August 19-21, 2016 I found myself running around the hills and trees of Camp Ramblewood stark naked during Field Festival 2016. I was one of very few women who had opted to go nude at this clothing optional event. What’s more is that I was the only black woman who chose to bare much of anything. Black women wore the most clothing of all women present at that festival, even as other women of color experimented with going bare chested or completely nude.
I find nothing wrong with one choosing to wear clothes. I believe that we all should have the right to choose how much or how little we want to wear and to be respected. And I should also note that I did not poll the women at the festival to ask them why they chose to wear what they wore. In fact, many people took this festival as an opportunity to use clothing etc. to express themselves in ways they might not normally get to do in la vie quotidienne.
However, this observed pattern around black women at the festival raised some thoughts for me, personally, given conversations I have had with women of color, recent news media, podcasts and stories shared by black women. I wondered whether all the other black women at the festival knew that they, too, can have bare chestedness or nudity as an option (and still choose clothes), or if there is a feeling that bare chestedness and nudity are not truly available to them as something to claim as their own. There is often a feeling that we don’t have the right to be here in society, that we don’t have the right to take up space and exercise the same freedoms, due to the history of the black experience in the United States and, as a part of that, the hyper-sexualization of the black body (see the piece written by Earl D in February 2016 “From sacred to profane: the Hottentot Venus effect – naturism, nudism and clothes free living – African Americans and the clothes free community.”).
What really drew this question to heart beyond the choice to wear clothes was the body language of the other black women. This is what really made me wonder if they felt like they could feel comfortable or permitted to exercise the same rights as the other women present. Some of the other black women tended to be more collapsed in body language. I will never forget how it was pointed out to me that on one of the floating pool toys were 2 women: one black woman and a white woman. The black woman was quiet and curled up into a ball. She seemed distant from the present moment. The white woman was animated. I couldn’t help thinking about how black women (people) often feel like we don’t have the right to be present, to take up space and to be our true selves. People often think of us as too loud, too expressive, too aggressive. We’re “too much.” Much of our lives is performed, whether subduing or putting on a front of strength and, “Naw e’rthang cool.” As I heard in episode 66 of Another Round podcast “Chardon(n)egro with Brittany Luse,” we are both invisible and hyper-visible in society. And while there is often this stereotype of the “proud strong black woman,” we actually wrestle with a ton of challenges, including body acceptance; self acceptance; feeling safe, comfortable, permitted and embraced in society; eating disorders; even comparing our bodies with other black women’s bodies.
In a 2014 piece “When Being Curvy Hurts: One Black Woman’s Severe Struggle With Body Image” Jenna Lahori speaks on her struggles with body image and a binge/purge eating disorder. “I wish my stomach was flat. I wish my thighs were slimmer,” shared Jenna Lahori during the interview. As I read and listened to her share, I felt like I heard my own voice and story unfolding, because we had so much in common. Emotional eating was/is also my plight. Binge/purge was the kind of eating disorder I had. I wanted my stomach to be flat, too.
There is also the expectation that black women should be proud and strong, as that article points out:
“From TV to Music, the media often perpetuates the stereotype that black women embrace their curves.”
“Beyoncé’s curves have also contributed to her success. But even Beyoncé questioned the superficial standards in her music video ‘Pretty Hurts.'”
“It seems that the world’s perception of black women is that they all want a big booty, that they all want to be bigger or that everybody is happy with being big, black and beautiful. Do you think that’s true?
“That may be world’s perception and that is the noise that we are fed. In media I think we still have a ways to go, because what you’ve seen whether on a news show or even television is either a really thin black woman or an overweight woman that typically is the comedian that is sad that is not taken seriously -‘the funny black woman.'”
I certainly wrestled with the idea of “black & beautiful” versus “big, black and beautiful” even when I stepped into clothes free living and saw the clothes free community on Instagram: a number or naked black women, most of them skinny. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I grew very self-conscious about that, to be honest. “Why am I not as skinny and bendy as her or her or her? How are they all so small? I must be doing a million wrong things.” Over the years, men have expressed disappointment that I hadn’t lost weight and become the perfect set of curves. Women have nitpicked at every piece of me the way birds peck at discarded pieces of bread in the street.
Although I am pretty comfortable in my skin now, the journey has been a long one to culminate to a point where I walk around festival campgrounds fully nude and fully expressive in my authentic self. I showed up to outdoor yoga and didn’t care that I was the only naked woman there. I still practiced in full expression of my heart. The fact that I allowed myself to laugh out loud, to run around, dance in the rain and not apologize for my nakedness, personality or presence was huge.
So much work has to be done in order to address all the historical and current social, political, economic (and so forth) factors that must be addressed to help black women (black people) feel like they have a right to be present, to exercise the same freedoms as others, to not apologize for how they sound or who they are. This is not something that can only be fixed by telling black women to just “be more confident.” However, in this piece I don’t quite have the space to address the macro-level issues. For this particular piece, I speak from my individual journey of working through a number of issues in my life to get to a place where I feel comfortable being myself.
I love the lyrics to Beyoncé’s song “Pretty Hurts”:
This is the healing process towards feeling like I have a right to be present, take up space and be myself. Jaime Swift expressed in her 2016 piece “Weighing” to Exhale: On Black Girls, Women, and Body Image Disturbance”
After counseling and much-needed reconciliation and forgiveness with my body and myself, I no longer wished that I was beautiful. I began to believe that I am beautiful… and always was. Although I still struggle with my weight at times, I can say that I see myself as beautiful, witty, smart, lovely, and unequivocally me. No matter what weight I may be.
Much goes into feeling like one has the right to be present and take up space, that one is perfect as they are. I had to see how vibrant and amazing I am in my own skin as I learned to live my authentic life. Certainly witnessing other black people engage clothes freedom was powerful. But I also had to go deeper and reckon with myself. I had to do major surgery on my soul.
Clothes free yoga is, by far, one of my favorite things to do to boost my confidence and remind me of how awesome I am. On some days I spend inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom looking at my stomach. But the minute I roll out the mat and remember how strong I am that I can do arm balances and inversions with this beautiful body, that the energy and spirit of my heart radiates all the way out through my toes, my confidence bursts through the roof. It’s amazing to breathe deeply into my lungs and feel alive while doing sun salutations outdoors in the nude. There’s truly nothing like it. And it always reminds me, even on days when I just lie down on my back and put my legs up the wall, that I am an amazing vibrant lively human being.
I wanted to speak on black women, given what came up for me at the festival and some of the pieces and conversations about black women and body image. Do you feel like you can stand up straight, walk around without worry and just be yourself? Do you know that you are beautiful no matter what your size, shade, hair texture, curve profile, etc.? Do you know that you are amazing, and that the wonder of you cannot be contained in labels and opinions? I know what much of society says about us, but you’re not too loud, you’re not too big, you’re not too rough. You’re not too this or that. You’re just right.
We are perfect.
There are a set of tweets from Lin-Manuel Miranda that always remind me how amazing I am as a human being, inside and out:
It was a powerful experience for me to walk around at the clothing optional festival and be in full expression of my true self. So, whatever you choose, know this:
You have a right to be here.
You have a right to take up space.
You have a right to be your authentic self.