Growing up black in a predominantly white environment in the southern part of the Netherlands was an uphill battle. Naturally, you want to fit in and look for ways to blend into the crowd. I didn’t know how to respond to the preconceived notion of my blackness, and I tried to hide from the world by hide myself away.
Blackness seemed unpleasant and foreign to my Dutch white peers. I was often the only black person they knew or interact with. Yet they vigorously consumed the prescribed blackness from American media and so did I. I loved The Parkers, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Destiny’s Child, Tyra Banks and America’s Next Top Model. I just also hoped that my body wouldn’t fill out like the video vixens in the music videos of Nelly and Co.
Thinness became my shield. I thought: Yes, you can talk sh — t about black people, but you can’t make a negative remark about my thin frame.
The disconnect between my mind and the flesh vessel that I called home was comforting. It became a soft, warm blanket that soothed my inner distress. It’s hard to explain the comforting feeling of euphoria. I’ve been consumed for a long time with the desire to reach that happiness again, but I now know that it’s impossible. Nobody was aware of my inner turmoil, nor could they fathom the depths of the tight reins I held over my body.
The first time I noticed I could go hours without eating was purely an accident: It was during a regional swimming competition and the overwhelming anxiety and tension wreaked havoc on my body, so I barely ate breakfast — just enough to fuel my engine. Despite my initial concerns, I got on with it and participated in the race. I didn’t win, but I felt euphoric and light: it was pure happiness.
In the small confined area of the swimming pool, time and space didn’t exist. As an athlete you’re aware of every inch of your body when you’re gliding in the water. Your body tries to mold itself in the perfect shape, so that you can become faster than the other swimmers, but you’re often just competing against yourself. In the water, it didn’t really matter who I was or where I came from. All that mattered was that you stayed in your lane and be as fast as the limits of your brain and body allowed it.
Thinness became a mechanism with which I could battle my opponents – a radical act of survival in my transformative years. Being thin became my anchor in a sea of overwhelming emotions. I didn’t fit in, but at least I didn’t look like the black stereotypes that were prevalent in the media whenever my blackness was snidely discussed. It was my way of saying f—ck you to society. Or, at least that’s what I thought.
I was twelve years old when I was first made aware of the thigh gap. I'd never heard of this phenomenon until it was casually mentioned during lunch break. They looked at me as if I had an unattainable gift in my possession. It felt like something I should be proud of, embrace it, and wear it like a badge of honor. I’ve always been slim. The lighthearted teasing from family and friends made its mark hidden in the depths of my being, but now my thinness gave me the illusion that I belonged.
The coded language that those girls spoke was foreign to me. As a child of older black immigrants, it seemed that the only purpose in my life was to get a good education. My mother never emphasized my appearance – not one comment on the shape of my body or facial features, nor did she teach me how to apply makeup. The compliments I received from her heralded my character traits and nothing else.
I suffered in silence so that nobody would think I’d had a problem. I didn’t feel like I had control and constantly being othered wore me down. Thus my body became my way of communicating my dissatisfaction and struggle within society.
The secret was anchored in my mind. I didn’t count calories, use laxatives, or binge and throw up. I just slowly started eating less and less. I only ate in front of others and then only the bare minimum to not raise suspicion.
I remember seeing my reflection in the large windows of the swimming pool. Under the harsh, yellow lighting, I wished I could vanish and dissolve in the water.
There was no miraculous moment that led to the decision to stop punishing myself. It took me almost a year to slowly dismantle the destructive habit I created. There were flare ups whenever I was emotionally uncomfortable and my first response was to stop eating. Gradually I forced myself to change my behavior.
I wish I could tell you that it was a mentor figure or an amazing self-help book that ignited the change. It honestly was an organic progression where I just became more comfortable in my own skin. It could’ve been that I was just growing up and didn’t care about other people’s opinion anymore, or was merely tired of denouncing my blackness through my body. The soft, warm blanket that was once so soothing, felt ratty, and it didn’t give me the comfort that I once was looking for.
Originally published on BlogHer
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