I didn’t have full autonomy over my body until I was 29 years old. Today I am 31 years old (going on 32). That means that for 29 years, people were deciding what was going to go into my body, what I was going to do with my body, and how I was going to live…in my body. But perhaps most terrifying is that people in various ways harmed my body with their choices until almost 3 years ago. Today, I share my story about my still ongoing journey with bodily autonomy.
My biological mother was a product of generational and historical trauma. She also had co-occurring mental health issues and substance use issues. My story with her ended when I was three years old. As a result of maltreatment/abuse, I was placed into foster care. It turns out, just because people give birth, it doesn’t necessarily make them equipped to be appropriate parents. My mother, her mother, and her mother before that were not equipped to be the mother’s that were needed to be healthy, thriving parents. I was placed in foster care with the goal of having adoptive parents.
Our society has so many fantasies, hopes, and dreams for adoptive parents. They fantasize that these parents will love better, care more, do everything in their power to keep children safe and happy.
My adoptive parents wanted to be those people.
My father wanted to work through the scary rageful anger inside of him which stemmed from absentee parents who were in an interracial relationship in the 1930’s, who both had mental health and alcohol issues; some resulting from the discrimination they experienced for loving each other and bringing mixed-race children into the world. My mother wanted to work through her trauma and the re-enactment impulses inside of her, which stemmed from growing up in a home and within an extended family where physical, emotional, and sexual assault as well as neglect were daily occurrences. A past that she fled from, emancipated herself at age 16 from; only to fall in love with a man who was also abusive; my adoptive father. As a result of their unaddressed trauma and pain, separate and together fueled by secrets, shame, and ignorance, I was further harmed, I witnessed and also experienced neglect, cruel and unusual punishment, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and psychological abuse.
So, I became a survivor. I became strategic. Academic accomplishment, reading, after school clubs, performing, and friends helped me survive my childhood and adolescence. I left for college naivety well intact as a result of years of fear-instilling and authoritarian parenting. I made my way to rural, white, “safe,” Wisconsin. “White people don’t hurt you,” I was sure of that. They were the majority of the “safe” adults I knew. They are easily impressed by smart, black girls in predominately white Advanced Placement and College prep courses. At that age, I though the “greatest” compliments came from them; the solo’s in choir and theatre, the title of “whitest black friend,” and always the first hand to be called on in class to share opinions that weren’t safe at home. White people were safe. So, I was going to go to the whitest college on the whitest campus far enough for my parents to not want to drive to frequently. Far enough to decide what happened to my body, what went in my body, and how I lived….in my body.
My first day on my college campus, I was walking around, and I noticed stares. Stares I didn’t experience in my urban school environment. I didn’t want people staring. A few days on my college campus, I was walking to the store with friends, It suddenly felt like someone slapped me square on the back, water runs down my back from what I realized was a water balloon filled with ice water and I hear the angry voice of a white male “GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM N____!” A few weeks in, I am called on, as if my hand was raised for a question, I distinctly recall not having raised my hand for, and asked to provide “The African American perspective.” And in choir, a class that had historically been one of the classes, I most looked forward to, I was told to “Sing more black, you know? Like slaves picking de cotton.” More staring. I was made to do that over and over, once weekly until my white classmates finally appropriated my enslaved ancestors to the choir director’s liking.
So, I became a survivor. I became strategic. I maintained the good grades. I got involved, I performed, I partied even. I discovered alcohol. White friends think you’re cool when you get drunk and teach them how to dance, and don’t mind as much when they say the “N” word when the “Gold Digger” song comes on; or when they take handfuls of your hair, and fawn and ask you if its real, yours, or to touch it…even though they already are. They also think you’re cool when you know where all the fun parties are; the “Pimps and Hoes,” or graffiti parties in which men without your permission would sign crude things wherever on your body they wished, you can imagine these were environments where women, non-white folx, and LGBTQIA+ people felt safe at right? Wrong. But these parties eventually turned into the bars where similar scenario’s played out, only with bouncers who were never anything but Cisgender-presenting white men, who got to decide and define what was a “safe” bar environment. Favors leaned heavily toward white, cis-hetero-presenting white men; bonus points if you played a sport or were in a frat. They got served first, the most, and they really could do absolutely no wrong. White privilege forbid they missed out on their promised D3, frat-favoring school attendance benefits. One of these white, cisgender male bouncers was off duty one night, and walking with me, my friends, and a few of his to an after party. And we were on the campus lawn, I was intoxicated, I fell and then before I knew what was happening, I was sexually assaulted by him and one of his friends. Then I was left on the ground. I did not get to choose, what happened to my body, what went in/on my body, and how I lived….in my body.
So, I became a survivor. I became strategic. I maintained the good grades. I got more involved, I performed for my family; who I didn’t tell, college professors; who didn’t ask, and sexual partners; who didn’t care, until I eventually got help. It was one of the first tastes of control I got, going to therapy. I healed from that experience and other traumas. Then I went to graduate school. One reason: I thought that getting a master’s degree would keep me safe, maybe somewhere more diverse though. Turns out all white people are not as safe as my inner naïve and hurt child wanted to believe, and they can be just as lethal to my mental health, bodily autonomy, and safety.
I went to grad school and three months in, I met my first “serious” partner. He’s serious alright. Serious about me spending all my free time with him. Serious about controlling me. Serious about telling me my sexual orientation, which he is the first partner I admit being queer to, is wrong. So serious, he lays under my car the first time I try to break up with him. So serious he eventually starts emotionally and physically abusing me and sexually assaulting me. So serious he attempts to break into my apartment. So serious he stalks me between classes. So serious he almost convinces me that I don’t deserve him, and for that, I don’t deserve to live. So serious he threatens to troll me online and post photo’s I didn’t consent to him taking of my naked body when I was not aware. So serious that I hit the ground sprinting into the first promising job offer 6 hours away in Duluth, Minnesota.
I started to heal. I thrived. There is no force more healing than Lake Superior and strong womxn who I quickly befriended. I navigated the changes. It’s cold here, not as diverse, but safer…ish; but not for long. While at my new job at the time, I am told that there are dress codes to adhere to at work, certain hairstyles and colors that are not appropriate, parts of my body that can’t be shown by certain kinds of clothing. I watch women be discussed inappropriately by men in positions of power. I watch women be made to go home and change and be told their leggings aren’t appropriate, their shorts are too short, their hair is too colorful, their piercings aren’t appropriate, their tattoos need to be covered. I experience micro-aggression; I am coached on how to flatter and receive favor from the cisgender white male CEO. I’m relied on as the “expert” in diversity issues. I perform culturally taxing responsibilities above and beyond my job duties. I am an unwilling bystander to misogyny, a lifetimes worth of “man-spreading,” and workplace bullying with sexist undertones. I see children be denied the opportunity to express their gender, and staff given transphobic advice on how to approach gender-identity related issues. “I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE!” Is what I scream in my head one day. ENOUGH! I’ve grown. I’m also fed up. I can’t anymore. I brave believing there’s more to see. More to accomplish. I’ve gotten this far.
On my golden birthday, I commit to myself that I want, no I need control. So, I quit. That was at 29…that same year, I pursued all of the things I was too afraid to pursue for 29 years. For fear of looking too ____, being too_______, acting too_____, having too much ______. All of the things I was convinced of would lead to further harm, discipline, or discredit. I learned the concept of Duality, being interchangeable, two (or several) parts, opposing. Learning the concept of Duality was one of the most life changing stages. I don’t have to be one thing. My body though previously harmed, is not ruined. My mind though once manipulated is not controlled. My self-expression, though once restricted, is no longer being held captive. I can heal. I can be vulnerable. I can be a professional and I can do all that wearing whatever the fuck I want, doing whatever the fuck I want, loving whoever the fuck I want. Being unapologetically black, queer, and a feminist. I can be accomplished, while having fun. I can tell my story, while healing the stories of others.
The next biggest shifts came with the full realization of my polyamourous and queer identity. After, it was reclaiming the right to put whatever on and in my body that I choose. Next, cleaning up my social surroundings; I purged all people and things that did not serve me, internally or externally. Next, meeting my now anchor partner (He’s good stuff). Next, therapy for myself. Next, rediscovering and nourishing my relationship with music and dance and performing/modeling. Next, joining the team of FEMN FEST. A group of unapologetic, badass, intersectional feminists on a mission. For going on three years, these things have helped heal me and feed me. These things have been sacred to me. These things have helped pave my path to three people who in one photo session provided so much healing, autonomy, and empowerment that I knew I needed to return for a second. Jes, Emily, and Katie…Thank You. Thank you for the specific nature and intention of your Boudie Call. Thank you for understanding the need for respect, body positivity, representation, and compassion in the Mad Chicken Studio Space. For some folx, walking into your studio could be one of few times in their life during which they are respected, their bodies and boundaries are celebrated, and they are treated with such loving kindness.
There were insecurities I had to overcome to do this photoshoot. The fear that I might be less respected as a professional being one of those things. My intellect and accomplishments mean more to me than most things. They have been tools in my success. I have worked so hard for my accomplishments despite every obstacle placed in the path of achieving them. They have been an escape. A way for me to become a chameleon in a new environment, after escaping from the last one in order to go far enough away to decide what happens to my body, what goes in my body, and how I live….in my body. Now I don’t focus on escaping, instead, I focus on living a life of enthusiastic consent. I consented to being vulnerable. I consented to exposing skin, truth, blackness, identity, sensuality, and duality. I consented from the beginning to the end. I consented from outfits, to makeup, to positions my body was photographed, to pictures that were taken. It was empowering. It was raw. It was transformative.
Right now…I decide what happens to my body, what goes in and on my body, and how I live….in my body….I’ve never wanted anything more than I’ve wanted this moment.