Holiday Struggles and Illumination

Unpopular opinion: I really dislike this time of year. My favorite holiday is Halloween because it’s just strictly fun, no pressure. Thanksgiving starts to bring in drama, usually of the family variety, but it’s still enjoyable. But by the time the December holidays roll around, they come with relentless messaging around gift giving, family, indulgence and merrymaking, with subtle hints of obligation. These days, you can’t walk through any store without experiencing the big corporate holiday pressuring, and so I find the season to be a lot more stressful than joyous. I recognize that I’m not alone in struggling through the holiday season, but this year as I take stock of what is working in my life and what isn’t, I’ve come to some unsettling realizations about what the holiday season brings out in me. I recognize that while some of my gift-giving and my accumulation of material crap are often rooted in fear of lack, shame, and poor boundaries, awareness of these patterns will allow me to head into the new year with healthier habits.

I started pondering these questions a few days ago because it occurred to me that I was going overboard with my spending—both on gifts for others and on myself. I legitimately enjoy giving gifts to my loved ones. If I see something they will enjoy, I’ll get it for them. In some cases, I’ll take the time to make gifts, which is again something I enjoy. Usually not a big deal because the intentions are pure. But at some point, I found myself stressing over making gifts for people adjacent to the ones I wanted to make things for or agonizing over sending things because I had to. If I give a gift to this person, that one might feel offended. This person sent me something, I should give them something in return. It’s called exchanging gifts for a reason, right? But giving out of obligation doesn’t feel good. If anything, it becomes a weight. I finally came to the conclusion that this type of giving is really about trying to gain or maintain acceptance. It’s selfish and fear based. And neither party wins. The recipient will likely on some level feel that the gift wasn’t given out of love and the gift may end up being just more meaningless stuff to clutter up their lives. There’s nothing wrong with gift-giving if it’s done in love and a real desire to bring someone else joy, but if it’s just an obligation, the impulse needs to be curbed.

I tend to impulse buy and accumulate lots of stuff, and I had to examine what was driving that behavior. That was more complex, but I narrowed it down to two things: fear of lack, which goes back generations, and cultural messages about lack, wealth, class, and even caste. The generational piece comes from being raised by a single mom who lived during the Depression. In other words, there was a constant condition of not having enough in a person who spent their formative years not having enough. Now I find myself stocking up on things due to the constant worry that we will run out of the things we need. I bought wrapping paper the other day thinking we didn’t have any when actually we had way more than we needed in addition to numerous gift bags of various sizes that I always save and reuse. That type of survival mentality is reinforced by retailers who lead us to believe we’re getting a better deal buying larger quantities. Technically we do, but we also spend more than we need and have to store more than we need.

Then there is the constant messaging around status and class that seems to require proof of status by consuming the symbols of that status—big homes, cars, electronics and smart everything. There’s a constant race to keep up with the next person as a sign of value. This isn’t news. This attitude can work its way into gift-giving during the holidays—did I spend the same on each kid? Did I balance out the numbers of gifts? What was less obvious to me was how caste rules play a role in the accumulation of material possessions. People of color in this country are told in subtle and not so subtle ways from day one that they are less. Lacking. For myself, I think part of my accumulation of stuff is an attempt to feel just as good as my peers who exist in upper caste stations. I think it’s partially about fear of not having enough but just as much about fear of not being enough.  

Probably the biggest revelation I had was that these things I accumulate end up adding to the clutter in our home, and the clutter has become like a fortress. I’m very introverted and highly empathic. So that makes me very protective of my space and who comes into it. There have been people who have come into this place that should be my sanctuary. My safe space became the opposite. And so, I’ve allowed my home to become—cultivated it—into this cluttered, uninviting mess. That seemed easier than standing up for myself and enforcing my boundaries.

I’m not sure when I stopped being able to say no and set boundaries for myself. When I was young it wasn’t an issue at all. I remember the end of seventh grade, a friend came to my house, and we planned to go hang out. When we got to my house, I had a message from my mom that I had to get rid of all the stuff from the school year that I didn’t need and generally clean up before I could go anywhere. This friend got bored and started tearing pages out of workbooks I was throwing out. She was adding to what I had to clean up. When I told her to stop, she escalated, and I seem to remember at some point her throwing water. In hindsight, I get it—she was just playing and trying to have some fun. Obviously, she watched too many afterschool specials that glorified that nonsense. My patience quickly ran out, and I kicked her out of my house.  

I think the difference there was that we were peers and equals. There was no perceived hierarchy. But when it comes to families or elders that changes things. Caste training also plays a role when someone in a typically privileged position crosses lines. It becomes a little harder (for me anyway) to put a stop to unacceptable behaviors. That, however, is a different topic and a story for another day. The point is that the pattern of building walls of stuff instead of just creating healthier boundaries has come into question because it’s been out of control this holiday. Almost like insurance against anyone coming here.

Going into 2023, in addition to the motivation playlist and vision board I plan to create, I definitely have some work to do on these issues. I need to work on self-acceptance so I don’t feel the need to seek external acceptance. Likewise, I need to break the mental chains that tie worthiness to material objects. Last and most importantly, I need to stick to my boundaries so I can enjoy a comfortable and uncluttered home without fear that it will be overrun and that I will be trod on in the process.

Redefining My Own Beauty Standards

Image by Infrogmation of New Orleans

Recently, I’ve been thinking about standards of beauty, specifically what I find beautiful and attractive in myself and others, what I find unattractive in myself and others, where my beliefs around beauty originated, and whether the original beliefs still ring true. For at least a couple of years this has been something to grapple with because the aging process has drastically changed my appearance, but honestly, I had issues with it even when I was much younger. Coming to it now from a perspective of observing my actions and reactions is enabling me to do some internal restructuring, getting rid of that which simply isn’t true and redefining my standards according to my own truth.

Most of my beliefs, like those of many people, come from conditioning and having unrealistic beauty standards imposed upon us by different external sources like society or different influential industries. For a long time in our current culture, women in particular have received messaging that being super skinny with young, supple, unblemished pale skin, large breasts, and small hips were the only paths to being considered beautiful. Those messages are changing, but honestly, it’s too slow and there’s still a lot of discontent around appearance. Similarly, the male ideal has been tall, white, square jawed, and ripped, but not too big.

Societal standards have traditionally excluded entire races, ethnicities, and age groups from any hope of being considered beautiful. Even with the changes and the increased diversity that has emerged in the fashion and entertainment industries—the main influencers—there’s still an emphasis on thinness, paleness, and youth.

Being of Caribbean and Latina descent further complicates matters for me because of the added messaging around body proportions, colorism, and hair. And now I can add the effects of gravity and shifting body composition due to hormonal changes into the mix. Much of this dogma about the “wrongness” or undesirability of certain traits was filtered through the gaze of colonizers who were invested in dehumanizing those they oppressed and has been internalized and reinforced for generation after generation. This isn’t news. But until now, I never sat down to think about how it impacts me daily.

Weight and body image have been huge issues for me, especially after having kids. I went from fitting that super skinny ideal to the extreme opposite, which has left me at times feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, lumpy, and unattractive. I remember when I was around twelve or thirteen, someone drew a picture that was supposed to be me—a stick with a bubble a third of the way from the top and another bubble facing in the opposite direction just below center. While some people teased me, and I would later start actively trying to gain weight by chugging protein shakes (regrets! Hindsight!), for the most part, I could embrace my body and know that I had a body that others wanted. By my twenties, I was still thin enough to wear sexy outfits, but I was thick where it counted. That was when I lived in a more urban area surrounded by people who looked like me.

That changed when my environment did. Moving into predominantly white spaces, my thick thighs and heart-shaped booty suddenly seemed freakishly big. I felt fat for the first time. Little by little I started hiding in oversized clothes under the guise of being “comfortable.” Except I never was. Aging and hormonal changes pushed me to a weight where I was in physical pain and emotional misery over how big I had gotten. Despite what my doctor was telling me to the contrary, as recently as two years ago I saw myself as borderline obese. I think a lot of that had to do with being around people who had the similar proportions to me and thought that they were ridiculously overweight.

I also never saw myself as pretty. I would typically describe myself as cute, reasonably attractive (my body was the big gun in my arsenal before I got married), decent looking. Never pretty and beautiful? That would get a laugh from me. There were things I liked about my face, mostly my eyes which have always been big and kind of sleepy. I always liked my dimples, which is ironic since they’re technically a deformity, yet some rando decided they were cute. But I have a crossbite, which would have required breaking and resetting my jaw for six weeks to fix it. That makes my face appear asymmetrical and I’ve never felt comfortable with that part of my appearance. As I’ve gotten older, I notice that my face has changed too. My jaw seems squarer, and my nose seems larger, neither of which motivates me to enter any beauty contests. My skin is still pretty smooth, so there’s that.

Lastly, hair is always a big thing for black women. I didn’t even learn how to manage my hair in its natural state until I was in my forties. I relaxed it constantly until I was in my twenties and then had a few brief breaks of other styles—I had a high-top fade in college and wore dreadlocks for a few years until I chopped them off because I was pissed off at my stylist. (Because that would definitely show her!)

I find it interesting that my hair was typically the thing I struggled with the longest, but it was the first area where I was able to shift my thinking and standards. While it took me a while to learn and understand my natural curls, it wasn’t that hard to accept their beauty. I still have days where I cringe, but we all have bad hair days. Overall though, I love the different curl patterns and I’m even getting over worrying about frizz because as my hair turns grayer, the texture and curl patterns are changing too. For a while I dyed my hair purple because I didn’t have to bleach it, and it actually helped to minimize the frizz. However, I want it to turn all white. I think a head of all white hair is beautiful and elegant. So, I finally stopped dying it about a year ago. I love where it is these days, and I will refrain from bleaching and dying it white. I’ll just have to be patient.

Weight was the next area where I was able to embrace a new paradigm. What really got to me was that at my heaviest, I was in pain every day, and I felt like I couldn’t move. I was running, but the extra weight made something that was already challenging feel so much worse, and then I started injuring myself. Even training for half marathons wasn’t taking the weight off. As I process them now, my views on weight and the attractiveness of bodies are less about aesthetics and more about health. Numbers are less important than vitality, strength, and the ability to breathe, to move freely.

To me freedom of movement has always been beautiful. It’s why I’ve always loved to watch dance. And so, what I find beautiful now might be a thin lithe body, but it might also be a larger body. Once I changed my mindset to wanting to be healthy, it made shifting habits and changing lifestyle a lot easier. That was much more motivating that just wanting to fit into some old jeans. As my weight came more under control and reached a target number, other things started to change, and I became more intentional about what I consume, how I take care of this mobile home known as my body, and what I wear. I changed to a completely plant-based diet. I take care of my skin, which I never made time for. I am seeking clothes that feel good, not just look good.

I wonder if part of the reason society is so down on people who are overweight is because we somehow equate that with being unhealthy when that’s not necessarily true. There are plenty of skinny people who are unhealthy and plenty of bigger people who are quite healthy. Likewise with aging—it’s a reminder of our own mortality. No one wants to think of themselves as unhealthy, weak, or moving closer to death. So does that kind of fear-based thinking factor into our acceptance or rejection of someone as attractive? Beautiful? Our view of the world reflects ourselves, including our fears, so many of societies standards may very well be based on fear. At the very least, someone is feeding and profiting off the general public’s fear.

Now that I’ve find beauty in myself in these areas, my last hurdle is to find it in the image staring back at me through the mirror. That’s the hardest one, but my beliefs about my own appearance have taken fifty-plus years to sink in, and they won’t be driven out overnight. I’ve started by focusing on preserving and caring for the parts I like—taking care of my skin, especially around my eyes. The other day, I invested in a toner, eye serum, and revitalizing moisturizer with sunscreen. I’m not a fan of the moisturizer at the moment—it feels heavy and makes my face itch. Probably because I’m not used to feeling anything on my face. So, I’ll need to find something lighter. But it’s a start to what will be a trial-and-error process. After that, maybe I’ll start exploring some lip colors. And daily affirmations. Going into next year, I’m optimistic that someday, I’ll find beauty looking back at me.

Spirit of the Wolf Character Short: Nati’s First Heartbreak

Coming out of eleventh grade pre-calculus, Nati turned to look down the corridor, searching among the sea of bodies for the one face she knew better than her own. Rhonda, her best friend for the past ten years, was Nati’s opposite in every way. Ebony skin contrasted with Nati’s honey complexion. Rhonda wore goddess braids that hung to her full hips, while Nati was athletically built and wore her silky hair in a pixie cut.

When she spotted Rhonda, Nati groaned inwardly. Isaiah was in his soccer uniform and slides, cleats in one hand. He leaned in to say something. Rhonda laughed in that way Nati could hear in her mind even over the hundreds of voices and footsteps of the other students in the hall. She spotted Nati then and waved wildly like one of those crazy windsocks that enticed people into car dealerships. Plastering on a fake smile, Nati waved back.

Outside the building ten minutes later, she couldn’t take the whispers and giggles any longer. She started towards home.   

“Nati, wait!” Rhonda came running up behind her. “What are you doing?”

“I have things to do. Standing around watching you giggle at Isaiah isn’t on the agenda.” It came out harsher than Nati meant it to, and she silently kicked herself.

Rhonda stopped and grabbed Nati’s arm, forcing her to turn. “Okay, what is your problem? Every time he’s around you start acting like a bitch.”

Nati glared and wrenched out of Rhonda’s grip. “No, you’re rude and I’m not your third wheel.”

Rhonda crossed her arms and squinted one eye, which meant she was studying Nati like a math problem. “Nah, fam. That ain’t it. Oh my God, do you like him? That’s why you’re mad?”

“What? No!”

“Why wouldn’t you tell me? I’m you’re best friend! If I knew—”

“I don’t like him.”

“It’s not a big deal, Nat. I’m not that into him. I’ll back off.”

Nati huffed out a breath and covered her face with both hands. She’d known for months now that this moment was coming, and she’d dreaded it every day. When she pulled her hands away, her face chilled where the remnants of her tears remained. “Rhonda, I don’t like Isaiah, but yes, seeing you together makes me jealous. There, I said it.”

Rhonda’s shoulders relaxed. “Come on, girl. It’s not like any dude will come between us. Chicks before—”

“It’s not that,” Nati mumbled.

“Well then what? I don’t und—”

“I have feelings for you.” Nati looked Rhonda in the eye. “More than friendship feelings.”

Rhonda’s mouth hung open, and she stared at Nati, speechless. Nati felt her own face crumple and pressure built in her throat as if someone were squeezing her windpipe. And her heart—cracks were splintering through it. Little by little pieces fell away until it was just a pile of rubble in her chest.

Nati ran.

~*~

The next morning, Nati buried herself under the covers and pillows when her brother Asim knocked on the door.    

“Nat, let’s go! We’re gonna be late!”

If she ignored him, he’d just barge in, and she didn’t want him to see her all red-eyed and swollen-nosed. “Not going. I’m sick.”

He came into the room. “Bullshit. I’d feel it if you were sick—twin privilege. And how come Rhonda’s not here? You two have a fight?”

In her haze of humiliation and misery, Nati forgot to factor in that Rhonda always picked her up in the mornings. “No.”

The blanket was ripped out of her grip, and Asim wrestled the pillow away from her. “What the hell, Nati? What’s wrong with you?”

“Asim, just leave me alone, please. I don’t want to talk about it. I can’t…” Her throat seized up as a new wave of tears began.

Spindly arms wrapped around her, and her head was pulled to the crook of Asim’s neck.

“Sis, what happened? Whatever it is, you can tell me.”

Could she? If losing Rhonda was devastating, the same reaction from Asim would strike her dead on the spot. This was the only secret she’d ever kept from him. Nati cried for long moments, anticipating what Asim might say. If she couldn’t trust him, there wasn’t a single person on the planet she could. “I told Rhonda… that… I… have feelings for her.”

Nati waited for Asim to tense up, to pull away. He kept hugging her and rubbing slow circles on her back. After a minute, he said, “I guess she didn’t take it well?”

“What? I don’t know. She didn’t say anything and then I kind of ran away.”  

She felt Asim shake his head. After a while, he said, “Okay, stay here.”

“Why?” Her voice rose an octave. “What are you about to do?” Nati clung to Asim’s wrist as he tried to get up.

“Nothing. Just stay here.” He left the room.

Had she been wrong about being able to trust him? But that was impossible. The main reason she hadn’t told him before was because she hadn’t wanted to accept the truth herself. With no hope left, Nati pulled the covers back up and curled into a ball.

A few minutes later, the door opened. When she peeked out, Asim was kicking it shut. He had a tray with two mugs and two foil packets that looked like toaster cakes. His laptop was snuggled under one arm. “I told Jaddi we both ate something bad at school yesterday. You know he doesn’t trust the lunches. And I brought cocoa and strawberry cakes. Scoot over.”

Nati’s eyes began to leak again. “You didn’t have to—”

“Shut up. What are we watching? Netflix or anime?” Asim sat and swung his legs up onto the bed. “And don’t worry about Rhonda. You probably just caught her off guard. She’ll probably be knocking on the door after school.”

She hoped he was right as she lay her head on his shoulder and accepted one of the steaming mugs.