After a day of making mud pies, one of my favorite things to do as a little girl was to climb “the mountain” (my grandfather’s station wagon) and gaze past my yard, past the street, past the wild field beyond that, past the distant highway and even past the smokestacks of the quarry beyond that. In my mind’s eye I’d see beyond all that was known to me to the world that I would discover one day as a photojournalist. Thanks to strict TV rules and PBS, I already had my future mapped out.
But the world around me had other ideas about who I would be. Southern traditions demanded unquestioned obedience punctuated by “yes, Sirs” and “no, Maams.” Answers about the who, the what and the whys of life took a back seat to making the honor roll and learning how to play the violin better than the Jones’ little girl. Meanwhile, I watched the aunties, play cousins and Maams in my life frantically diet, pick each other apart and endure familial abuse of all kinds. The message was clear. Life as a woman was all about constantly comparing yourself to and competing with other women, and wearing the badge of being a long-suffering sister for the sake of your family and community.
Entering a local beauty pageant in my teen years was an essential part of my escape plan to college. But there was a problem. No one told this wide-eye dreamer that pageants were about image, not scholarships. During the pre-trails a judge, with a nasty sneer, said that I looked too matronly. I dropped down to 135 pounds and was still the largest, breasts and all, in the competition. All I really wanted was a couple of grand for school, an A&W root beer float and a burger with extra pickles. But I plastered a goofy smile on my face and kept going. I lost, but was enthusiastically told by judges afterwards that if I dropped another 10-15 pounds I would be a shoe-in next year. No thank you.
I think about my youth a lot when Etang and I are preparing for the Girls Raks Bellydance and Body Image Program. The painful memories of the labels that others placed on us while we were girls are the reason we are adamant about providing a non-competitive space for self-definition. During our Head and Heart sessions, we explore the language that we use when we talk to ourselves, to other women and girls, and the language that is planted in our ears by our culture, family and friends. And because bellydance was key to helping us to discover our whole selves from inside out, the dance portion of the program is sprinkled with body-positive messages. By learning that her body is capable of doing wondrous things, like a hip drop, a girl can begin to consider that she is capable of more than she has ever imagined. Girls Raks helps her peer over the mountains of negativity to a world of limitless possibilities.
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