CW: Mentions of Self-Harm
There were three times in my life where I tried to cut away at myself, where I attempted to make myself smaller, whiter. More feminine.
The first time I tried it, the attempt was rather straightforward. When I was six, I found myself surrounded by prim-and-proper white girls in the classroom. As me and my peers all began discovering the childhood glee and terror that comes with emerging crushes – quick and fleeting feelings that left us all stuttering, flushed messes – my female peers all got to experience the rush that comes with a small admission: “I like you”. I did not get to experience such a rush.
One morning, just before school, I brushed my hair in the mirror while my mother got dressed for work. I repeatedly wet my hair, brushing at my scalp until it was raw. The water weighed my hair down, stretching some parts straight while others curled up in a small rebellion. I had no patience for that rebellion – I needed to look like the girls in my class. I desperately needed that. So, following a logic that only a six-year-old could justify, I quickly grabbed some scissors sitting on my mother’s dresser, and began snipping at the curls. Soon, my hair was a lopsided mess, and I was sobbing because still – still – the curls persisted, even tighter now. My mother caught me before I could cut my hair off entirely, worried at first, then laughing at the silliness of the situation. But it wasn’t silly to me. In class I would be that one girl with skin a little too brown, hair a little too curly, and who could not get one single innocent admission of a crush. I would be alone and all the white girls would be together, establishing a normal I had no hope of being able to abide by. I sobbed, and I carried that moment with me for a long time.
The second time I tried to cut a piece of myself away, though, was a bit more complicated, tangled in the unfathomable-ness that is being a teenager. I was a fat teen, and a Black “girl” (as in, I was read as a girl despite whatever gender identity I pondered or held) at a predominantly white and wealthy high school. Me and my body were the hot topic in the hallways. My peers often discussed how heavy my footfalls were on the linoleum floors, how they could just catch a damning trail of cellulite near the hem of my skirt. One teacher even discussed how I should be running more and eating less with a classmate, an action that played a major part in my disordered eating habits throughout high school. The added pressure to be not just skinny, but white girl skinny (thin ankles, small breasts, absolutely no ass, if possible) made me want to rip my body inside out, tear my skin apart and reconstruct myself if only to stop the whispering. As these feelings came to a crest, I began to slowly harass my stomach, a bulging thing that I especially grew to despise. It began as light scratching on my flesh, dragging my fingernails up and down my stomach whenever I felt a treacherous pang of hunger. Slowly, though, the action developed into more harmful and punishing tactics: pinching at my fat folds until they bruised, until finally I would lightly let hot pans burn my stomach. I was, in essence, cauterizing the pieces of myself I was ashamed of, the pieces that were too big to fit inside a (white) understanding of fitness and health. It took me many years to stop this practice, but even now the scars still linger, a roadmap of the shame I had for my body as a teen.
The third time I hacked at my own body was… complicated. The first two moments can be underscored by a singular want to “be like the white girls”; this time, though, the gender implications of the harm I enacted upon my body was just a much more dense feeling to unravel. Whereas the urge to be like my white female classmates felt like a searing upon my skin, this new feeling I developed in college was a heavy stone resting inside my chest, taking up residence right next to my sternum. Really, actually, that is a poetic way to say that I developed an acute hatred for my chest. As I came to understand my disidentification with any gender, my chest brought me a strong dysphoria, a physical symbol of the way that people will always read me, no matter how many times I signal that I am non-binary. At the same time, though, my chest (which is rather large) was something that also felt like it marked me as too much of a Black woman, and therefore not feminine enough. When I looked at my chest, I would see images of Aunt Jemima, of a fat Black female body that is marked as mammy. This is to say that the size of my chest made me feel desexualized, erased from a white understanding of gender. Categorically outside of (white) womanhood. And so, the duality was that my chest made me feel both too connected to Black womanhood, which is not honored as womanhood anyhow, and too disconnected from white womanhood to ever explore my sexuality, or my body as pretty. In short, my chest gave me racialized gender troubles that, to this day, I still have a hard time making sense of. When these feelings overcame me, I would graze my chest with a fingernail, scratching at the thin skin until it broke. I would envision cutting my chest off entirely – not necessarily in a medical setting, but me personally cutting my chest off. Sometimes, I would imagine this with the wish that my chest was smaller, petit enough to allow me to move away from Aunt Jemima and into being a person who could be sexual, who could delight in their body. And sometimes, I would scratch at my chest in the effort to be less woman entirely, to disassociate with a gender category that only served to harm me anyway.
All of these moments of self-harm are a reflection of my own internalized anti-Blackness. They are also, in turn, reflections of my own anti-fatness and gender dysphoria that are both ultimately wrapped up in anti-Blackness. Cutting away at myself was my effort to be less and to hide from a gaze that constantly condemned me. My efforts to have straighter hair, to be thinner, to look less like a Black woman have a rather complicated connection to the ways I was taught to hate myself by a white gaze. My body, and other Black folks’ bodies, are playgrounds for whiteness to exert itself, a land for it to prostrate itself upon so that it can reify itself. It is not enough for whiteness to harm us, excavate us, tear us apart and plunder us empty; we also need to participate in our own harm. We also need to tear the soil of our flesh apart, and our participation is a necessary component to whiteness’s existence. Whether it be cutting away at our hair, or experiencing a deep disgust for our bodies, or even turning our backs on our community in the pursuit of “success”, we must be a part of our abuse for this system to work.
Understanding my self-harm in this context has been incredibly important in disrupting these behaviors and building a respect and care for my own body. I do not know if I can love my body; truly, I may be too scarred for that possibility, a roadmap of my shame too imprinted on my skin. But I can respect my body. I can stop participating in the harm whiteness inflicts upon me. For now, that is enough. Perhaps, too, it is enough of a first step for all of us to get free of this pain. Acknowledging these harms, acknowledging the ways we internalize anti-Blackness, anti-fatness, and unhealthy conceptions of gender is a step in doing the work to stop blinding chasing whiteness, and instead nurture our bodies, soothe our pain, and stop tearing away at ourselves in a futile chase for an acceptance that holds nothing for us.
Bret Hairston is a Black non-binary storyteller from Columbus, Ohio, whose work especially focuses on the Black Queer, Non-Binary, and Woman experience.