I’ve been looking at this photo a lot recently. I love myself in it. I remember with such perfect detail the moment in which I took it. It was May 2017 and I was preparing to give my first keynote at a conference. It was by no means my first time publicly speaking but a keynote was a milestone and I was very aware of what a big moment it was for my career.
I was nervous and frazzled because of the last-minute changes I’d been asked to make to my talk. What if I got flustered and came across so foolish that they just dismissed me altogether?
I was, as I often am, angry at myself for not losing weight before a big event. I knew I was going to have to stand up in front of a crowd. Why hadn’t I shown more discipline? Did I have no self-control? I was already dreading the candid photos I’d be too ashamed to add to my website.
I didn’t know how I would be received. I was terrified of publicly failing.
All of that self-doubt bombarded me the morning of my talk. In an effort to hype myself up, I was carefully applying my makeup. Afterall, there is no task too great for Nars and Urban Decay. As I applied my armor I paused to look at myself and was struck by what I saw.
The woman in the mirror was beautiful.
I don’t feel this every day. I don’t feel this on most days. There are certainly some where I see myself as pretty. Where I recognize that there is something lovely about myself but there are also days where I can’t sustain eye contact with my own reflection. Days where I say the most awful things to myself. Where I force myself to listen as I list every physical failing of my body and I wish myself away. Where I am crueler to myself than I have ever been to another human being.
But at that moment I just smiled at what I saw.
I had to stop and take a photo before it disappeared.
I am constantly chasing after that woman in the mirror. She’s sensual with each of her curves displayed unapologetically. Everything about her brown skin and hair and eyes reads as sophisticated and mysterious. She looks like someone that believes they’re beautiful and I envy her.
I’ve kept this glimpse of her hidden on my phone for nearly two years. When I am feeling absolutely forgettable and undesirable I go back to her. I try to combat the lies that depression and anxiety and white supremacy are telling me about my worth by stopping to look at her for a moment. Because despite the awful loop that plays in my mind I know that she and I are the same person and I want to hold onto that.
Though she is lacking the markers the world has told me signify beauty—porcelain skin, blonde hair, slender features, and perky breasts (don’t let the good bra bra fool you)—she makes me smile. If I can look at her and see someone beautiful that means that I see something beautiful about myself and, frankly, there are days where that is revolutionary.
“Nudity empowers some. Modesty empowers some. Different things empower different women and it’s not your place to tell her which one it is.”
I love these words. I feel them in my core. Sometimes being empowered enough to own my own body means refusing to excuse the unsolicited gaze or opinion from men in the public sphere. It means telling my partner I don’t feel comfortable being looked at for too long for fear it will trigger my insecurities. It means contradicting myself by wearing a piece of lingerie because I want to invite his eye. It’s sharing a photo in a state of undress because I want to be seen and for the world to know that I don’t apologize for the space I take up. It’s believing I don’t need anyone’s permission to share images of myself AND asking my partner how he feels about it—breathing a sigh of relief when he says, “Oh my god, yes. I know how much you love and value that photo, and how much it means to you. I totally support you doing that.”
I often feel a mix of awe, jealousy, and the occasional misplaced judgment for the women that have shared images of their body with the world. From the professional model to the girl on Instagram, I’m flabbergasted at how they are able to reveal so much of themselves without, seemingly, a bit of regret or apology. A lifetime of being taught social propriety and nearly two decades of Christian purity have made that sort of vulnerability feel impossible.
What sort of God-fearing woman enjoys the slope of her own breasts? What sort of Jesus-loving Christian bares her body to the world?
I’m sure there are many who would look at a photo like this and laugh at the idea that it is revealing. All the essential bits are covered and I’m no more on display than I would be in a bikini. But, for those of us that have been good and churched, we know. We are not meant to have agency over our own sexuality. If we are women—frankly, anyone that is not a straight cisgender able-bodied white man—we’re not meant to have sexuality at all. At least not until we’re properly married at which point we’re allowed to flip the “sex is good“ switch. Until then, our flesh is taboo and any celebration of it is a prideful and lustful thing. Certainly any public celebration of it.
It’s distressing to think that this photo that offers me a bit of healing could invite professional or religious critique. That there would be some who would take me less seriously if I publicly acknowledged something that has helped me to love myself. If I pause to really interrogate my conflicted feelings about how I share my body with the world I realize that they’re not my feelings at all. They are a persistent echo of the lessons I internalized about sexuality— in both conservative and progressive Christian spaces. I don’t want to carry shame that isn’t mine. The burden of my own insecurities are weight enough.
I should be able to shout my love for the woman in that mirror from the rooftop. February 14 seems like as good a day as any to say I am trying my best to love her and that I am not ashamed of her.
*Originally published on Patheos