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On Body Dysmorphia In Black Women

What becomes of our magic then?

Her Voice

** trigger warning: this piece mentions eating disorders and sensitive topics surrounding body image**

For far too long discussions about eating disorders have been attributed to the struggles of, predominantly, young white women. Little to no attention has been paid to the body image issues facing Black women of all ages especially in the era of plastic surgery and social media. As a community, we are still novices at spotting, naming and having open conversations about the way Black women are forced to fit into certain body types to be deemed attractive or desirable. This deafening silence has led many of our most beautiful women to go to extreme measures to fix their perceived flaws. However, it's not just as simple as not liking our bodies or needing to increase our love of self, it actually goes a bit deeper for many women.

It can be categorized as body dysmorphic disorder.

By definition, body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health disorder in which you can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in your appearance — a flaw that appears minor or can't be seen by others. To put it plainly, you can't see your own beauty, worth or value because your mind is making you focus on things that you feel make you less than. There is no doubt that social media and the idea of what a Black woman should look like or how her body should be shaped is exacerbating this disorder for many of us.

The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery reports that cosmetic augmentation has risen more than 56 percent in Black people over the last decade. As Black people account for only 12 percent of the population, we are making up over 8 percent of the plastic surgeries in the US.

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So, what does that mean for the vast amount of Black women who cannot afford to go under the knife?

It means general discontent with their bodies. Unhealthy diet fads, painful "waist trainers", botched and, sometimes, fatal shortcuts to achieving that hourglass shape that has been reproduced and sold back to us by non-Black women all over the media. For some women, it means an increase in anxiety and depressive episodes because of the idealistic view that having the perfect body means attracting the perfect partner, career and/or life. Nothing about their bodies seems good enough to measure up to the flawless image of womanhood being presented to them without, at times, transparency on what it actually took to achieve. It means Black womanhood, yet again, being equated to unfair and, for many, unachievable standards.

It means hearing Black men telling Black women to "tighten up" because non-Black women "have ass now" as if that is what gives us our magic. It means young Black girls not giving their bodies the opportunity to fully develop without fantasizing about changing it---and when that change is unavailable to them, they learn to hate their bodies long before they see the wonder of what it can do.

Of course, Black women should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies. At any time. At any cost. And not every Black woman who has plastic surgery is suffering from body dysmorphic disorder. To assert that would deny the myriad of reasons why a woman may decide to alter her body. And, yes, some of those reasons may simply be for her own satisfaction. That is perfectly fine. But, when we are seeing the same body shapes recycled time and time again, something deeper is at work. When we are seeing the same facial structures being applied to faces that were much more interesting, intriguing and unique beforehand---it is not just a matter of personal pleasure anymore. It is a matter of messaging. Of feeling that the only way to be beautiful is to mimic something we are being told makes it so.

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The stunning thing about Black womanhood has always been the many forms it can take. Small, big, curvy, petite, thin, fat, short, tall, all the ass, none of the ass, wide nose, button nose, long legs, short legs, 1A-4C hair. Oh, the majesty of Black women! So what happens if we all decide to look one way now? What happens if the people we once looked to as representation start to chip away at the things that were our reflection?

What becomes of our magic then?

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When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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