Writer Kuchenga reflects on her personal challenges as a dark-skinned black woman to love herself in a world confronted with images and critics that make that challenge even harder
I have been on a representation high recently. I subscribed to The Underbelly App and have been getting acquainted with my new yoga mat with Jessamyn Stanley. I stayed away for years because I felt as I gained weight, in recovery from drug addiction, that this made me less eligible to be an attendee of the yoga classes I first enjoyed. In active addiction I got down to a size 10 dress size. Even though my bum still belched out of lululemon leggings, I had accomplished my intention of not looking slovenly and lumpen in an ashtanga yoga class with all the other svelte, mostly white, women. Dissociation induced by my hypervigilance meant I could scan whilst looking down on the room and point myself out as the one who did not belong there. After abandoning my body for so long, recovery necessitated that I returned back to myself and made a new home out of my body. I resolved to stop declaring war on my body with diet after diet. I got myself well again, but no one warned me that becoming healthier meant I would get bigger. Bigness and health were antithetical in my mind. The deprogramming that I was blessed with in therapy made me confront the internalised misogyny. To take up space with my boisterous opinions and a bodacious sensuality had to be welcomed. Jessamyn Stanley started turning up in my social media feeds and every time she did, I absolutely LOVED what she was saying. Then one rainy day last summer I had the most refreshing experience. I popped into a department store sports department to purchase a new hoodie and there she was modelling for Adidas. My confidence soared joyously out of the roof and contentment drizzled down and into me.
More joy followed. I am guilty of posting every new photo shoot of Gia Love’s on my Instagram stories because her beauty astounds me. I was ecstatic to see Fatima Jamal grace the cover of Dust Magazine with Kate Moss and the designer Stefano Pilati who she walked for in his fall/winter 2020 show in Italy. Felicity Noire is devastatingly pretty, has such a banging silhouette and has been the main inspiration for my wardrobe choices for quite a while now. My inner child is fizzing with the excitement that I live in a world where girls like us get to be big and black and beautiful so unashamedly.
Even the way someone may stumble down from a shoddily made pedestal can make me smile. Lizzo’s Instagram is often touted as a treasure trove of fat acceptance, self-love and body celebration. The furore which engulfed her gave me much to relate to. She posted that she had recently enjoyed doing a juice cleanse. I chuckled. In every place of work a cleanse or a detox would be arbitrarily announced in the staff room by a female colleague. As far as I could tell the benefits were mostly psychological. Still, it was a digestive system reset my Grandma would insist upon throughout my childhood and adolescence. Even the mildest outburst of flatulence would lead to an immediately executed ‘wash out’ with cerasee tea. “Lorrrrd Kashanga! What a way yuh belly bad! Yuh need a good WASH OUT!!!” *wide eyes emoji* I would groan and harumph my way into the kitchen where she had poured the herbal tea from the saucepan into a mug. The steaming cup of impossibly bitter brewed herbaceousness would halt at my lips because I was so reluctant to swallow it. My Jamaican drill sergeant would then bark “JUST DRINK IT IN ONE AN’ STOP YUH NOISE!” The original flat tummy tea treatment. A frightfully administered militarist intervention. So when I saw Lizzo saying that she was giving herself a cleanse that involved drinking sweet tasting juice my inner child was jealous. I couldn’t believe the ferocity of the attacks on her because to my mind, it wasn’t that deep. My girl had just wanted to drink a lil’ bit o’ juice?! Many useful things were said about the perils of diet culture and how felonious cleanses and detoxes feed into the collectively destructive mindsets of eating disorders and dysfunctional eating more generally. However, why is it always fat black women who seem to garner the angriest comments about our exceedingly human choices and behaviours. Roxane Gaye and Gabourey Sidebe have spoken of feeling like they were letting down the fat community by going public with their weight loss surgeries. I myself shy away from discussing my experiences of liposuction and other procedures I’ve done over the years. Such ethical purity is demanded of fat black women and I think it feeds into the vestiges of mammyfication people project onto us. It’s time for people to grow up. Allow things you long to hear like: “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” to be your own personal affirmations that you say into the mirror. I, for one, am too busy affirming myself.
The confidence that I have fought for has been rewarded with modelling opportunities. I love the camera. However, there are times when I ask those involved in the creation of the images ‘How can you possibly see that as the best possible shot from the day?’ Some might say this is a universal occurrence I am sure, but being Black means I ask the question with more trepidation. Of course I can emphatically state that this is my highly subjective opinion in case anyone reading this is scrutinising my ability to fully assess the dynamics of whatever situation I find myself in. But let’s be clear: I am not the one, I am not the first and I am most definitely not the only. For example, Vanity Fair’s first black photographer for their cover last year chose Viola Davis as a subject and modelled her on ‘The Scourged Back’ photograph popularised by the slavery abolition movement in the run up to the American civil war. It’s power being undeniable, critique mainly centred around dark skinned black women in contemporary artistic imagery being so jarringly thematically linked to violence and punishment. A thread started by the culinary historian and author Michael Twitty, highlighted the disparity he felt was clearly evident in photos taken of him by white and black photographers. What I latched onto most keenly in his comment, is the tendency for photographers and/or creative teams to select images of me where I am ‘mid-expression’. I see this is the case with many dark-skinned models. The way people see us is … off. Obviously, this is impacted by the politics of ‘the gaze’. Why would someone purposely choose a shot when one is clearly in between poses? For me it betrays a committed intent. I believe that is how they see our features. So raw and unrefined are our features considered to be, that to the capturer, they verge on the grotesque. Our beauty being deemed not classically beautiful because we are not Eurocentric looking, in their eyes, means that our images become gargoyled. That is what their images capture – their bias.
What to do with this disappointment? One might posit that it’s simply a matter of representation behind the camera. However, the examples of Tyler Mitchell photographing Kamala Harris for Vogue and the aforementioned Vanity Fair shoot with Viola Davis photographed by Dario Calmese indicate that it takes more than just hiring a black photographer or creative team to create imagery that accords the Black models with the deserved reverence for their beauty and dignity. One must ask who has the power of their image. The difference between Issa Rae’s photo shoots for Time and Essence magazine respectively highlights how overwhelmingly different the results can be. In Time she looks sad, cold and hungry. But with Essence? Well! They came through. She looks vibrant, sensual and glows from the inside. It’s literally night and day. It’s more than lighting. It’s about having love for who is in front of the camera. If that person is yourself and you are trying to love yourself – or anyone you love – one can’t hand over the agency for rendering your beauty for posterity to others. Issa knows this well – the visual aesthetics of Insecure are landmark. One could refer to ‘The Moonlight Effect’ because the bar was raised by what they achieved with that film. However, the most shining example of who is the premier architect of their own black image is most definitely Beyoncé. Through the depiction of her indomitable work ethic and dedication in the documentaries ‘Life Is But A Dream’ and ‘Homecoming’, we see a black woman who is autonomous and in the seat of her own power – using her agency to create images which define culture.
The moments which gave me succour were when she was merely looking at the screen and absorbing what she saw. Analysing what needs to be rectified. That’s what I long for – to have the power to look at imagery of myself and be the one deciding what gets shared. As a model that has not been afforded to me … yet. In the meantime, as a writer and a creative I have had to develop a dependency on black art makers in order to indulge in the affirmative power of their imagery. Through them, I recharge myself in order to help create my own work. I get high on seeing myself represented. I feel hypnotised when watching ‘Daughters of The Dust’. I can enter another realm when I see the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. The painting ‘Knave’ in particular which has informed the way I see my novel’s main character infinitely. And of course, Mikael Owunna’s metaphysical series ‘Infinite Essence’ which is elegiac in how it portrays the black body as almost immortal in the way it gives us whole galaxies in which to shine. These artists give me the belief that I deserve elegiac praise simply for being – not based on what I endure – who I can actually be. I can admit that I long to experience consistently what they have given me. They have me convinced – even someone as othered as me, is worthy of worship.