My breasts looked like two compressed, all-beef patties bound together by Lycra.
I was sitting on the edge of a pool talking to my handsome, toned, swim instructor about my fear of the open water.
“Can we use a body double?” I asked.
Cassidy, the co-director of our documentary film Return of the Black Madonna, paused the film footage. The project, in early production, chronicles my quest to learn to swim, dive, and map sunken slave ships with a group of Black marine archeologists.
“I’d laugh, but I know you enough to know you’re serious,” Cassidy said. “We won’t use most of what we shoot. Be present and nonjudgmental.”
I tried to follow his advice as I watched the images of me on screen looking like a Happy Meal, and not in a good way. A nerve was struck, and it was too late to allow it to recede into memory.
Aging While Black
I am 47-years-old. This period was not kind to the women in my family. I am two years younger than my mother when she had brain surgery to address the first of three cancers she endured before she died four years ago. I am also three years younger than my Grandma Doris when she died of complications stemming from sickle cell anemia.
Overall, the health indicators for Black American women are not good.
Nearly half (44 percent) of all Black women in the United States age 20 and over have hypertension, a significant risk factor in heart disease. While Black women have lower rates of breast cancer than white women, we are more likely to die from it, according to the latest statistics from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
COVID-19 is also hitting Black women disproportionately harder. We endure pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and hypertension that make us prone to the virus. Also, we are more likely to be engaged in low-wage, essential work, and caregiving that put us more at risk on the frontlines of the epidemic.
I am citing this roll call of troubling health indicators to underscore that my issues about body image are not about vanity.
I live in an area where gorgeous women of all shapes, sizes, hues, and ages showcase their beauty year-around in swimsuits and beachwear. Potential romantic partners aren’t interested in me because I’m the hottest woman in the socially-distanced room. They seek my company because I have love, humor, and intelligence to share.
Nor is this merely a matter of casting off the shackles of beauty standards established by white men and learning to love me – sagging breasts and all – as an act of defiance.
The camera is forcing me to realize something I’ve tried to avoid – aging. I don’t want to get old. Unlike my grandmother and mother, I don’t want to die at an early age or spend the last half of my life struggling with life-threatening diseases. I have so many adventures in me yet. Every gray hair and sagging fold of skin reminds me that time waits for no one. We all have an appointment with death.
Death’s shadow is ever close. An estimated 174,000 people died from COVID-19 in the United States. My Grandma Lula, one of my mother’s best friends and a former childhood friend, also died within recent months.
Yet, the ability to celebrate a long life is a blessing. I remind myself of this as I stumble into the erratic periods, fibroids, bloating, and night-sweats of perimenopause.
A Second Glance
I sigh deeply and look at our film footage from a different perspective.
Instead of a middle-aged woman whose breasts are barely contained by her bathing suit, I see a Black woman in her late 40s who is a quiet, iconoclast.
She refused to live the life to which society and family expectations ascribed to her. Meeting her fears, she plunges deeper into the water. Her goggles fog, and she can’t see. She fights the feeling of suffocation that emerges when she is underwater. She pauses and finds a moment of surrender to what is true at that moment. Her body rises in the water – even the sagging breasts cooperate. They, too, want her to be free.
You can’t buy this kind of beauty.
It is earned from a lifetime of staying focused on her true north – even when it means she tries, fails, and tries again. The strength of her legs comes from the generational burdens she carries and is finally learning to put down. Her soft middle is a fortress of the deep hurts and disappointments she releases so that they won’t make her bitter. The faint lines in her face are the tracks of roads once traveled – wild and serene.
This is a woman who feasts on the richness of life and never lets herself go hungry.