My mom used to tell me that life didn’t get really good until your 30s. When I was in my 20s, I didn’t understand what she meant. At the time, I couldn’t imagine life being more awesome. But now that I’m approaching my mid-30s, I fully understand what she meant. My 30s have been rough emotionally and professionally but I feel happier with myself than I’ve ever been. I realized that I spent most of my teens and 20s, not unlike most women, grappling with low self-esteem and confidence issues. In less than six months, I’ll enter my mid-30s and I’ve never felt more confident. Most of my life I felt like I got hit with a body trifecta that made me hyper-sensitive and self-consciousness but ultimately for which I am supremely grateful. There is no way I’d be the confident, happy human being I am today if I weren’t three things: female, Black and super-duper tall. The point of this post isn’t that the key to happiness is being a 6’2″ black woman. Because if that was the key to happiness about 2% of the population would be happy. The point of this post is that there is unquantifiable power and strength in embracing who you are. I have been discriminated against, harassed, objectified, dehumanized and assaulted based on who I am. But I’ve learned that the problem isn’t me. I’m awesome. The simple truth is that some people are ignorant, some people haven’t met any minorities and just don’t know what they’re saying or doing and some people just plain suck. But, at the end of the day, none of those people’s opinion about me matter. I determine my self-worth.
Two Decades of Catcalls
When I was 12 or 13, my mom told me she wanted to “talk” and we walked out to the front patio and sat down. My mom launched into a discussion about what happens when two adults really “care” about each other. The discussion wasn’t awkward or hard or horrible. Partly because my mother has an adept knack for casually and confidently talking about difficult topics. But mostly the conversation wasn’t bad because I knew nothing about boys and wasn’t interested and wouldn’t be interested for many years to come. I was interested in playing the drums, reading at the library and sports. Boys? Eh. My continual thought process during the conversation was: “I’m glad my mom is talking to me about this and not my dad but this has nothing to do with me.”
At that age, I simply wasn’t interested in the opposite sex. But, unfortunately, they were interested in me. And I don’t mean the boys at school. Men. Men were interested. Men were leeringly staring at me. Men were making comments. At 12 years old, I was 6 feet tall and look almost exactly how I look today. I looked older than I was and men responded to that. I would walk to school and would get stared at, catcalled, and made to feel generally uncomfortable by adult males on a regular basis. The attention was confusing. The attention was unwelcomed. The attention was gross. But “the attention” has been part of my regular every day existence for over 20 years. It’s the reason I listen to headphones and wear sunglasses while walking down the street. I don’t want to hear anyone and I don’t want to make eye contact with anyone.
A few days ago, I was complaining via text message to a male friend about a stranger on the train who was staring and winking at me. My friend promptly apologized on behalf of his gender. At that point, I began to rattle off the cavalcade of unsettling experiences I’ve had with strange men in public places. One day while walking down the street dressed in a sweater, glasses, khakis and loafers, a man pulled over and offered me 50 bucks for my services. (50 bucks!?! Come on dude. I’m worth WAY more than that.) A stranger in a Range Rover exposed himself to me in a Whole Foods parking lot. I had approached him to simply ask him where the nearest Target was, he proceeded to tell me how hot I was and then just whipped it out. (Not sure if that approach had worked for him previously). Just this evening while on the train going home a seated male passenger insisted on continually tapping the back of my thigh. Despite my continual icy glares and my plea for him to “fuck off”, he kept up his harassment knowing I was trapped on a packed train car and couldn’t escape his hands.
A few months ago, I was walking to the train for work. Over the past year I had lost a lot of weight and was happy and proud to fit into one of my favorite dresses. I went bounding out of my apart with a smile and was promptly greeted by a strange man who smacked my ass. It was 7:30 am on a Tuesday. I unleashed a tirade of cuss words and ire at him. He couldn’t care less and continued sauntering down the street with a smirk on his face. The guy I was dating at the time couldn’t understand why I was so upset about the incident. And, at the time, I didn’t have the words to articulate precisely why the act had me so enraged. It wasn’t until I sat down to write that I realized that this was just one of several acts that have been forced upon by for decades. It was another man exerting his dominance over me and belittling me in a public space. The gesture along with all the other gestures, catcalls, actions and comments over the years were one big pattern of men “putting me in my place”. I thought I was headed to work to go practice law. But this jerk had to let me know with one gesture that I was just a body in a dress and I was here for his amusement and pleasure. And that gesture was just a reminder to not get too high and mighty about my place in the world.
This is my world. And I’m hardly alone. Almost every woman I know can immediately recall several stories of harassment, catcalls or, even worse, sexual assault. These stories are not anomalies. These stories are our every day existence. And many men are completely oblivious to it.
Fetishism at its Finest
So we’ve established that I’m a woman. I’m also a black woman. I have a mocha skin tone. It’s the perfect mixture of my parents. My mom is dark skinned (think Viola Davis). My dad is light skinned (think Michael Ealy — while he’s gorgeous, he may be a bad reference for my white friends. Think um…Jesse Williams. He’s on Grey’s Anatomy. Does that help?) I’ve never given much thought to my body in the context of being a black woman. I have thought a lot about my cultural identity, my hair, my voice, people’s perceptions of me, etc. But this a post specifically about “body issues” so let me get focused.
I’ve dated outside my race. And I don’t think any of it. As a refresher I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area. We’ve got everyone there and the concept of interracial dating is a non-starter to me. I don’t think about it as a big deal nor did I ever think anyone thought of it as an actual “deal” until I moved to the Midwest. I had never dated a white guy until I moved to the Midwest (there are a LOT of them here you guys). It was so weird to me. I’m a tall black girl from San Francisco who drinks too much beer, cusses a lot and is extremely liberal. I was confused why average height (always around 5’10”) white guys from the middle of the Midwest found me attractive. Maybe it was fetishism. Maybe it was confusion. Maybe it was boredom. Or, perhaps, they liked me.
The Midwest was the first time a guy had ever said those fateful words: “You know, I’ve never dated a black woman before.” This old chestnut has been whispered to me at bars. And has escaped the lips of more than one white guy after a few too many beers on a third or fourth date. We’d be having a fun night talking about indie films and my obsession with gallery parties and out pops: “You know, I’ve never dated a black woman before.” I usually respond with: “Okay…” (because how do respond to that? Clink glasses with the guy and exalt: “WELL HERE’S TO NEW EXPERIENCES, CARL!”)
Here’s how I’ve wanted to respond:
First: Duh, you’re from a small town in the Midwest. From a purely statistical standpoint, this little confession is not a shock to me. Second: That’s really fucking offensive. And I know you didn’t mean to offend me and, moreover, you have no clue why this is offensive. So buckle up, I’m going to explain why this is demeaning, dehumanizing and offensive. But, before I do, I want you to know that I don’t think you’re a hateful racist and I don’t hate you. I think you’re cute, funny, smart and interesting. That’s why we’re on date number third/four. Most people don’t make it this far. I’m like the fucking Hunger Games, dude. Anyway, I digress.
Here’s the deal, Carl. This statement has an underlying inference that my blackness is different and outside the norm. It places me in the category as an “other” or a “thing”. It’s almost a kin to you say “You know, I’ve never dated a giraffe before.” Okay, Carl. I know you’re not saying I’m an animal but do you understand why your statement could make me feel ostracized and weird.
Also, this is the same comment weird drunk guys in bars have been saying to me since I moved to the Midwest. It has the gross stench of fetishism that is hard to shake off, even if that wasn’t the intent of the comment. Nothing quite dehumanizing a girl more than being made to feel as if she’ll become the basis for a “fun” story between guys. The story about the time he dated a “black chick” will be bandied about mixed in with stories about golfing or professional conquests.
And I know what you’re thinking, Carl. You’re thinking: “I was just stating a fact. I, in fact, have never dated a black woman.” And I acknowledge that fact. And, as a black woman, I can tell you that I already knew that and you didn’t have to tell me. Our last date was at a “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” taping, Carl. We just left a craft beer tasting. Like, Carl. You didn’t need to tell me that. It’s obvious. What next? You loved Arrested Development? I know, Carl. I know.
My overall point is that words have an impact and meaning. And those words have a harmful impact. And I know you don’t agree. But, as the black woman in this scenario, I’m gonna need you to trust me when I say this comment was racially insensitive and made me uncomfortable. I’ve got 33 years of research under my belt, Carl. Trust me on this one.
Would you like another beer, Carl? Smile, Carl. We can go back to my place and listen to the WTF podcast. Who doesn’t love a little Marc Maron!?
To which Carl says: “You’re not like any black person I’ve ever met.”
My brow furrows. “Carl! Do I need to start over?”
Tall Girl Tales
People often ask me whether I like being tall. I always find the question a bit odd. Tall is fundamentally my state of being. There is nothing I can do to change it. I better like it. If I don’t like it then that would mean that I’m unhappy with an essential element of who I am. That being said, I like it. I really enjoy it. Being tall makes me happy. But, obviously, it wasn’t always that way.
Growing up, I felt awkward and out of place. As a child I was growing at a rate faster than my actual age. When I was a toddler, I looked like I was 5 years old. When I was 9, I looked like a 12 year old. By the age of 12, I was 6 feet tall. In 1994, at the height of my pubescence, clothing stores and labels didn’t give a rip about tall women. There were no tall length pants for 12 year old girls. The rare tall length pants could be found in specialty shops in styles that were made out of strange material and most likely came with pleats. So my options became wearing silk pleated pants or wearing men’s pants. Both options feel like death to a 12 year old girl.
Like most women, I wanted to be doted on. I wanted a guy to make me feel girly and feminine. And guys at school never reacted that way to me. I was greeted with high fives and called by last name. So, in sum, growing up my exposure to men came in two forms: (1) strange aggressive catcallers who expose themselves at Whole Foods and (2) guys who gave me high fives and talked to me about sports. It didn’t matter what I wore, I was “one of the boys” by default. I didn’t help myself by taking an interest in things that could be deemed traditionally “male”. Even now, I prefer beer to wine. I love sports more than any woman I know and more than a good amount of men. Almost every time I’ve been sent flowers, it’s been after I’ve begged for them. Just once I’d like some guy to send me flowers because he thought ,despite me being taller than most of the human population, I’m special, awesome and I deserve some damn flowers.
A couple of years ago I tried to change my appearance, wardrobe and interests to be more “girly”. I’d consistently crouch down to not appear too tall in pictures. Until one day a female friend who stood all of 5’2″ said, “You’re tall. You can’t fight it. Just stand up.” And I did. And I look like a giant in all my pictures. But I also just look like me.
No More Miss Nice Girl
Over the years, I’ve done so much accommodating to make other people comfortable. And, frankly, I’m exhausted.
I had major reservations about writing any posts about my experiences as a woman and, specifically as a black woman because I didn’t want to make people uncomfortable. And embarrassingly, I didn’t want guys to not like me because I spoke honestly and truthfully about my feelings, my body, feminism, racism, sexism and my experiences. But ultimately, I decided that I didn’t care anymore. There is immense power in acknowledging and owning who you are. I’ve been treated differently for most of my life based on physical characteristics but I’m done worrying about it. Because, ultimately, if someone has a problem with me then it’s their problem not mine.
P.S. I always aim to approach difficult and sensitive topics with humor. Please attempt to read the post in the tone in which it was intended. 😉
P.P.S. I’ve never dated anyone named Carl.