By Khaya Ronkainen
I am a plump child afflicted with a skin disease, which doctors cannot diagnose. Only their repetitive advice, “Stay out of the sun!” brings me temporary relief. Regardless, I am beautiful. But I don’t hear much about my beauty from my parents, instead from relatives and strangers. In fact, my beauty often compels strangers to plant kisses on my cheeks without my parents’ permission. As young as I am, I can see a twinkle of pride in my father’s eyes and a hidden smile dancing on my mother’s lips.
As a teenager I add to my plumpness, eyeglasses and bookworm tendencies. Because I have no interest in sports, my body size makes me look older than I am. In addition to residual dark marks and scarring on my legs and arms from the skin disease, I start battling severe bouts of acne. In spite of everything, my beauty status doesn’t change. At boarding school, boys my age compete for my attention. At home, my mother starts to fend marriage proposals from villagers, who want me as their daughter-in-law. I’m only thirteen years old.
This attention starts to get me confused about what beauty really means. Because I certainly don’t feel beautiful. Yet I can’t dismiss compliments from people who see me as such. I don’t bother to ask others what exactly makes me beautiful because comments about my beauty are varied. But I begin to imagine it might have to do with my soft eyes, which allow me to hold things at the center of my gaze while I remain aware of everything that goes on around me. Perhaps, it’s my affiliative smile from which people expect to see dimples. But I don’t dimple.
In late adolescence, I learn my body loves to move. This is a coincidental discovery as I take up tennis only to imitate my older sister, who is a professional player. While I find slight enjoyment in being confused for her in tennis circles, even though we don’t resemble each other that much, I branch out to find my own identity. And it’s at the university great hall, in my sophomore year, I first become aware of the power rested on my hips as I learn to cha-cha dance.
While I’ve completely shed my baby fat, my pear-shaped body struggles to find a good fit with clothes. I take to making my own or buying clothing to refashion it in order to feel comfortable in it. Wearing skirts and dresses doesn’t make me cool among my peers, who have discovered the appeal of sexy jeans. I don’t despair much because I find my memorably beautiful and unique friends.
As a young woman, I learn to walk on stilettos. But I’m hopeless as I teeter on uneven pavements in a big city with blisters on my feet. Hence, when I land my first job, I add a gym contract to my monthly expenses to strengthen my muscles. My determination pays off. I measure this by a turn of heads each time I approach. Unfortunately, disdainful catcalling from men who have hopes to own my body also ensues.
I’m told about the power of women appreciating one another but in the same sentence, I hear about women who envy appearance. That’s why sometimes I can’t distinguish between appreciation and envy. So, I learn to tread with caution as I navigate mixed looks I get from other women. Sometimes these looks are decidedly lustful across the board, something that makes me feel awkward and leads to avoiding social gatherings. Regardless, I am a success as I sashay my heavy thighs and curvy hips around town.
Suddenly I’m a plus-size, my shopping experience in ages. Who designs these customized size charts, anyway? As a grown woman, I wish I could say I don’t really care. But the industry seems intent on making us hate our bodies. Nonetheless, the fact that I am beautiful holds true now as I mature to myself with heavier arms, disappearing waist and a derriere that needs firmer support. Because when you’ve been told all your life that you are beautiful, it’s really difficult to see yourself otherwise.
My beauty was never perfect. Along the way, I learned my beauty has little to do with my physical appearance or age but a sense of self that was instilled in me from a very young age. In a society hell-bent on qualifying and quantifying beauty as it offers an array of invasive and expensive promises for youthful beauty, I simply smile. Because my middle life crisis is strapped on my hiking boots. This too is a journey of constant self-affirmation.
Khaya Ronkainen is a South African-Finnish writer of poetry and prose. Her work is largely inspired by nature, often examines duality of an immigrant life and also explores themes on ageing. To learn more, visit her site at https://www.khayaronkainen.fi
Instagram: @Khaya Ronkainen
By V.J. Knutson
Avoiding mirrors is my superpower. I learned it growing up in a house full of women. While sixteen-year-old Jo-Jo would stand in front of the large mirror above the living room fireplace, backcombing her hair, twelve-year-old June was posing in front of the full length, and I would be ducking out the backdoor avoiding mother’s scrutiny. At five, I already knew that when it came to beauty, I didn’t stand a chance.
Dubbed “Moose” by my siblings, I was broad-shouldered, thick waisted, and could throw a punch as well as any boy. My mother, not in the habit of using nicknames, just shook her head and mumbled, “No one will ever love you.” I didn’t need a mirror to tell me I was ugly; I had family.
Mother’s criteria for a successful woman: 1) complete the eleventh grade; 2) work as a secretary; 3) attract a husband; 4) marry and have babies. Jo-Jo rebelled, got pregnant at nineteen, and was whisked away into marriage, leaving June to fulfill the expectations. She was submitted to etiquette classes and later registered with a modelling agency. I’d sneak into her bedroom and glance through her notes, hoping to gain insight into to how to become more feminine, but I couldn’t walk with a book on my head, or sit with the elegance required. June had the figure of Twiggy and the looks of Mary Quant. I was still “Moose.”
I gave up hope of ever having an acceptable physique and focused on academics and athletics. I excelled at the first and was mediocre at the latter. My body was just too awkward.
“Stretch” and “Tree” were added to my list of monikers, and one male classmate drew a portrait of me that depicted big breasts on a pair of ridiculously long legs, which translated to “no hips” or “no ass.”
While June was receiving marriage proposals, I was being hit on by the fathers of the kids I babysat, or later, work supervisors. Confused, I sought guidance from my mother, who advised that some men will do “it” with anything that stands still, and I needed to not provoke attention. When I accepted a ride home from a friend of a friend that ended up in sexual assault, I learned firsthand that what my mother said was true: the police confirmed that my tight jeans and halter top were enticement for predators. I learned to loathe my body more.
I married the first boy who was willing to date me without making his erect penis my responsibility. We were both nineteen, and when after three weeks of marriage we had not consummated the marriage, he admitted that he just didn’t find me sexy. I was willing to bear that burden: I knew it to be true.
Separated at twenty-one, I threw myself into work and fitness. I worked out twice a day, put in lots of overtime, and chose rum and sodas as my meal of choice. Drunk, I was much more desirable, or so it seemed. Men from my past came knocking on my door, but I pushed them away. I couldn’t bear for them to see the ugliness underneath. When one of June’s suitors asked me out, I thought this must be love: surely anyone who would want me over her was willing to accept all of me.
I would marry this man and have his children just like Mother wanted. I would endure seventeen years of “if you loved me more” and criticisms that wore me down. My breasts were too large, my waist too thick, my legs too skinny—never enough. He played to all my insecurities, and I just kept trying harder, because I believed him. The day he told me he didn’t love me anymore, and in fact, had never loved me, I heard the echo of my mother’s words, No one will ever love you, and something inside me snapped.
I was forty years old, had just lost one-hundred-and-eighty pounds of no-good husband, and I was enough! If I didn’t love myself, I realized, no one else ever would. I had work to do.
First, I took a photo of myself in a swimsuit and posted it on the fridge door. Till I could look at that image and not cringe, I promised to dig deeper.
I set boundaries for myself, and goals that represented self-respect. I would no longer be a babysitter, mother, therapist, or punching bag for some man’s shortcomings. I wanted to be desirable and cherished, so I needed to know how that would feel. I stopped dating and started courting myself. When I was down, I bought myself flowers. I dined alone, trying out different restaurants until I learned what I liked. I took myself to the movies and discovered that I preferred a night in with a good book. I signed up for dance classes and auditioned for an improv company. I started a social club for dating misfits like myself—first rule of participation that members be friends only.
As time passed, that woman on the fridge didn’t look so bad. She encouraged me to go back through my life and look at old photos of myself. I was surprised to find an attractive young woman, who bore no resemblance to the me I had experienced.
The improv company—a murder-mystery troupe—hired me, and the first role I was assigned was a nudist named Ivana BeBuff. My costume was a form fitting, low cut, sequined gown, slit at the sides to accentuate my long legs.
“Just strut your stuff,” the director coached. “Exude your sexiest self.”
He had no idea the mountain he was asking me to climb, and I wasn’t about to tell him. Leaving self-loathing in the dressing room, I made my entrance as Ivana—a bombshell looking for a rich investor. The experience was life-altering.
After Ivana, came a line of female characters who inadvertently helped me learn that to be comfortable in my own skin, I just needed to exude confidence.
No one called me Moose anymore, or any other body shaming name, but I needed to confront my mother about her put downs.
“You weren’t like your sisters,” she said. “You were so smart, and such a tomboy, I honestly didn’t know how anyone would want to marry you. I thought I was preparing you to be independent.”
In a convoluted way, I get it. She didn’t know any different.
I gave up declaring myself as enough and decided that “I am” sums it up best. I spend my time now completing the sentence with nouns:
I am Grandmother, writer, teacher, artist. I am friend, lover, sister, seeker.
Funny how once I stopped worrying about my physical image, I started living my best life. I went back to school and completed a post-graduate degree, finally fulfilling a childhood dream.
My body, I now appreciate, is a sacred vessel: as unique and perfect as the spirit it carries.
VJ Knutson, BA (French), B Ed, writes to make sense of life. Her poetry and short stories have been published in numerous anthologies. A memoir and book of poetry are in the works. Visit VJ at vjknutson.org or onewomansquest.org. Twitter @Vjknutson and Instagram @1womansquest.
I recently had the privilege of being featured on Menopause Coach Kitty Anderson’s YouTube Channel, Create a Menopause Recovery in the video titled “Keisha Is a Black Woman Using HRT in the United States: Perimenopause Was Traumatic Without HRT!”
I responded to Kitty’s call for women of color to come forward and share their experiences of recovery from perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms, especially those who are using hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I actually encountered Kitty Anderson before; I enlisted her help to coach me through some continued challenges I was facing after I had started HRT months before. I even featured her on The Real Peri Meno blog in the post “Kitty Anderson: Menopause As a Social Justice Issue,”profiling her own journey as a menopausal woman who uses HRT herself and her experiences in becoming an expert on the topic.
My journey, from the process of realizing I was perimenopausal and not suffering from some other malady, and the maze I went through in navigating the medical system, is here on my blog on the post titled “Shocked By Perimenopause? I Was, Too.”
I wish more Black women (and women in general) would go public about their perimenopausal woes and the solutions that are working for them. While I am using HRT, I don’t expect ALL women to do so. But I do explore the reasons why Black women seem less likely to pursue HRT in “Why It Seems Like Black Women Don’t Use HRT.” Using HRT is a highly personal decision, just like choosing to use any prescription medication is.
Please watch / listen to the interview in depth. Here are a few points I considered after the fact that I want to state for the record:
Choose the medical practitioner, healthcare professional or physician who works for and with you! Regardless of color, too. That healthcare advocate who opts to partner with you in your care may not look like you, sound like you or any in way be like you, but they may be exactly what you need at that moment – and as a permanent ally in your long-term care. The best doctors in this journey for me have been an older (60+) white woman and a younger white man. It was a Black gynecologist who really let me down, along with a slew of others.
Be prepared to pivot. No day in perimenopause is guaranteed to be the same. Your symptoms may be well controlled and absent one day, and then they might pipe up the next. That may not necessarily mean that you need to reinvent the wheel, but it does mean that a versatile mindset is more important now than perhaps it has ever been. As symptoms change during perimenopause, and as hormones choose to cause a commotion every now and again (even while on HRT), realize that dosages may change, you may need to add in new medications and you may need to drop things that no longer work for you.
If you speak out about perimenopause, be prepared for . . . silence. When I went public about my perimenopause experience, I knew it was going to require being vulnerable. I didn’t know how people would react or what they would say. So far, in terms of my personal sphere, the response has largely been one of silence. No one I know personally is really asking any questions or sharing any of their experiences, but I know they are reading the material here, taking notes and considering options. I started this blog to help others, even as I continue to help myself in the background.
The Real Peri Meno is devoted to all things perimenopause - the science, treatments, care, understanding, personal experiences, relationships, culture and more. The brain child of Keisha D. Edwards, The Real Peri Meno developed out of her own shock-and-awe experience with perimenopause and navigating the disjointed U.S. medical system in search of answers, support and relief.
All Antidepressants Anxiety Black Women Body Positivity Body Type Depression Doctors Emotions Healthcare Hormones HRT Insomnia Meditation Melatonin Menopause Mental Health Midlife Midlife Medical Minute NAMS Natural Remedies Perimenopause Personal Stories Relationships Reproductive Aging Research Serotonin Sleep Well Being Well-Being Women Of Color