Choosing My Curves is a new series by Melanie Yvette Martin. It follows her journey toward self-love and learning to embrace her curvy body as a Black woman. Look out for new segments every other week and join the conversation on social media using the hashtags #ChoosingMyCurves and #ODotSchool! We want to hear your stories, and will be featuring them on our social accounts throughout the next few months.
“Aren’t you going to put a cover-up over your bathing suit?”
My mom asked this with a slight scoff that, at the time, I don’t think she meant or even knew she emitted. But I remember the moment so clearly and the question so vividly because that was the first day I saw the insecurity that she had unknowingly passed down to me. I saw her facial expression, and remember it saying to me, “how are you even thinking about wearing that when you look like…that?”
I was home for college, and my best friend Gio and I were heading to a pool party. Maybe in summer 2006? 2007? Not sure, but it was one of those summers during college that you couldn’t stay on campus, so I was home in Maryland for the season. Gio was scooping me up in her two-door Solara; she always had the best car out of our crew. I was so excited to hit the party and see some of my friends from our all-girls’ high school. A nighttime pool party with cuties on deck and with our old high school flames? Um, yes.
We were getting ready for the party in my room; Gio was doing her makeup in my mirror and I was looking for some shorts to wear. I had the cutest bikini on and I was ready to show off booty and body. My parents’ room was pretty much directly across from mine, so when my mother walked by, she could easily see everything going on in my room. So when she stopped in her tracks and asked me if I was going to cover up, I felt a pang of insecurity.
That moment sparked a catalyst to the decade-long journey I experienced trying to understand what exactly was wrong with my body. I would go on yearning for her approval, which really made zero sense for me. I got my body from her.
Why would I cover up? It’s my bathing suit, I laughed. But, my humor soon disappeared as I stared at my mom’s face for a bit longer. She, of course, loved me. But in that moment, I had a feeling that this was about something else. Maybe she was upset that I was happy in the body she gave me. There was this quick realization that she wasn’t mad at me for not wanting to cover up. She was mad at the void — a void of self-love she had incubated in herself for years and years.
This moment may have been one of the few that would also lead me to a path of questioning my self-love, body, and ownership of both until I was about 28 years old.
There were many moments I was made aware that my body was “different.” But to me, there was nothing that different or unique about the way I looked at all. Smaller waist with wide hips and a butt? That was every woman in my family.
What I had to realize was that my body wasn’t different because of the way it looked; it was different because of the way it made people feel. I had been looked at funny, cat-called, and harassed on the street. Older men gawked at me when I was 16 because I looked “grown.” Older women in my community would classify me as “fast” or assume I was sexual with the boys because hips “never lied.” Were they jealous? I hated to assume, but snide comments about my body and smug looks felt real personal.
The boys in college never believed me when I said I was a virgin because I was so curvy. Everything I wore was “too much” because nothing covered my body enough to not make other people feel uncomfortable. Why did I have to worry about what I was wearing as a 14-year-old around Mr. DeVaughn* in middle school when he was the one who would look at me and the other “developed” girls?
Having the outside world judge my appearance, however, was very, very different than my own mother doing so. Especially when she passed down the very hips, beautiful big legs and pronounced curves she herself did not approve of.
My mom had passed down her body to me but hadn’t been able to gift me with the confidence I needed to maneuver it around in this world. I was always her “beautiful baby boo.” Her “chocolate drop” and her “gorgeous baby girl.” But it was hard for her to pour from a cup that wasn’t full. While I wouldn’t understand this in that very moment, I sensed at the time that this had nothing to do with me or the bikini I was wearing.
Yes, I knew that my body was different, but I didn’t understand why.
It would be my father’s unique feminist teachings that would balance the insecurities. His encouraging-yet-blunt Taurus-led tone and very vocal ways of supporting me were the main reasons I didn’t question myself as much as I could have. Whether it was one of my cheerleading competitions or singing talent shows, it was his voice in the back of my mind reminding me I was fine just the way I was.
However, this didn’t negate the times I did have low self-esteem.
I struggled with body confidence until about 2014, a good year after my daddy’s death. In addition to the pain of losing him, I felt lost when it came to the relationships that I had with other men. They suddenly seemed turned off at times by the fact that I felt good about my body.
That recurring pattern of me internally battling my natural instinct to be confident against “the world” that didn’t believe I had the right to was exhausting. But it also led me to understand something significant about my mother and her own secret body issues.
I see now that my mother questioned my confidence at that moment, not because she was ashamed or upset at what she saw when she looked at me. She just never gave herself permission to look at her body and love it as is.
I would begin to understand that my mom had possibly been conditioned to believe that the way her body looked wasn’t beautiful. And this wouldn’t be any fault of her own given the pressures society puts on women. I think about how my generation struggles, and yet how far we’ve come in comparison to our mothers’ and the generation before that. Not to say all women were haunted by low self-esteem — I won’t assume that. But I will go on a ledge and say that it feels like my generation is much more accepting and body-positive than we give ourselves credit for.
I’d like to say that the millennial and Gen Z generation are working to unlearn negative thoughts and patterns when it comes to self-love.
The long journey of teaching myself how to hide my body and shrink myself, would eventually help me understand that this experience is something bigger than myself, and really had little to do with me. My internal fight was against a society that has still to this day finds ways to remind women that they will never be enough. My encounters with individuals who believed this to be true affected me, but essentially their issues with how I looked were theirs, not mine.
I got it from my mama, yes. Body, booty, curves and all. But I would have to learn, many times the hard way, how to love it fully, all the time.
*names were changed