I Am Not the Woman You Used to Know

The following is a public service announcement. Ignore at your own risk.

I am not the same. I knew that I wouldn’t be. Somewhere under the shock, grief, and anger of my breast cancer diagnosis, there was curiosity. Who will I be when I emerge from this experience? Because I knew that I would emerge. And I knew that I would be different.

Many of my friends, colleagues, and students may be surprised at some of the changes. My family probably won’t. They already knew what stock I came from. The same genes are there. It’s just that the Greene family sweetness has taken a back seat to the Walker and Allen frankness. That Johnson sass has turned all the way up. Plus, I’m borrowing some of that “Don’t come for me ‘less I send for you” from those Barnes and Evans clans. Yeah, I’m finally living into the nickname that my grandfather gave me: Mess.Breast cancer journey

In the past 421 days, I have been through four surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy. I have spent nine months with temporary implants the size and weight of baseballs in my chest (and no, there was never a moment where I wasn’t aware of them). I have had more needles stuck in me than I can count. I lay on a doctor’s table fully awake while he made a one-inch incision in my chest to remove my chemo port.

You better believe that I am not the same. I have looked a potentially fatal disease in the face and told it, “F*** you all the way back to the pit of hell that you came from, and when you get there, tell Satan that I said f*** him, too.” And while all that was happening, I celebrated the release of my first book and got tenure. I learned to use my voice on social media to make a clarion call for justice even while I was sequestered from the danger that simple illnesses could pose to my weakened immune system. And even though the battle is not over, I have changed immensely.

I am more confident, more outspoken, less tolerant of excuses and complaints, and less willing to spend time and energy on things that don’t matter. I have less of a filter and I curse in public. I might even be willing to dance in public without really giving a d@%^ if you think I move like a White girl. And I’m only filtering the curse words in this post because I want to make sure all my “good” Christian friends don’t get so caught up on those that they ignore the rest of what I’m saying here. But in real life, there is no backspace, no edit feature. So be forewarned.

I am even more determined to be an agent in God’s mission of justice and reconciliation, not just in the great big world out there, but in the spaces that I inhabit on a daily basis. If this is my “for such a time as this” moment, I am going to use every bit of it.

I am also more committed than ever to loving myself fiercely. I have ended my decades-old war against my body. I love every bit of my flab, every one of the 11 surgical scars that mark my torso. And no, I do not want to let my hair grow out to see if the texture has changed because I had learned to love that wiry hair with no discernible curl pattern. Even more than that, I love not letting my hair define how I feel about myself.

I am committed to enjoying as much time as possible with my husband and son. Ironically that means that we’ll probably never get furniture for our living room because we’d rather spend that money traveling. Plus, that leaves more room for train sets and dog races and folding tables for family dinners. We like all those things better than rooms with nice furniture that people never sit on.

This is me now. I am not the same. But, hopefully, I’m better.

Loves Roundness

From the third definition of “womanist”: “Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.” – Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

“Girl, where you been hiding those legs?!” my high school classmate shouted. It made me regret the decision to wear my favorite outfit – a purple mini-skirt and matching top, ironically chosen because the long gold-flecked shirt covered what I considered to be my worst asset. Until that day, I hadn’t realized that my thick, muscular calves were just as capable of eliciting attention. I tried to hush my classmate, but he was unhushable. His appraising stare and loud mouth followed me down the walkway and onto the bus.

This was the late 80s, when skinny black women tried desperately to gain weight so that they’d be considered appealing to black men, whose aesthetic was defined by a preference for things thick. From the waist down, I had thickness in abundance. And I hated it.

Loves love and food and roundness…Loves herself. Regardless.

My classmate’s yell was eerily similar to one that I’d heard one day when I was at my grandparents’ house. “Where did she get that butt? None of y’all got butts like that!” That time, the voice belonged to a longtime family friend. “Her daddy’s people,” was the answer offered by one of my mother’s sisters. Oblivious to my shame, the woman kept going, “And ain’t got titties the first!” Damn. Did she really have to go there? She could have won the top prize in how to crush a teenage girl’s ego.

It was true, though. I was the inverse of my mother and her sisters, who tended to be heavy up top and narrow below. I was built just like the women in my dad’s family, more like an inverted P, the small of my back ending abruptly in a large mound. I once had to whip out my school ID on a clearly-too-old-to-be-talking-to-me man who refused to believe that those hips, those thighs, that ass belonged to a sixteen-year-old.

Being a natural introvert, I hated the attention that my lower half brought. It probably didn’t help that I spent my early adolescence in nearly all-white schools, where skinniness was in and thickness was sin. So as best as I could, I tried to camouflage it – loose pants, shirts that hung below the waist, ankle (or at least mid-calf) skirts and dresses. For most of my life, I have been incredibly uncomfortable with my body.

Strangely enough, while I have deplored my own thickness, I love it on other women. Beyonce is beautiful, but Jill Scott and Marsha Ambrosius are downright breathtaking! The irony is never lost on me. I watch them in admiration, wondering why I have had such a hard time appreciating that same roundness in myself.

Loves love and food and roundness…Loves herself. Regardless.

This month, I enter the last year of my third decade. Looking ahead to the big 4-0, I have decided that the next two years – preceding and then entering my forties – will be dedicated to celebrating me, loving me. And that requires me to learn to love roundness…my roundness. I have realized that 20 years from now, I will look at images of the 38-year-old me and wish that I had enjoyed this body while I had it. I have realized that it is time to do with my body what I learned to do with my hair – delight in it and all of its big roundness – rotund belly, ample derriere, thick thighs, and boulder-sized calves.

Even as it flagrantly violates the societal ideal of beauty, as it repeatedly sidelines me with chronic illness, and as it requires medication that causes it to regain much of the 35 pounds that I worked so hard to lose, I am committed to loving this body…this flesh…this round, brown flesh. And guess what? On more and more days lately, I actually do. Regardless.