerosis. Within three days, the ladies took a trip to the grocery store, revamped her kitchen, and prepared meals together. Once strangers, Aala gushes that the two are now friends and have both marveled at Keyonna's restored energy and dissipating pain since then. That summer, she hit the road once again to connect with three more women whose lives have been impacted by her cleanse. "It's been the gift that keeps on giving," she muses. "I get DMs, emails, and messages every single day."
The Sudan native credits her affinity to uplift others to her father, who dedicated his life to building schools, wells, and clinics in sub-Saharan Africa. "I've always known this, but I just care about people. That's the energy that I grew up in," she says.
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"I've always known this, but I just care about people. That's the energy that I grew up in."
It's in that spirit that the impact entrepreneur has designed her lifestyle healthcare brand aalaCare. Launched this April, the wellness resource strives to support people in their surviving moments and usher them into a thriving reality. It's a movement that starts with a six-week master healing course and will later expand to include a virtual cooking program, live events, and products intended to spark change on a community level.
"I'm very different from people in the wellness industry," Aala emphasizes. "While it's an amazing industry, there's a privileged tone to it, and a lot of people that need wellness don't have access to it."
Her platform aims to combat just that by creating a space for people of color--especially black women--to enhance their lifestyles holistically. "We're not taught to go within," she says. "When I noticed that I wasn't feeling well, everything that I was seeking in order to figure out what was going on was external."
Now on the other side of a disease that once threatened to end her life, Aala has come to know that health is more than the physical. It's also mental and emotional. "There was a traumatic event that happened in a personal relationship of mine in February . In July , I developed my first symptom. There's absolutely no coincidence," she maintains. "I was eating a certain way since the beginning of time. Why was it then that my body decided to break?"
While she's not one to push her example on others, Aala cautions not to succumb to the idea of waiting for an optimal, or even distressing, time to make better life choices. "The only perfect time is now. You're about it or you're not about it," she says.
Courtesy of Aala Marra / Kofi Dua
"The only perfect time is now. You're about it or you're not about it."
No longer chained to the pain of her past, Aala emits hope to those seeking to reclaim their health simply by owning hers out loud. Humbled by the lives she touched and those she will continue to inspire along the way, she walks in gratitude knowing that what she suffered was not in vain. "I'm never out here to force anyone to do anything. I just share my truth," she closes. "Knowing that my story literally transforms people's lives really shows the power of authenticity."
For more of Aala, follow her on Instagram.
Originally published on April 29, 2019
All images courtesy of Aala Marra
Shanice Davis is a writer from New York, dedicated to illuminating women of color and Caribbean culture with her pen. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @alwayshanice.
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From Monogamy To Polyamory: 'I'm In An Asexual Poly Marriage With My Husband Of 7 Years'
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be asexual and in an open marriage? Relationship Coach Mikki Bey shared her first-hand experience with us as well as answered some of our burning questions.
Like a lot of people, Mikki met her now husband, Raheem Ali, online. As soon as they met, they instantly fell in love and got engaged on their first date. Just 90 days after they met, the couple tied the knot and have now been married for seven years. Raheem and Mikki aren’t your typical married couple, and despite being married for almost a decade, their marriage is anything but traditional. Mikki and Raheem have what she calls an "asexual polyamorous marriage."
Defining Her Sexuality
It wasn't until last summer that Mikki found the language to define her sexuality. "I didn't have the language for it until last summer," she explained to xoNecole. "Looking back, I just thought sex wasn't my thing. It was never enjoyable for me, and I'd go years without even noticing.”
Mikki always thought she was broken because she had no interest in sex. Mikki noticed after her friends came to visit and started discussing their sexual fantasies that she realized something was different about her. “At that point, I knew something was definitely different about me since I do not have sexual fantasies at all. It was truly news to me that people are at work thinking about sex! That was not my experience.” This led to Mikki researching asexuality, which she soon realized fit her to a T. “It felt like breathing new air when I was able to call it by name," said Mikki.
"Looking back, I just thought sex wasn't my thing. It was never enjoyable for me, and I'd go years without even noticing it."
Asexuality refers to people who experience little or no sexual attraction, experience attraction without acting on it sexually, or experience sexual attraction differently based on other factors. Like most things, asexuality falls on a spectrum and encompasses many other identities. It's important to remember, however, that attraction and action are not always synonymous: some asexuals may reject the idea of sexual contact, but others may be sex-neutral and engage in sexual activity.
It's possible that some asexuals will have sex with someone else despite not having a libido or masturbating, but others will have sex with a partner because it brings a sense of connection.
From a Traditional Marriage to Kitchen Table Polyamory
Although Mikki never really had a high sex drive, it wasn’t until after the birth of her son, that she noticed her sex drive took a real nosedive. “I never had a high sex drive, but about a year after my son was born, I realized I had zero desire. My husband has a high sex drive, and I knew that it would not be sustainable to not have sex in our marriage at that time.”
She was determined to find an alternative to divorce and stumbled upon a polyamory conversation on Clubhouse. Upon doing her own research, she brought up the idea to their husband, who was receptive. “It’s so interesting to me that people weigh sex so heavily in relationships when even if you are having a ton of sex, it’s still a very small percentage of the relationship activity," Mikki shared.
They chose polyamory because Mikki still wanted to be married, but she also wanted to make sure that Raheem was getting his individual needs and desires met, even if that meant meeting them with someone else. “I think that we have been programmed to think that our spouses need to be our 'everything.' We do not operate like that. There is no one way that fits all when it comes to relationships, despite what society may try to tell you. Their path to doing this thing called life together may be different from yours, but they found what works for them. We have chosen to design a marriage that works for us,” Mikki explained.
"We have chosen to design a marriage that works for us. We both consent to each of us having everything from casual sex partners to lifetime partners if it should go there. We believe love is abundant and do not limit ourselves or each other on how we express it."
She continued, “We both consent to each of us having everything from casual sexual partners to lifetime partners if it should get there. We believe love is abundant and do not limit ourselves or each other on how we express it. Our dynamic is parallel with kitchen table poly aspirations.”
Kitchen table polyamory (KTP) is a polyamorous relationship in which all participants are on friendly terms enough to share a meal at the kitchen table. Basically, it means you have some form of relationship with your partner’s other partner, whether as a group or individually. A lot of times, KTP relationships are highly personal and rooted in mutual respect, communication, and friendship.
Intimacy in an Asexual Polyamorous Marriage
Mikki says she and her husband, Raheem, still share intimate moments despite being in a polyamorous marriage. “Our intimacy is emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical, although non-sexual. We are intentional about date nights weekly, surprising and delighting each other daily, and most of all, we communicate our needs regularly. In my opinion, our intimacy is top-tier! I give my husband full-body massages, mani-pedis and make sure I am giving him small physical touches/kisses throughout the day. He is also very intentional about showing me his love and affection.”
Raheem and Mikki now use their lives as examples for others. On their website, thepolycouplenextdoor.com, they coach people interested in learning how to be consensually non-monogamous. “We are both relationship coaches. I specialized in emotional regulation, and Raheem specializes in communication and conflict resolution. The same tools we use in our marriage help our clients succeed in polyamory."
Mikki advises people who may be asexual or seeking non-monogamy to communicate their needs openly and to consider seeking sex therapy or intimacy coaching. Building a strong relationship with a non-sexual partner requires both empathy and compassion.
For more of Mikki, follow her on Instagram @getmikkibey. Follow the couple's platform on Instagram @thepolycouplenextdoor.
Featured image by skynesher/Getty Images