During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, “Not for Ourselves Alone” is running a special series called 30 Days of Bodyshaming, designed to give a voice to the many different experiences of girls and women. This series will feature guest posts by professors, writers, a cartoonist, young girls, and mothers. Gut wrenching and honest, these stories are presented in an attempt to bring about a deeper understanding of the plight of girls and women as we make our way in world that, for us, is hostile at its best and violent at its worst.
by Cheryl Mcintosh-Lombardo
I have not always celebrated my kinky, coiled hair or coffee-with-cream complexion. Curvy hips that have carried, borne, and cradled three beautiful children – as if they were solely made for that purpose – were too wide, too flabby, too damn big!
The path towards self-love has been long and fraught with many obstacles and none more destructive than my obsession to stuff what I considered to be a pair of oversized, adolescent thighs into a pair of tight jeans.
A Black child growing up in the affluent Northern suburbs of Chicago, I was the only girl in school whose hair did not cascade softly down my back, but rather stuck out at odd angles when it was not plastered to my head with layers of gel or pressed flat with a hot comb. I couldn’t wait to be old enough to have it straightened with relaxers – leaving my scalp scarred from chemical burns – so that I would not feel like I was on exhibit in a petting zoo every day at school or teased for having “crazy hair”.
I gained a lot of weight in early adolescence and was constantly teased by my peers for being fat. Anxious and embarrassed about my ballooning weight, I began to fantasize about looking like the pretty, popular girls in school or those on the cover of teen magazines and in movies. In other words, I wanted to be thin – White-girl thin. Skinny Guess jeans thin. So I did what many other girls with a distorted body image and low self-esteem decide to do – I began to vomit. Often.
Bulimia was at the time considered to be problem for affluent Caucasian girls, not African Americans. My parents were ill-equipped to handle a child that oscillated between not eating and running to the bathroom after meals. The silence that surrounded my disorder was deafening. I became disinterested and withdrawn yet I received no professional help and my eating disorder, anxiety and depression spiraled out of control.
Over time I developed a ritual after meals of going to the bathroom and staring into the mirror while poking at my adolescent blemishes. Criticizing the ugliness I saw in my reflection would coax more of my internalized pain towards the surface. When the shame and sadness became so overwhelming that I was no longer able to distinguish between the hurtful voices of others and my own, I would bend over the bowl and try, in vain, to empty it all out of me. But there was always more.
I just couldn’t seem to find it’s end.
This cycle of binging and purging which began early in middle school lasted over 3 years. My sophomore year in high school I joined an aerobics class being offered for P.E. credit and things began to change. The teacher introduced me to concepts of healthy eating, regular exercise, and self-care that I had not been exposed to before. I became open not only to the possibility that I was more than the texture of my hair or the color, size, and shape of my body – but that those qualities should be celebrated!
Slowly, very slowly I started to end my cycle of self-abuse.
Knowing very well the damage that our culture’s preoccupation with a narrow definition of beauty inflicts upon girls (and boys), young and old, I openly discuss with my children self-love and care, ways to confront teasing directed at themselves or their peers, and how to unpack media images that often glorify a particular race, body shape/type, hair color or texture and vilify other types. Ideally, my two adolescent daughters and young son would be able to grow up in a world where they are celebrated as whole individuals rather than ridiculed at best or harmed at worst because their body does not meet an idealized (read: impossible) standard. Until that day arrives, I will continue to use my experiences journeying towards health and wellness as a compass to help guide them through the shifting landscape of expectations that society unfairly places upon them.
Cheryl McIntosh-Lombardo lives with her family in Evanston, Il. She has a Masters in Communication from DePaul University. She loves to travel, explore different culinary traditions, read and engage in lively, thoughtful discourse.