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The first time I remember not feeling beautiful, I was in the 6th grade. I had felt this way before the 6th grade, too, of course, but this year holds the most explicit memory. I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, my eyes staring back at me. I loved my blackness, I would say. I liked my skin color. I loved my dad. Yet all my features...I cursed them every day.
“Why do I have to be ugly?” I whispered.
I had considered asking my mom to wear makeup that year, but I knew that it was no use. Just months before, she had seen one of my childhood friends wearing thick mascara and told me that I didn’t need anything like that. I was not going to get anything like that.
So I slowly spun in front of the mirror, wanting to hug myself because of the way I felt about the situation, but not wanting to have anything to do with myself because of how I felt about me.
I traced my wide nose with my thumb and index finger on both sides. I pinched it together in a failed attempt to make it look like my mom’s. I pursed my thick lips in an attempt to make them look like the lips girls at my school had. I tugged my hair, wishing I had straight hair like my little sister, instead tight spirals and loose waves.
“I like your hair when it’s straight!” The compliment echoed, one girl repeating another in the halls. I had my mom iron out my hair, pen straight, a week after the bathroom. I smiled all day. I felt pretty. At eleven years old, I knew that one day, a permanent straightener would be called for.
A couple of days after my hair went back to being curly, a girl, a then friend, stopped me in the halls.
“When are you going to straighten your hair again,” she asked. “I like it better when it’s straight. It looks better on your face.”
As soon as I got home, I asked my mom to straighten my hair. She told me no, that I didn’t need to make my hair straight. That even though I said I hated curly hair, I should love it. Embrace it.
So after that, I practiced straightening it. I had to ask before I could use the straightening iron, but I still managed to straighten out my hair at least ten times over the course of 3 months, not washing my hair for 2 or 3 days each time.
I kept this attitude well into the 8th grade, at 13 years old. And while my hair, nose, and lips stayed a worry, I was more concerned about something else. A growing thought eating at my conscience.
“I’m on a diet,” I told my mom one night when I had eaten only as much as my six year old sister. “I’m trying to lose weight...it’s all in my stomach.”
After silence, a lecture, and an entire plate of food, I shut the bathroom door and looked into the mirror. I avoided my eyes. Instead, I looked at my stomach. I lifted my shirt and placed a cold hand on the center of my belly. I stepped on the home scale and looked at the number, which was around 105 to 110 pounds, as a 5’1 girl, and cried. I sobbed. No one could tell me that I was not fat. No one could tell me that I was not ugly. And no one, not even my mom or dad, would stop me from losing weight.
My finger was cold in my mouth. My stomach turned and hurt. I coughed and knelt over the toilet, holding position for a minute before standing and washing my hands. This happened two more times before my mom opened the bathroom door, too quick for me to react. She looked at me and looked at the toilet. If time could freeze and an outsider could look in on that moment, they would see my mother’s face, torn with emotions of sadness, pity, understanding. They would see my tears, my hands holding the soap bottle. They might wonder what would happen once time unfroze.
What did happen?
I remember the health teacher talking about bulimics. I remember countless lectures from my dad about how black is beautiful. I remember my mom throwing away all of her makeup so that I would stop thinking that I need it.
I remember stepping into high school as a freshman the next year, with a pick in my backpack and my hair in a scarf. I remember wearing a shirt that was not a t-shirt, and jeans instead of sweats. I remember wearing clothes with black faces printed on them. I remember when I started taking care of my hair in efforts of making it curl more.
I remember when I finally loved myself.