by Rose Miyonga
Having a female body is exhausting, and today I feel really tired of being a brown woman.
Of being constantly policed, censored, judged, bullied and excluded – and that’s just what I do to myself.
I’m not talking about what other people out there in the world and on the internet say and think and do to my body, I’m talking about what I do.
Even though I am aware of the way society controls the images that are sent to me, leaving me with the feeling that I will never be good enough or beautiful enough, I have internalised the messages so deeply that I can’t help but believe that my body is somehow wrong as it is.
Even though I grew up with a mother who is very open about bodies and nudity- teaching me to look in the mirror and say out loud what I love about myself, I find it really hard to look at my naked body with anything like joy or kindness.
Even though I practice and preach yoga and meditation and self-love and body positivity, I find it almost impossible to inhabit my body unconditionally, without editing it or wishing parts of it away.
Even though I’ve always considered myself to be a kind person, I bully my body with my words and actions, punishing it for being only what it is.
Even though I’ve been lucky and never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, I can’t help but see my body as a bulging collection of flaws and imperfections, and food as a way to punish or reward myself based on how near or far I feel from an imagined ideal to which I will never live up.
Even though I am aware that I am privileged and genetically lucky, that I am slender and able-bodied, I struggled not take these things for granted, and treat my body with cruelty and ingratitude.
Even though I want to be valued as writer, a creative and an intellectual, I sometimes place more value on my physical attributes than on the brain my body houses.
Even though I am a vegan for ethical and environmental reasons, I wonder if I would be so enthusiastic about observing a vegan diet if it had lead me to gain instead of lose weight.
Even though I know that everybody is uniquely beautiful and different, I can’t help but compare myself (usually unfavourably) to every woman I encounter.
Even though I know am healthy and strong and young and beautiful, my inner monologue treats my body as if it were and inconvenience at best.
Even though years of therapy has given me a range of tools and skills to deal with my emotions, when I felt sad this afternoon, I sliced up a whole loaf of bread, slathered it in jam, and ate and ate until I couldn’t feel anything but full.
Even as I write this, I’m thinking that I had a lot to eat at breakfast and maybe I should just have some fruit for lunch and then go for a run instead of working on the essay I have due next week. If go running, it won’t be because of the tangible mental and physical benefits it may bring me, it will be to punish myself for eating my fill this morning after a ninety-minute yoga practice. My academic work, therefore, is directly suffering as a consequence of this toxic message that my body is not good enough as it is, and I know that I am not alone.
Or is it just me?
I could go on and on in this way, and I wonder if every woman feels this way, and what they do to resist it. I wonder if men feel this way, too; the ones I have spoken to about it don’t seem to understand what I’m on about.
And then, I feel like a hypocrite and a fraud because I truly believe in the practice of self-love and compassion and presence and acceptance and non-judgement, but I spend so much time judging myself and finding myself wanting. And then I start to judge and hate myself for being a hypocrite, and then to judge myself for judging myself, and so on, adding brick upon brick to the wall that stands between me and self-love.
Only occasionally, maybe when I’m practising yoga or meditation or when I am dancing or writing or eating or having sex or sleeping, am I able to drop judgement and just enjoy being me in this body and this moment.
The rest of the time, most of the time, there’s a war going on in my mind.
I have been in conflict with my body, and I am done. I’m waving the white flag and hugging it out, and I promise to try to not suck in when I look in the mirror.
I’m not sure how I am going to unpack all of this toxicity that has been built up in and around my body, but to start with, I am not feeding any cruel, untrue, judgemental thoughts about my body. When one comes, I notice it, and allow it to stay as long as it wants, but I try not fuel the fire. It’s really hard, but sometimes I can go several hours in a row without any thoughts coming because it turns out if I don’t pay them any attention, they don’t really come so much. The toxic thoughts are reducing from a constant flood into a trickle.
I have also found myself wanting to wear less revealing clothing, as though I don’t need the reassurance of external admiration of my body. At the same time, I have found myself wanting to dress up more and wear more makeup and adorn myself with jewellery, and dance and practice more yoga and meditation and celebrate being alive in my body, and I hope this continues.
It feels like my body and I are healing together, and if I keep at it and try to unlearn the lessons I was tricked into learning, maybe we can save out relationship.
by Rose Miyonga
The 2017 Golden Globes felt quite special to me.
It felt like the first time in a long while, if not ever, that there was some decent representation, that I could look at the list of people that the establishment had deemed “the best” in television and film, and see a more diverse range of people representing the many stories that touched us this year.
Representation matters! And, I don’t just mean one token person who is not straight, white, male and able-bodied on a show written, produced and directed by a white male. What I mean is a plethora of people telling an array of stories in their diverse voices. What I mean is the use of the arts to expand collective consciousness and aid in dispelling the limited idea of normalcy.
I didn’t grow up thinking that my family was strange; my gorgeous multi-cultural, multi-racial family was my first understanding of the world. I only became aware that the wider world seemed to have more restrictive views of what constituted the most inclusive values in the world: beauty, love, family, struggle…
At its best, television and film, like all the arts, can be a mirror into your soul, shining light on the deepest truths of human existence with love and compassion, inviting us to
contemplate who we are and where we find ourselves in the world. Television has always seemed especially amazing to me because you bring the stories and characters into your home, sometimes over a period of years or even decades.
It can engender intimacy and belonging, but at its worst, it can also encourage feelings of otherness and lacking, a feeling that people who look like you don’t belong in the collective narrative or don’t deserve a space to share their stories. I inhabited this realm for a long time, and only obtained self-love through hard-learning against the popularised lack of representation.
Self-love is really hard when you feel like an island; when it feels as though every message society sends is so foreign to yourself. I grew up in a society that didn’t encourage my self-love, that subliminally, and sometimes explicitly, taught me that I was not enough and that I certainly would never be “the best”.
My society taught me loathsome self-depreciation.
Television used to encourage the most negative feelings for me. But it is gradually becoming a source of delight, a place to go to feel understood and valued.
Some day Viola or Tracee or Thandie will win an award or nominated and it will just be about them.
I hope that day is near, the day when it won’t be remarkable that someone who is colourful and unique and universal can be hailed as the best at what they do and that the next woman of colour to win a Golden Globe Best Performance by an Actress in a comedy or musical television series will not have to wait until 2052.
I hope that my children, whatever their colour, gender identity, or ability will be able to hold the television up to their faces like a mirror and proudly see themselves reflected and represented in the most beautiful and honest light.
For now, their wins are still also our wins. They are part of the long-awaited slow-dawning collective realisation that we, too, represent the world.
by Rose Miyonga
It’s been over three years since I stopped wearing make-up regularly. I still wear it sometimes for the odd photo shoot, or, if the mood strikes me, I might brush a little glitter over my eyelids or slick on a bit of lipstick, but day-to-day, I don’t wear make-up.
Don’t get me wrong, I think make-up is awesome.
When it’s done by someone skilled, it is a true art. However, I apparently lack the motor skills needed to apply it properly, and my daily attempts at it often drove me to frustration and despair, and sometimes inflicted physical pain – I can’t be the only one who has poked their still-sleepy eye with a mascara brush in the morning.
I have been asked so many times why I have chosen to opt out as if not wearing make-up is something so unnatural. The answer is pretty simple: for the moment, I just prefer being bare-faced.
As a woman, and especially a woman of colour, my body is too often the battleground on which issues of gender and race are fought, and the use of makeup is a prime example. It is as though I am denied the freedom to let my personal choice be just that: personal. It is so often assumed that my decision not to wear make-up is a ‘stand’ that I am taking for my intersectional feminist agenda, but it is not.
Sure, I do reject the idea of policing of women’s bodies and telling them how they should or shouldn’t look. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family where I was taught to question preconceived ideas of what it means to be a beautiful woman, and learned to look at my face in the mirror with love and acceptance. This, for me, right now, doesn’t involve make-up every day.
Recently, both Alicia Keys and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie made bold statements about make-up. I admire both women immensely, and I don’t think their ideas are contradictory, although Keys has chosen not to wear make-up and Adichie is the new face of a make-up brand. Both are rejecting the prescription of beauty standards and redefining beauty from themselves.
My not wearing make-up is not because I think it is frivolous or unimportant. Far from it! Make-up can be magical, empowering and transformative. I take pride in my appearance, and I don’t think it’s somehow un-feminist to do so. As Adichie puts it, “I think it’s time to really stop that ridiculous idea that somehow if you’re a serious woman you can’t and should not care about how you look.”
I choose not to wear make-up (or sometimes to do so) because I hope that I am part of the first generation of women of colour whose personal choices do not have to be held up to a political ideal, but can instead follow whims, moods and fancies without judgement or moralisation.
by Rose Miyonga
Last week, TK was fortunate to have the sparkled voice of Tahmina Beghum of XXY magazine as she shared her experience of dual identity and frustrations with rigid concepts of personhood. This week, we are so excited for Rose Miyonga, one of our contributing editors to share with us her experiences the same subject.
My mother is White British and my father is Black Kenyan.
My sisters, Poppy and Jasmine and I have had to explain what this means to people our whole life, so I have been aware of my racial identities for as long as I can remember.
During my early years, my family lived in Brixton. I don’t remember my brown skin or my hair (usually in dreadlocks or cut short) being an issue. Of course, in my immediate family, it didn’t matter.
I knew that my parents had different skin colours, just as I knew as they had different eye colours and that they loved my sister and me. It was just one thing that blended in with a whole host of other things that happened to be true about my family.
When I was six years old, our family moved to Kenya, and my sister and I were enrolled in a local school on the outskirts of Nairobi. The cracks in our ‘deeply flawed’ system of categorisation and classification of ‘race’ were clearly exposed when our race changed somewhere between Heathrow and Jomo Kenyatta Airport. Suddenly, without warning or consultation, we were white. To my Kenyan classmates, my skin was pale, my hair was soft, and I could see that relatively, I was more white than most of my friends on the school playground… It was a lesson in ‘context’.
This is not to say that race and racism do not exist, as the realities that we have to battle with every day make them evidently tangible, but that race and racism were created and constructed as tools to justify slavery and subjugation; to divide and dehumanise.
I didn’t fully understand how other people’s perception of my skin tone would come to deeply affect me when I was six, but I had learned something important, and something that would repeat itself in various iterations over and over again:
As a teenager in rural England, my Blackness was constantly highlighted by my peers, and I was forced to grapple with it, accept it, and eventually fall in love with it, and when I spent two years at school in the U.S., I remember trying in vain to explain to some (not all) of the people I encountered that I was actually not just black.
I’ve given up explaining now (well, for the most part). Although my heritage does matter, I don’t want my skin colour to define how I live my life. I can’t control how I am perceived and treated by others, but I can control how I look at myself, and I choose to look at myself without judgment, to see my beauty without boundaries, and to love myself without limitations
By Rose Miyonga
As soon as I step off the plane at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport it envelops me in a familiar embrace and I know that although I am more than 4000 miles away from London, I am home.
It was never my intention to take a year out from my degree at University College London and move to Kenya. It was actually conceived during a conversation with my sister, Poppy, who is a photographer and lives in Nairobi, on the way to Heathrow Airport.
She suggested. “I can’t just…” I stuttered
“Why not? If you want to be a writer, write, and if you don’t like being in London, come to Kenya.”
So I did.
On the outside, it could look like I was in the throes of a breakdown: I dropped out of university, got a tattoo and moved to another continent, but I was actually calm and joyful, seeing my life with clarity and enthusiasm for the first time in what felt like years.
Kenya is where I was born, and it is my Fatherland, so in a way it made total sense to go back there, move in with my sister and get a job as a writer. I went with the blessing of my family and my university, and I didn’t feel nervous stepping off the plane into that warm Nairobi night. Instead, I had managed to find a remarkable power: confidence.
I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I believe in making things happen, in asking for what you want and embracing opportunities (and working hard, sometimes).
When I arrived in Kenya, I didn’t really have a plan. Poppy and I went back to her house and ate brownies and chatted and laughed long into the night, and the next few days were spent visiting old friends and enjoying the sunshine.
I had been living independently to varying degrees since I was 16, but support from my family, scholarships and student loans had meant that I’d never felt entirely financially self-sufficient. A paying job was for the first time not a way to make extra cash, but an urgent necessity.
Luckily, Poppy once more had a simple solution, and introduced me to a friend who offered me her job: my first full-time paying job as a writer.
I very deliberately went back to Kenya for myself, to nurture myself and reconnect with my Kenyan identity and my Kenyan family, to seek new adventures in a place that I call home.
I stopped acting out of fear and obligation and started acting with confidence and vitality.
Now, back in drizzly London and preparing for a new adventure in Madrid this September, I carry the memory of re-learning what I first learned as a young child: how to ask for what I want and how to approach life with confidence and a willingness to have fun along the way.
Rose Miyonga is [currently] a London-based student, writer and general adventurous woman. Born in Kenya to a British mother and Kenyan father, she has lived, studied and worked in the UK, Kenya and the United States, and hopes to make a career out of traveling, learning and sharing stories.
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
All photos courtesy of Poppy Miyonga.