As an African American woman, this is what Lupita Nyong’o means to me
I was never the pretty one. I was the one who could never keep a pair of flip flops on my feet for longer than two days. They were either torn apart from my roughhousing or thrown somewhere that I had been and did not feel like returning to. I hated wearing skirts. I wrestled all of the boys both younger and older than me. Essentially, I made my own rules and all of the adults stayed out of my way.
Once, during pre-school, a teacher, Mrs. Esther told me to stop talking during class and looking at her, I snapped, “You’re not mother. Don’t tell me what to do!” Truth be told, I was given an NTR (Never to Return) which is equivalent to an expulsion here in the U.S. I had gotten into a fight with a boy and it ended with me getting ahold of his I.D. card, ripping it up and throwing it in the toilet. After that, I never returned to that school.
Around the age of five was when people began pinching and prodding my malnourished hips and thighs. They would arch their charcoal lined eyebrows and explain to me how wide and thick my hips and thighs were going to become. They’d point at their light skinned friends and family members and tell me to, “Stay out of the sun.”
At the age of nine, one year before I started middle school, I started to go through puberty. Years later, in Severna Park, Maryland, I became unrecognizable. Between the ten plus years that I have been living in America, I had lost my accent, my will, my drive and myself all in the hopes of creating a more appeasing image that I myself could accept and then later, one that I thought my peers would better understand. I worked, essentially for the twelve years that I attended American schools, to disappear.
Although middle school and elementary school was not the easiest for me to transition smoothly into, high school was the toughest. I attended Severna Park High with about four hundred of the same classmates and graduated in the summer of 2012.
Between elementary and middle school, I received invitations to birthday parties and with each invitation, I always had a reason as to why I could not attend. Always a family occasion that was never actually happening. And on the day of the parties, when my parents would ask if I wanted to go, I’d shake my head no, go to my room, shut the door, and read books about other children my age with much more exciting, assimilated lives.
By the time seventh grade hit, my schoolmates had given up on inviting me to parties all together. And in high school, no one ever knew me well enough to feel comfortable inviting me. I was the girl who attended every class but rarely ever spoke. And if a party ever was mentioned, I’d have a cookout, a wedding, or another family party to go to.
I drove myself into seclusion. I had a voice but I chose not to use it. I had interesting people that were vested in me. I had my parents, teachers and few well-meaning friends who all noticed my distinct lack of participation, speaking and sharing and still, I chose to blanket myself within a lengthening list of insecurities and self-shattering silence.
I’d dress myself in a pair of jeans, t-shirt and hoodie and throughout the day, if I could get away with it in schools, I’d keep the hood of my hoodie on my head to cover my face as best as I could. I’d pull a neat fitting pair of jeans past my hip bones because I hated the way they highlighted my widening hips. I chose massive sweaters that hid my chest and swallowed my torso.
I would pack lunch in the mornings with my mother, who was often times standing right beside me. Once I got to school, I would throw out the lunch and go to the library. I would drink a can of Slimfast in the bathroom early in the morning and I would swear to myself up and down that I was okay. By the end of the school day, a tingling sensation would vibrate through my thighs, legs and stomach. It felt like my body was evaporating.
I welcomed the sudden wash of dizziness and nausea but my favorite was always when I’d have to get on my knees and shut my eyes tight because of a sickening kind of satisfaction that had swept me into pitch blackness.
I hid my mal-practices well because of the way my body was (naturally) sturdily shaped. I have always been a big-boned girl with a height that is just slightly above average. I never looked too skinny. My parents were always paying attention, but I think that they missed some things simply because they were so focused on my ever-slipping grades and my inability to connect with my peers.
My relationship with binging and purging began somewhere between eighth grade and it remained. To this day, it is something that I struggle with so much so that it complicates any form of a diet that I decide to follow. The minute I begin to feel as though I am slipping off of the bandwagon, I spiral out of control. When I was younger, what sickened me of myself so much was my constant yo-yo-ing. Not just with my weight, but with my being mentally and emotionally as well. With puberty and foul eating habits, my weight would fluctuate drastically and quickly. I felt as though I was out of control which made me try harder to be in control which would then catapult me into unsafe territories. I spent more time in my private bathroom and my school’s bathroom than I did with my family or with my classmates. It had gotten so bad that while driving to kickboxing classes, I would pull my car over three to four times within the five minute drive from my house to the studio just to expel the contents out of me. Once I started, I often felt like I couldn’t stop.
By the end of high school, I only thought of four people as my friends, although there were people who I knew considered me to be their friend. It never felt real to me because none of them actually knew me, really knew me, in my opinion. They knew some falsified version of me. I met a boy who I did not get to actually know until senior year. Somehow, he understood that I was hiding even before he found out about my past. Later, when he found out about where I was raised, and the many changes that I had made throughout my years, he began to tell me every chance that he got that the name that I had chosen to be called, Rebecca, versa the name that I had been called in Liberia, was “given to me by my slave owners.” Throughout our last year of high school together, he repeated that phrase to me but it didn’t click until summer of 2014 when I began looking at old photos of myself throughout my many different stages.
Simply put, I hated myself. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why, but I do think that it had a lot to do with my lost identity. I could barely make simple decisions like, which would you prefer, a peanut butter sandwich or a cheese sandwich without standing and staring at the contents for a several moments and blandly stating, “It doesn’t matter.” I remember one time, out of frustration, my father yelled at me, saying “Even your five years old brother could make a decision like that.”
I also think that the reason this went unnoticed for so long was because of what I looked like. As a nation, we place those who suffer from depression, eating disorders or simply body image issues under a certain demographic. You often hear people from my ‘race’ say things to the effect of, “It’s a white girl problem.” Although, historically, African American women’s sexuality has been under oppression by both men and women since the beginning of time. Our bodies and insecurities are often times not realized as they should be. I also think that it had to do with the figures and skin tones that I saw on the shows I watched and the magazines and books I read.
There is a clear stigma against women of color. We are either being misrepresented by mass media or not represented at all. I am not dismissing the ill way that women in total are portrayed. I am however, affirming the notion that I was and still am, with the exception of breakthrough stars like Lupita Nyong’o, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington and a few others, seeing women of paler skin tones via popular media forms much more frequently.
I am not blaming anyone for my decisions or actions. I am in no way seeking any form of excuse for the long list of problems that I have accrued throughout my twenty years here on Earth. What I am doing is trying to awaken the world to the problems that are very real and sensitive that we often times overlook because of what we think we see on the surface.
During last year’s award season, when Lupita Nyong’o came onto the entertainment scene, I was fascinated. Here was a woman who looked like me (not literally speaking) and wore her hair in the same short style as me, who wasn’t afraid to wear dresses and skirts and be bold and feminine and beautiful. Who wasn’t afraid to have a presence and to smile and laugh and interact with the general public in a poised and verbally intellectual manner. It made me silently hopeful.
My mother DVR’d Nyong’o’s speech at Essence’s Young Women in Hollywood Awards while I was at work and when I arrived home, she called me into her and my father’s room. All three of us watched Nyong’o’s speech. And after she finished speaking, they looked at me and said, “We were watching this earlier and we couldn’t stop seeing you in her words. Jaso, that was you.”
After I left their room that night, I cried myself to sleep. Her words were real. I have always idolized poets and phenomenally powerful women in general, i.e. Maya Angelou, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, Beyonce, Rihanna and many others from the many different realms of my passions. But Nyong’o hit me differently because she was me. She harbored the same personal dislikes that I did. We both share the same past in a few respects. Our birth place and how we transitioned from one culture to another after leaving our original homes. She made me see me as I was and she made me understand where I could be, figuratively speaking.
I share this to bring forth the understanding that if just a few women’s presence could have such an impact on me, someone who spent a long time being as detached and unaffected by the world as possible, imagine what the media could do if they were to actually represent every kind of person as truthfully as possible for their readers. I have accepted myself in the respect that I have finally began to understand that I am an on-going project. And although it seems to me at times like I never end, there is always a reason to begin.
Jaso Bolay is a twenty years old transfer studies major at Anne Arundel Community College with a focus in the general art of writing. She is currently the editor-in-chief of her college’s newspaper and a member of the school’s literary magazine staff. When she is not wasting the majority of her time editing her life away, she enjoys obsessing over avocadoes and nice calf and shoulder muscles, Her favorite animal is and will always be giraffes because they are the most majestic and magical animals in the world, besides baby giraffes. She enjoys smelling like old women and so she frequents second-hand stores on the daily.