I started this article 16th April 2016. Now in Feb 2017, I’ll endeavour to finish it…Yesterday’s News finally written today.
16th April 2016
I picked up a Sunday paper’s supplement a while a go and the feature article was an account of body dysmorphia affecting teenagers. It interviewed a teenager and her mum alongside a profile of a mental health centre offering a short stay and a course of cognitive behavioural therapy as treatment for the teen.
The front cover of the magazine was of a white-but-a-bit-Barbie-tanned blond woman with her face airbrushed to remove all her facial features. She was a wash of immaculate white skin. The same kind of airbrushed skin that can be found on the legs, arms, lips and chins of however many models in however many countless images. The texture of the airbrushing carried aspirational associations because of where and how it is applied elsewhere to sell images of human beauty.
It was a similar image to this:
It was a jarring and uncomfortable image and I’m sure that this was the intended effect of the editors. However, the most piercing and upsetting effect was that through reading the article, I found out that the teenager being interviewed was mixed-race.
Dot. Dot. Dot. Open mouth. Dot. Sense of fuckery. Dot. Dot. Vomit inside. Dot. Dot. Dot. Cry for all. Dot. Dot.
The editors made a huge oversight or gesture of not seeing. No, not a gesture – that may wrongly imply a process of consideration. They were not actually hearing – fully hearing – the teenager’s tale so that her language may filter down and pierce their own privileges. They were representing her story by giving it the centre feature, but not enacting the knowledge gained by her bravery. They were making space but filling the space with the same bullshit that people of colour have to process where white speaks for non-white.
The bullshit we have to confront. It is an enforced warfare of confrontation. Forced into the position of being confrontational because of being confronted with whitewashes all the time. Being made to feel uncomfortable because information being relayed to you is telling you that you are doing uncomfortable things.
I wonder whether I need to lodge a formal complaint to The Observer on Sunday?
Perpetuating the kind of white privilege that cancels out its own recognition of white privilege.
I have never read that body dysmorphia includes the person experiencing an erasure of their features. Perhaps I would say instead that absence of self perception is present…
I identified with this teenager’s experiences. For me, every day involves multiple checking’s of my appearance – mostly my face – to see its hideous monstrosity and figure out how I am going to deal with it today. Will I look at myself in the eyes or is it too hard this hour? So, perhaps sideways glances are all I can bear. At Laban, with the mirrors, I would look down at my feet or past my face into the distance – suppressing, or actively un-seeing my ugliness. I had the same gaze in a ballet class I took last week. My appearance can shock myself. Sometimes I recoil, sometimes I flinch. Sometimes I am surprised if what I see is bearable. I have learnt (somewhere – who knows where or how) to disregard comments on my beauty. It isn’t even conscious anymore but a harsh dismissal of other people’s words as lies. And coupled with that, any fleeting sense I might have that I am beautiful is a lie and I judge myself to be a fraud.
Have I been diagnosed with body dysmorphia? No. Something about the way I present myself in the chairs of doctors or psychiatrists seems to disagree. My ugliness is seen as laughable (actual, vocalised laughter) by partners and carer giving figures/doctors alike. For the better part of nineteen years.
My cells have renewed themselves countless times over this same time period but the indelible patterning of shame has remained. By now, my shame knows exactly how to perpetuate itself and my language habitually buries itself, feeling foolish and battle-worn all over again, again, again.
Sometimes it is a diagnosis that I think may help me shape and articulate my experiences. The anchor of a label or a community. Most of the time, I am relieved to no longer have these medical professionals any part of information I get about my identity. But I am still in two minds as to whether labelling will help me by giving me information that I am believed. I can rationally know that my view of myself is a distorted one and who am I to assign language to my experiences when others supposedly with more knowledge and insight haven’t seen or heard what I speak of?
Coming to understand that the systematic onslaught of images of women whose skin colour and features are ones I need to continuously leap reality in order connect to**, have been part of tapestry in my perceptions of my own ugliness has been its own journey of sadness. An anger too at being weakened by something I did not choose, kind of like a victim of my eyes. It’s disgusting and what do you do?
Well, I smile too much to compensate. To disguise, to misdirect those who may think me ugly, to signal that I’m not as hideous as I perceive. It’s a kind of perverse second-guessing. It makes me untrustworthy to some. I smile even when I am sad. Or when I have pissed someone off and they are looking for an explanation. Or when I am fighting with a friend of lover. It is a scary thing to feel your physiology shift beyond your control. And absurd to know that the resulting smile is a smile of frozen fear. The body thinks it is protecting you. But it is misplaced. And it is misused.
I made a dance piece called ‘One Nubian For The Boys’ last year. The responses were difficult for me. There was feedback of various kinds that it was ‘extreme’, some said ‘disturbing’. These comments made me feel incredibly isolated. I was trying to communicate a specific experience. One of the things I was trying to process in making the work was to challenge myself to look at my image for more than a minute. But communicating this motivation (in language outside of the work itself) would have brought more questions than I was comfortable asking. So I tried to engage with the idea that perhaps work was extreme or disturbing instead. But it isn’t! I cannot see it that way! what I continue to come back to is the extent to which these comments failed to recognise the viewers position – i.e. they felt disturbed not that the work was inherently disturbing. Or that my experience as a mixed race woman was in ‘extreme’ contrast to their experience as a white man…Is having your experience being labeled as extreme a form of gas lighting? I certainly began to doubt myself and the space I took up with a 5 minute video. How dare I? And if only we could have spoken about the vulnerability underneath. If only you could have looked at me, with me, instead of render my image as so polar opposite to you. So unsettling. Perhaps it was…
I did wonder with a friend if part of the disturbance felt was because I did not smile. But unpicking that is for another blogpost. And also once I have made a physical response (working title ‘Save The Children From Twerking’).
15th Feb 2017 (flex the writing muscle)
Something does need to get cleaned off of me. Making my body public is hard work. It’s a perverse occupation considering how debilitating my anxiety can be. How alone I can feel within it. How this mental health difficulty I experience can feel as unspeakable as racism. This is not a pity party but I’m trying to taste what ‘unashamed’ might be.
The disgust I feel is a place that overstuns me and I know that it is also a symptom of the systematic erasure of non-white, non-dominant cultures that makes me want to be blind – want not to see my own face.
And then the article layered a brutal truth – the mixed race woman’s story is not going to be visually represented. It will be unidentifiable, replaced with an image that is alien but everywhere. It will be made a mockery of. Don’t go telling your story because it will be unrepresentable or it will be twisted, morphed – just as I/the teenager/other sufferers from body dysmorphia morph ourselves, a larger structure will morph us. It starts at the editors desk and works its way into our consciousness – meeting, plaiting and binding with all the other strands of oppression.
With Project O (my on-going supernova collaboration with Jamila Johnson-Small), we are making a long durational work called Voodoo. We performed recently at In Between Time Festival and the week before, I was incredibly panicked about being seen for so long (the show is currently performed in two 2 hour loops – i.e. 4 hours a night). But I couldn’t speak this fear because it felt like failure. Also because I knew there was something important about engaging with being seen for so long. I am unquestionably drawn to performance and to embodying the politics of how important it is that bodies (like mine?) are seen within the matrix of majority white privileged visibility. I will protect the space I and others have carved out for dance and performance to reveal complexities of experience like a lioness protecting her pride. To ensure that experiences are heard, that our stories are written into the fabric of history. My presence is needed urgently. And I will be there as part of the vanguard (screw my fear of arrogance). And there is the paradox. Of wanting to disappear but knowing how important it is that I stay. Artists likeZinzi Minott have voiced that we are dying out, that artists of colour are buckling and looking around for support with self-care. I may also drop away for a while, a breath, a lie in, a long over due catch up with family and friends, a look inwards before returning to movement and to words.
I think of performance/dancing as a site where I can hook in to the morphing I experience as part of my reality – plug in and emit all the everything that shapes my body (and my imagination) moment to moment. Instead of destruction, the same deepening tunnel of dread I can feel when I look into the vortex of a mirror fuels something from the same source (me) but altogether different. Resilience? Wholeness? The strength to grapple? Moving past paralysis?
There is space within this work for healing. It is not the dominant narrative – by now, I distrust dominant anything. It is a part. A rare space that doesn’t exist too often. I haven’t really accepted how long I have lived with an image of myself that swells, twists, becomes unspeakably, literally nauseating. As I become aware of how deep the damage gets, I don’t know what it means for performing, for being in front of people, for going to meetings, for going the shops, for being asked to be in a photograph like its no big deal. I don’t know. I have been pretending that all these asks are ok. They don’t feel ok. I perform their ok-ness because it is what I am expected to do. I am grateful for many things. As I said, this isn’t a place where pity has a home.
It is something that has been on my mind and seeing that article threw me into a space where I realised what I was pretending, what I was battling was – upsettingly part of a larger war to make diverse ranges of narratives visible.
Thank you for reading
**I understand that for white women there is also a gap that needs to be crossed and causes its own damage. I do want to insist that the dominance of white skin tones almost everywhere in the UK makes the leap for people of colour a larger one and therefore the potential for severance from self-worth that bit more potent.
Image credit: Thomas Northcut and GNM Imaging