I am unsure where my journey begins – what part has been pure and unadulterated experience and what has become essentially process, where the journey has become both means to an end and an end in itself. I’ve always instinctively been reflective, eager for knowledge, passionate about justice and humanity, stubbornly critical and questioning, deeply spiritual – necessitating growth had always been the subliminal underbelly of my life. Real reflection, growth and healing can only take place with consciousness and work. That journey as experience and process, the journey as decolonial praxis perhaps then only began for me three years ago.
The Past as Present
Heartbreak for many of us can become the impetus for this kind of shift in our lives, the basis by which we in attempting to rebuild ourselves choose to love differently, unashamedly, difficultly, courageously in the name of a different kind of politics. Three years ago the love of my life left me, someone I for the first time in life felt my whole and entire body, breath, being move with, I could not imagine a future without him and whatever small world we had built. I could not imagine myself without him and when that moment came, when I had resigned to losing both the love and lover that had formed a new self, the only self I now knew I had to make the realest decision I have ever made.
My friends poured into me in a new way, offered me the space, the Women of Colour feminist work I was becoming with in my academic life spilled wholeheartedly into my ruins. I was given promise here, an opportunity for renewal and redemption, an opportunity to be better, to make sense and make way of my life (personal and political, individual and collective). I had now for the first time in my life encountered the chance to love – wholeheartedly and fully.
This love by no means was easy, it was part of the decolonial shedding of skin, it was the vision of something much more powerful than being in love and in desire (shout out to bell hooks and M. Scott Peck – thought, reading and writing offer the most pivotal salvation in the form of books and the word). It offered in exchange for the difficult and often painful work, commitment, kindness, care, nurture, and living where everyday even in its circumstance made way for small mercies, small joys, small fulfilments. I came to know friendship as the real site of love and myself as the most invigorating site of transformation.
The growth was real. But decolonial living and loving are life long journeys, it is a practice and set of tools to envision, imagine, to challenge the very systems that those of us who exist on the margins live on and within. We are tested often and in new ways.
Two years in to this, content where I was in my progress I opted to give romantic love a chance (the romantic in me never says no to love) when the heart offered itself to a new beloved. I entered that space excited and eager to test my new approach to love on a man who was too naked. Aside from the fact that some connections are spiritual and no rational or logic), this choice to love meant a responsibility for my new emotional/mental/intellectual self.
I shed my skin perhaps too quickly into what I thought was the safe of a man’s heart/chest. Story cut short, all my demons came baring their spirit in full dance – taunting the both of us. He drew out each and every insecurity I had and it began with the thing I had neglected to confront for many years but was the source of many issues (resolved and unresolved) I had growing up about love, men, whiteness, my sexuality, my relationship to my race, culture, gender and religion.
The moment he told me I did not look like the women he had dated/loved/been attracted to before me – I was not thin enough nor was I the right type of ‘thick’ - was the moment the war began and where our love (barely in full bloom) ended. I spent the next year begging him to love what I hated, seeking appreciation, validity for the thing I had hated myself for for thirteen years. When he refused to give this, I began to punish both of us.
Not a day would go by where I would not remind him or myself about what he had said. I felt guilty eating, would leave stores on the helm of panic attacks, and spend my nights watching my body in disgust – comparing myself to the long list of women he clearly found attractive, counting the ways I did not – always crying, a perennial shaming of who and what I was. I was either not enough or too much.
The Present as Past and Future
I remembered what it was that isolated me into long bouts of sadness, loneliness and depression as a child, unable to forge healthy relationships with my family, friends and lovers. I looked in the mirror and recalled the chubby, hairy, Pakistani girl with braces and glasses, who did not look like any of her white peers (they were often delicate, fragile, a desired whiteness and femininity I stood in complete juxtaposition to), who was reminded by men, boys, family that this would be the basis by which I could not and would not be loved, the many boys and men of colour I would encounter that actively chose to love white women at the denigration of black and brown women, or who shoved me into a corner where I did not fit into for many physical (and intellectual/emotional) reasons policed by the idea of ‘acceptable’, ‘worthy’ or ‘loveable’ women, the levels of physical and sexualised violence that affected most of the women’s bodies around me.
This was carrying well into my ‘adult’ life in similar and at times different ways. It was the uncomfortable hyper-sexualisation I pushed onto the men and women I wanted meaningful romantic relationships with, the multitude of alter-egos I adopted, my relationship to food, and the fear of my own wildness/resistance that on the one hand brought me joy because I was always different and on the other entirely misunderstood, hopeless, unsure any kind of real or full love would come my way as this ‘type’ of woman. White Supremacist Capitalist Ableist Imperialist Patriarchy was lived here.
By the following summer everything had reached boiling point, he left me a month before my Master’s dissertation (on how British South Asian Women relate to the politics of representation in their lives, knee deep in WOC feminist work, Fanon and Stuart Hall) was due. I sought salvation in one of the most important women in my life’s home and the mercy of Ramadan. The months following were testing emotionally, mentally and physically.
Whilst I was digging deeper than ever, writing and processing some of my own painful experiences, trying to make sense of why it was I struggled to love myself, how I could let someone – and in particular a man – into my life who could police me into such degradation and self-hatred despite my tough-girl politics, seeing the fruits of that self-care, reclamation and ownership,
I was also losing weight. I gave up meat a year and a half ago part-detox, part-politics-of-sustainability, started yoga to combat the insomnia and migraines I was experiencing under the stress, working out partly to try and lose weight (and namely the weight I had gained under my relationship before last that had consumed me so much in such a stressful and dangerous capacity that apparently now made me entirely undesirable) and partly because my mum pre-diabetic and with a family history of heart disease forced me to consider ‘healthier’ lifestyle choices. The weight loss was slow as was the work I was doing to reconcile what it meant to unashamedly love everything about me.
After three months of being away, two of which I spent in New York the happiest I’ve ever been, the weight dramatically shifted. I was working out four times a week as a de-stresser and newfound joy in seeing how my body responded emotionally and physically (strength, endurance, flexibility) to this regime. I had also subconsciously given up eating a lot of processed sugar, love for dessert I thought I’d never be able to let go off, whilst I was in Central America. I am now the smallest I’ve ever been, wearing things I would have been too conscious to wear that i feel reflect my expression of self; almost happy with how I look in the mirror, a little more courageous and comfortable, letting go of the heartbreak and resentment.
The Future as Possibility
The key part for me is almost. I tell this confessional because it is bound up in so many dangerous, human contradictions I am trying to decolonise out loud alongside others. As a Muslim, South Asian, Queer, Woman of Colour born and raised in Britain, my body continues to be a site where a multitude of oppressions – sometimes physical, sometimes structural, always emotional and mentally – play out. More importantly, the bodily surface becomes the intermediate where two often-conflicting worlds meet – the internal subjective and the external objective, material, lived reality: the place where identity forms, where experience is mediated, where we embody both these realms.
My political identity and practice, my desire to not only resist and challenge but dream and live a life that gives room for this level of political and personal love means I cannot accept that I be judged, weighed up, defined by the eyes of somebody or something that seeks to undermine my humanity.
I cannot accept that my self-esteem be determined by how I look and not by the contents of who I am. I cannot let body-shaming or losing weight for example be the point of departure for accepting or loving my body. And yet, I am simultaneously human caught up with the struggle, still trying to decolonise my own embodied experiences so that I may get to choose (and again choice is always relative here, always limited) who I am, who I want to be, how I live with as much critical and resisting agency as possible, so that other women too may be able to do so.
I am open and honest about my contradictions and about this struggle, how I am not always kind to myself, this entire journey. I started ‘The Body Narratives’ to help me understand, to make sense of, to connect, grow, build, heal – always heal into full bloom, full reclamation, into full fantasy of daring to dream in a world that says women like us in particular cannot. I want to know for my own selfish reasons and because there has been nothing more liberating than the sorority that comes with shared experiences in safe spaces, good and bad.
So with this, with owning my own truth, I offer up this space for us to: question, reflect, hold to account, celebrate, make sense, falter with, hold up, nurture, encourage, intellectualise, spiritualise, humanise, listen to, care, be mindful of, dream, create, express, heal, accept, forgive, know joy with, transform, know mercy, resist, renegotiate, own, love and be loved, defining our reclaimed selves by way of all the ways in which our body belongs to ourselves.
Photo courtesy of the Portland Independent Media Center