It’s 1992, and incense is burning on a crisp fall afternoon on Church Avenue in Brooklyn. I was a Catholic schoolgirl living with my Guyanese immigrant parents and two older siblings. Church Avenue is home to many West Indian immigrants seeking the American dream while carrying with them their traditions and culture. Naturally, first generation American youth struggle as I did to help my parents accustom to American life as they fought to keep our traditions.
My siblings and I didn’t understood the “thin is in” American culture. And while we bowed to the European aesthetic of straight hair by way of relaxers and hot combs, we knew our thighs and our curves were a symbol of our culture, our ancestors, and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” was our battle cry.
I was a lot of things growing up. I was shy, nerdy, and awkward. But overweight wasn’t one of them. I knew of women with hips wide to cradle new generations and breasts large for the children they bore. They weren’t fat. They were mothers, sisters and friends. My elementary school was located in a predominantly West Indian neighborhood. My high school was the polar opposite. It was a melting pot of cultures. I loved the diversity. I welcomed the other cultures. Freshman year I became a child of divorce and a survivor of sexual abuse. The unrest rocked me to the core. I couldn’t tell my parents what had been happening under their roof for more than a decade. The secret began to eat away at me, and I suddenly started to overeat to keep the secret from leaving my lips. The pressures of a broken home and low self-esteem brought me to a place of chaos. There was very little I could do to self-soothe. I couldn’t express myself, throw temper tantrums, or act like a typical angry teenager. From the words of my grandmother, “Children are to be seen, not heard.” I was stuck in the middle of a broken home, poor self-esteem, and debilitating flashbacks.
Black girls didn’t have eating disorders. They didn’t have depression. I thought that only happened to my white classmates. Binge eating replaced my slight overeating. Food was an acceptable coping mechanism and replaced the thumb sucking of my childhood. It was a welcomed distraction. In my culture there was no such thing as overeating. Holidays meant piles of food lovingly handed to you the moment you walked in the door. You could never eat too much, unlike the saying, “You can never be too skinny or too rich.” I wasn’t popping pills or smoking marijuana like some of my classmates. There was no way I could get away with that. My parents were like hawks, so food was all I had.
When high school started I matured into a size 6 with a 36D bra. Suddenly my bubble butt wasn’t the only attraction. I was bursting out of my clothes in both directions, and the opposite sex definitely took notice. I didn’t want to be a sexual object. I was uncomfortable in my skin. I was no longer a child, but suddenly a moving target. The objectification wasn’t just at home anymore; it moved into the only space I thought I had left. I wanted to be invisible so I could mourn the loss of my childhood. I wanted to be invisible to the eyes and mouths of men that objectified me. I felt exposed 24/7. I wanted the outside world to be the sanctuary my home never was. I later realized that Brooklyn was going to be a hard place for that to happen. By senior year my anxiety knew no bounds.
Buffalo State College was the only school to accept me. I fantasized of running away from my past, being free from the eyes in my neighborhood. Buffalo had to be different. I accepted their offer sight unseen and packed for college. An eight-hour drive away meant a low possibility of surprise visits. I could feel free to breathe. I was going to be free from my abuser, free from scrutiny, expectations and stereotypes. I unknowingly packed my trauma with me. As the flashbacks became more frequent, I realized that overeating alone wasn’t going to cut it. Freshman year was punctuated with cutting, suicide ideation, anti-depressants, and coming out of the closet. When panic attacks meant missing class and painting with my girlfriend in my dorm, I decided to pursue fine arts instead of psychology. New York City’s art scene was calling me home. The Fashion Institute of Technology was the dream school. It was the only school I applied to. It was the only one with a dorm at the time. I left BSC in the summer of 2002 to pursue painting in NYC. I dropped out before I even knew if I had been accepted to FIT only to realize I hadn’t.
As a college dropout, home became more volatile than ever. The schism in my home became larger, more traumatic. I suddenly was wearing my heart on my sleeve, piercings in my nose, and rainbow pins on my lapels. Fights around the dinner table about my looks, my orientation, and my claims of abuse were too much for my family and me. Suicide became a way out for all of my woes. Hate living at home? Scared to sleep, to live in the house as the black sheep? Kill myself. I would project myself to the moments in the quad where I could sit in peace miles away from my family. As the arguments progressively got more frequent I couldn’t ignore the freedom I felt while away from home. My options were to either kill myself or leave and become homeless. I refused to live under my parents’ thumb. I was going to depend on NYC, my high school friends, and connections for survival. I left home and started to couch hop. Along the way I picked up some new coping mechanisms.
I was smoking pot, drinking regularly, attempting suicide, and bingeing and starving. I was blacking out on trains, losing peripheral vision, and scaring the crap out of my new partner. The cycle of bingeing and starving was driving me insane. My therapist sent me for urine analysis weekly. She had hard proof my eating disorder was negatively affecting my treatment. She threatened to put me in inpatient rehabilitation, and there was no way I was going to let that happen. I made a pact with my eating disorder. I had to eat, and bingeing was better than starving any day. I thought I could be overweight and then I wouldn’t be a sexual object anymore. I could hide my curves and my breasts in a cocoon of my own hate, and I could be free to walk the streets without as much as a second look. I would be able to be under the radar, invisible and safe. I couldn’t be more wrong.
I got sick and tired of being a prisoner of my impulses and self-hate. I worked in vegan restaurants, juice bars, anywhere with healthy food so I could l transition into a healthier lifestyle. Bingeing on quinoa would be better for me than fast food any day. Incorporating healthier foods into my diet was easier than attempting a strict weight loss diet fad. Diets felt too restrictive. Finding the balance between healthy eating and a diet was a fine line. I tried cutting out dairy, carbs, sugars and caffeine, but it felt too much like the years before where every thought was consumed with what I was going to eat and what I wasn’t allowed to eat. It’s easy for me to go from healthy mindful eating and cleanses to flat out obsessive behavior, feelings of resentment and self -hatred. Eating without restriction meant I don’t punish myself. I could avoid the repetitive negative soundtrack in my mind.
Yoga brought some pause to an anxious racing mind. As a child when my body was used against me it felt like the enemy. I believed that my curves put me in harm’s way. It made me an object of sexual desire, a pawn for my abuser to use against me. In those moments of victimization I would float above my body to count the cracks in the ceiling and peer out the window to see the clouds. I wasn’t that powerless girl on the bed. I was flying free of all that beneath me. Growing older, I couldn’t blame my body for its curves. It wasn’t my fault I was abused. It was all I knew. It didn’t have the ability to reduce men to slaves of their loins, impulsions and carnal desire. They were adults without boundaries, morals and consent. Disassociating was an affective coping mechanism for compartmentalizing the abuse when I was a child. Aging into adulthood managed to find the cracks in this theory, and suddenly I had to face this issue and forgive my body. Healing and recovery meant the long road of acceptance.
There have been times that I have I regressed back to starving and restricting behaviors. It might be something I will always struggle with. I can only do my best today and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.
I’m 28-years-old now, and I still feel uncomfortable sometimes walking over to the plus-size section of stores. I still shake my fist at girls who have never experienced chub rub or boob sweat. I still turn the music up and scream the lyrics to “Baby Got Back” with reckless abandon. I call myself a foodie, a thick girl, curvy, voluptuous, hilarious, and wise beyond my years. I’m more than my past, more than my flaws, and more than the fantasies projected onto me. I can make myself. I’m hoping that one day I can go to the gym and ignore the calorie counter on the treadmill, not pull my shirt down when my tummy is exposed in the middle of the packed yoga class, easily go back for seconds at dinner, and celebrate how far I’ve come.
There will be successes and setbacks, but at least I know that I chose to be here, and to be empowered and proud of the meaning my body now represents. I don’t have to be victim to other people’s ideas and opinions about my body, because I am so much more than the skin I’m in.
Written by Lyssette Horne