Because we never do. We women never talk about our bodies and our health, especially to each other. Especially women of color.
Growing up in conservative black church culture, most community members taught us women (and men) to dress from head to toe, and we never discussed the body. Sure, we wore large church hats, elaborate dress suits, signature high heels, jewelry and makeup. We looked amazing on the outside, and yet, we had no idea how we were doing on the inside, and we certainly weren’t talking about it.
That was, until Ms. Brenda took the reigns and began holding post church meetings with us teen girls and young women of the congregation. She would gather us into several pews and talk with us about our bodies, how to check our health, important practices, even contraception, which was taboo despite the high teen pregnancy rate of the congregation (rolls eyes).
I loved Ms. Brenda and everything she shared with us. Like my mom, she was more concerned with our wellness than with convention. My mom had always taught me to look at my body, study the different parts, and pay attention to how I cared for it. She taught me how to use a mirror to investigate places out of sight. But, my mom and Ms. Brenda were rare among women in my world. Not many women encourage their daughters or each other to really study their bodies and take care of their health. Some of us even say that our bodies are sinful or disgusting, and that to reveal them in any context makes us whores. And because we don’t take off the layers, look at ourselves, and talk about our needs, we leave this earth as dis-eased saints. Is it worth it?
It had been a while since I’d come across women as forthcoming and down to earth as my mom and Ms. Brenda. But last Saturday, July 9, 2016, I had the honor of meeting Paulette Leaphart, the incredible woman and breast cancer survivor who had walked 1,000 from Biloxi, Mississippi to Washington, DC. Gingerbread, her fiancé and I met up with Leaphart and her group to finish up the walk on Capitol Hill. Imagine this: all the black churches I grew up in shunned the naked body, but this group of women, breast cancer survivors and others, myself and Gingerbread included, marching bare chested, met up at a church for this event and walked 5 miles from that church all the way to Capitol Hill. Isn’t that amazing?
It was such a moving day, and Leaphart shared powerful words in a speech to the hundred of us gathered there on that hot sunny day. Rather than attempt to paraphrase it all, I’ll share some video clips I took of her speech:
Positive treatment during the journey
What defines a woman?
You are beautiful
Another woman who had survived breast cancer also spoke during this event and talked about how, once she got cancer, modesty went out the window. And as she said that, my mind took me back in time to the conservative culture of my childhood churches. Imagine if modesty didn’t require us to ignore our bodies? Imagine not waiting until we were on the brink of death to say, “I no longer want to be a slave to ‘modesty.’ I stand for my body, for my health. I want to look at it and I want to talk about it. We women need to talk about their bodies and health with each other.” Why are we always waiting for something extreme to hurt us before we choose to do good by ourselves? I’m asking myself this question a lot lately.
One of the most important things Leaphart talked about is the importance of educating ourselves. For me, this is one major benefit of clothes free living. It encourages me to really look at my body and pay attention to how I feel. Everyday I make adjustments to my diet and schedule based on what my body and soul need. I don’t think this would have been possible without women in my life like my mother, Ms. Brenda, and now Paulette Leaphart. These women showed me that “modesty” had nothing to do with my body. Frankly, I don’t care for the word at all; it doesn’t mean anything to me. But these women dared to rise above a culture that encouraged us to not be in touch with ourselves and, instead, championed education by telling us to look at our bodies, touch and examine all the parts, observe and make choices that best suit our needs.
Are we bold enough to stand before ourselves, to stand for ourselves? Do we love ourselves enough to look, listen and act?