I do not tolerate catcalling, discrimination, or oppression. That is to say, I have no problem retaliating against those who oppress me. However, I am no ice-woman, with the ability to freeze bigots before harsh words can escape their mouths. The words still come, they still sting, I just choose to fight back.
I was leaving work several days ago when an older gentlemen approached me. My guard instantly goes up whenever I'm approached by an older white man, but I was still at work, so I painted my face with feigned optimism and agreed to speak with him. He told me he is fascinated by American culture. I wasn't quite sure what he meant. This is when he asked the question.
"Do your parents care that you look like that?"
I felt my voice rupture in my throat. My knuckles turning white; ash.
"What do you mean?"
I instantly became aware of my pink hair wrapped into a printed head scarf, my visible tattoos, heavily powdered face, and large septum piercing.The aspects of my appearance that reflect my cosmic insides, that decorate my body and reflect my spirit.
"The nose ring, the hair, all the tattoos. Do your parents care?"
I felt myself becoming uneasy. Aware that I was still in my workplace, speaking to a stranger. Knowing that if I were on the street, I would not tolerate this blatant disrespect towards my body and appearance by a man who I'd never met. My stomach churned with all the lives I wish I'd lived, all the people I wanted to shrink myself into who were not as big of a target for ridicule.
"No, I don't think they care."
I withered under the weight of what I wanted to say. To bellow at his right to question my appearance. His white misogyny that was never considered radical or different.
"To be honest, I'm very intelligent and driven, and I don't think my appearance changes that."
I wondered why I cringed complimenting myself in the face of someone who had just degraded me. I was not brought up to boast my talents, skills, or accomplishments, but I felt like I had to prove my worth to this man who'd only based me on my outward appearance.
"How old are your parents? What do they think about this?"
I gulped, recalling all of the arguments I'd had with my mother over my nose piercings, my affinity to inking visible places on my skin, and how my hair looked much better as a natural dark brown.
I gulped the powder residue on my lips, the purple lipstick, the bold, overdrawn eyebrows. My face beneath the makeup splotched with constellations of scars and discoloration. My harsh contour a sharp reminder of the tongue beneath my cheek.
"My parents are in their fifties."
I don't know why I continued to answer his questions, satisfy his curiosity. I felt like I could not get up, could not escape his bigger, whiter, older grasp around my tongue. His assumption that only young people, young parents would support a child who wanted to look so "obscene".
"Interesting. I'm fascinated by how parents raise their kids these days."
My fists crumbled. My inner cheek bleeding from a hard bite.
I remembered the early high school girl who barely ate to keep her body bony. Who bleached her hair and clipped in weave, shrinking into dresses that exposed her inner thighs. Her legs the fragile limbs of trees. Her tongue a leaf, afraid to hold weight. The swallowing of air instead of food, the loss of appetite, the hollow.
I am heavier now. Fifty pounds, scarred, stretched, ridged with mountains of cellulite. My skin has saved me from every time I tried to destroy it. My skin has held together the avalanche, the sandstorm, the grief. I decorate myself with jewelry and color and makeup and tattoos and I look lived in. I have never been more content with this beautiful, broken body.
I thanked the old white man, and walked away.
I did not retaliate, did not claim my body as a holy space, did not cast away his hyper-masculinity with my earth shattering body positivity. I said nothing. I answered his questions. I stayed silent while his words stung my insides.
It is impossible for women to always remain strong in the face of what society has taught us to succumb to. The male gaze. The opinions of others. The standard of beauty of being numb, of being holy, of being untouched and unpierced and unaltered. The "natural". The silenced. The good-behavior-cut-tongue-short-breath-weakness.
My parents taught me to listen and respect elders. I taught myself not to sacrifice my worth to endure toxic masculinity and disrespect that threatens my spirit. I am unapologetically unique, I will not change. I am not afraid to question anyone who threatens the security of my palace heart. Sometimes, my tongue will be too heavy and I will not find the words to say. In those times, I forgive myself.
If you dislike my body, I understand. Everyone has a different opinion of art. I will continue to live in my it, decorated like a Pharaoh's tomb. I am magic, I am dawned in grace. I am nineteen years of rebirth, of growth, of shatter. I am more than the colors I paint myself with. I am more than the words that have haunted me. I am more than the dirt, than the grief, than the hurt.
To My Body: I am sorry for holding my tongue when I should have spoken. I promise I love you. I promise I'm still here.