Choosing My Curves is a series by Melanie Yvette Martin. It follows her journey to find self-love and to embrace her curvy body as a Black woman. Read her first segment here and join the conversation on social media using the hashtags #ChoosingMyCurves and #ODotSchool. We want to hear your stories, too.
“You’re not a virgin, you can’t be.“
“Uh, yeah I am. Why couldn’t I be?”
“Because…you’re mad curvy.”
It’s 2005 and I’m 18 years old. I’m on the phone with a guy who claims he likes me and is sure he knows my virginity status.
“Hey, just a note: Next time, don’t wear anything that shows your curves like that.“
“Um…okay, thank you for the advice, but I have on a pencil skirt and a formal blouse from The Gap.”
“Yes, but you know you’re very womanly, so just be aware of that.”
It’s 2010 and I’m graciously meeting a hopeful mentor at a radio station while wearing a gray button-down top and a knee-length pencil skirt.
These are just a few moments from my 20s when people assumed things about my sexual experience because of how my body looked, and felt compelled to share their own discomfort with my curves.
Because I had a big butt and wide hips, the assumption had long been that I was an overtly sexual woman (and there is nothing wrong with that, if you are). I had “baby making hips,” as gross adult men would call them, even when I was a child. At younger ages, adults often told me I was “grown” because of how my body had developed. This took a mental toll on me for years because I felt like, acted like, and was a child, yet I was gawked at like a spectacle and treated like a woman seeking attention. It was detrimental to my sense of self.
By the time I was in college, I would look for ways to hide my body by wrapping sweaters around my waist or, during one short period of time, dressing as conservatively as I could. I didn’t want people to think I was “fast” or “easy,” but I also wanted to feel and dress sexy and feminine. Once in a while, I did allow myself to get dolled up and go out wearing the clothing I actually liked — like when my college friends and I went dancing in tight hot pink dresses. But it felt like I wasn’t wearing those dresses — they were wearing me, and my body was “too much.” Sadly, that is probably a normal experience for women in their 20s like me who are actually secure and confident, but have been made to feel less than by everyone else.
It was the worst mental back and forth. I thoroughly enjoyed sexier, more feminine clothes, but I couldn’t shake the idea that my curvy body meant I shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy them. So the rest of the time, I’d wear sweatpants and tie sweatshirts around my waist, hoping to avoid catcalls. Looking back at my college pictures, I want to shake 23-year-old Melanie so she’ll stop stressing over what she thinks other people see when they notice her body. But I know it’s never that simple.
That internal battle — my innate confidence versus societal standards that put me in a box — persisted. I emotionally struggled for years because I actually didn’t dislike what I saw when I looked at my body — but the world didn’t agree with my confidence. This is something that many women battle regularly, especially Black women and women of color.
Moving to New York City after college provided a bit of relief thanks to the do you energy that exists here. But beyond that, I had started therapy when I was 25 after my dad died, and I decided to address the issues I had with my body. The years-long journey of unlearning and unpacking years of self-doubt has been worth it, and I’ve gotten closer to the root of my body image issues.
Still, though, I’ve found myself dealing with a handful of men who have challenged this new, healthier way of viewing myself.
I had started enjoying sex as a natural expression of self. As I got older, I understood more nuanced ways of being sexually liberated — from learning how to enjoy casual encounters to having fun dancing sensually for a partner. I was having a ball testing the waters and realizing what I liked and didn’t like. I had luckily met partners who made me feel comfortable discussing my desires, which taught me how to be vocal in the bedroom.
So when I began a “situationship” with a new man, I was pretty confident in myself — and then I learned that was a problem for him. During a conversation about sex, he told me that I needed to be “careful with how I present my sexual confidence to men” because of my looks. He basically meant, “Don’t be so confident in your sexuality because men will feel insecure about it.”
It was an unsolicited, raggedy piece of “advice” that I’d run into time and time again in relationships. He didn’t mean well either; he meant to make me feel as though I needed to contain how sexually free and confident I was because it made him uncomfortable. That my confidence wouldn’t be received well because women who look like me are already assumed to be overtly sexual, so it was “too much” to actually… be sexual. Though, of course, he enjoyed that confidence when we were together.
Obviously, that situationship ended, but our conversation woke me up, propelling me into an even deeper self-love. I now understood that I had to get even more serious about reclaiming my body from these attitudes. I had to drown out the negative talk that I’d still hear, even if I was already going to therapy and working on myself.
My body is mine. If I want to have sex, not have sex, show it off in sexy clothes, or not show it off, that is my choice. I will no longer succumb to the idea that my body, the way I exist, is just “too much.”