healing

The Body Series :: Skin: On Blemishes + Color

My skin is comprised of stripes and spots. Dashes and dots. Morse code collections of imperfection littered from head to toe across, over and around the expanse of my epidermis. The freckles I never had an issue with. Unlike Jan from the Brady Bunch, I reveled in the speckles that framed my nose and cheeks. That popped up along my arms and legs. The one precious dot northeast of my belly button. I have always loved my body constellations adding pops of coloration to a delicate canvas. It was the hidden spots I despised. Cellulite. Just the word makes me cringe. Hell, I still don't love it. Even if I learned to love and admire the expanses of my body, the shapes of fertility goddesses and warrior women, what statues show those thigh dimples? What paintings of the overculture express those tiny depressions echoed by the spirals of darkness that swirl inside me? (BTW if you know of some, my eyes and inbox are open.)

  Standing so my cellulite won't show

Standing so my cellulite won't show

I'm also not just talking about the regular old smattering of it across my ass and thighs. The bits that I threatens my sensibilities when I squeeze the upper under arm skin just right. You see, I have this one singular crater that pops inward on my right thigh if I don’t tuck the mass of that leg in when I’m sitting. I first noticed her in high school. When I swam and played water polo, the one piece swim suit left my thighs open to the public and sitting on the benches before practice, there she appeared surrounded by a family of little sisters, but did she stand out. She still does. I still tuck her in sometimes, preferring not to poke at that extra cottage cheese indentation. Fact. I have never eaten cottage cheese because I have heard cellulite compared to it for so much of my life. I’m not really interested in unpacking that in particular, I just think it’s kind of messed up but also deeply hilarious.

To make matters worse, somehow the light of fitting rooms always manages to accentuate the worst of it. Maybe my improvement in self-esteem has to do with the fact that I haven't set foot in a fitting room in over a year. (Except in December at REI to try on ski pants which was way more chill that the barrage of ill fitting clothes at a department store or boutique.) I suspect beauty companies that promise the disappearance of this very normal and very genetic “defect” pay off department stores with too small clothes to perpetuate the cycle of consumerism that keeps them all in our pockets. Maybe that’s why I can't "shop" anymore, selecting pieces to try on one after in a parade of self judgement for not fitting perfectly into clothes meant for a body that is not mine.

Oh, and how could I forget acne. I never had it terribly as a teen. My face flushed with the occasional spot. I had extremely oily skin so it was par for the course. The funny thing is, once I stopped trying to dry out and exfoliate my face, everything sort of normalized and now my face routine is a simple cream whenever I feel like it (maybe a few times per week) and a Korean sheet mask once every month or two. However, it still plagues my back sometimes. Whether it's my sports bras or hair, I'll get painful red constellations back there every now and again, making summer time a bummer and backless dresses and embarrassing nightmare. And then if I am not careful with how much I sweat in my spandex pants, I can occasionally get some on my butt. That's right. I wrote it. You can read it. Sometimes I get pimples on my butt. I am cringing right now knowing I will press publish on this, but damnit, a lot of us do. And if you get pimples on your butt, I want you to know sometimes it happens and it's annoying, but whateverrrrrr. They go away. The end. 

So these spots, the cellulite and pimples, I am not so enlightened that I am thrilled by them. If there really was a miracle treatment that got rid of my cellulite, I would actually consider it if that shit were natural and god for me, but I also don't NEED to love them. They don't take away from the experience of the rest of what my body can do. They appear. They disappear. They are. Again, WHATEVER.

Then we have the stripes. I saw a Tumblr post where a little girl asked her mom what her stretch marks were and the mom responded that they were her tiger stripes. The daughter then exclaimed that she couldn't wait for her stripes. That hit my soul. I fucking loved it. But we’re not there yet. First, we need to talk about the first cracks along the fault lines of my body. 

When stretch marks first show up, they are a pinkish purple. They open up across skin that’s not quite ready to stretch so far. For me, they hit my breasts, thighs and hips pretty hard during high school. They were like a target for the areas of me that were getting too big. Areas that could not be contained by my skin. Streaking me in places I was already self-conscious of. I remember being scared of having someone go down on me because they would see the especially big stretch mark on my right inner thigh. Luckily, I have made peace with him and kind of enjoy playing with the way the skin smooths and indents there, but man did that take time. Because you see, the pinks and purples eventually fade in with the rest of the skin and the stripes and they sink in and snuggle and become a part of you. These guys I don't mind. But maybe you do. And that's okay. You don't have to love your stretch marks. I like mine because I like what they represent. That I cannot be contained by my skin, so it has altered itself to fit me.

Of course, how can I move through the complex relationships we have with our skin, the cocoon that wraps the body in its gentle yet surprisingly tough embrace without discussing its color. Oh boy. Let's dive in. For me, that color is an ever changing extra pale to slightly tanned sprinkled with the aforementioned freckles. And despite my youthful endeavors to constantly darken it, that stays a pretty constant privilege in my life. There are many folks better versed in the complexity of this experience who have explained how this affects individuals and society at large (you can look here, herehere and here for starters), but for the purposes of this series, I’ll stick to how this affects the experience of living in the body, (and if you're bummed this got kind of political, I'm sorry but we live in a world where bodies are political if you're a woman or person of color.)

The complex layers of colorism within the Latin American community run deep.  You can’t be pasty pale like a gringo, but too tan, and you “look like a housekeeper,” a phrase designed to differentiate the more Spanish of us from the more indigenous and black populations. It’s like a modern day caste system. Instead of criollo and mestizo and mulatto (which are all still used, just less so in the United States), there are jokes about color in a space that feels more mundane and less steeped in colonialism (even though it very much is). I do not condone that kind of phrasing, nor did I make it up and it grosses me out, and it's not only hella racist, but hella classist, but that is the truth of what is said behind closed doors and we need to start questioning it. Sorry for that insane run on sentence, but yeesh.

[Before I move on, I want to say if this is hard for you to hear, I get it. Confronting unconscious bias and shadow shit is messy and uncomfortable. It's not about being right or wrong. It's about looking inside and being very honest about beliefs you hold that have their basis is false narratives. That come from other people "saying so" instead of your own experience. How many times did I hear from white and light skinned people that "black people are lazy"? A lot. How many times has that narrative proven true in the people I meet and interact with every day while living in a predominantly black neighborhood? Literally zero times. This isn't comfortable for me to write. That's the work. That's expansion. Get uncomfortable.]

  Unconsciously basking in the sunlight of light skinned privilege...

Unconsciously basking in the sunlight of light skinned privilege...

As a milkier Latina, getting too dark was never an issue for me because I am what you call "passing." (The Netflix One Day at a Time reboot tackles this beautifully and Isabel Gomez talks about her experience with that episode here.) As in, I "pass" for white. We learn that the Spaniards were conquistadors, but we forget that most of us lighter skinned Latinx folks are descended from those conquerors, just like white folks here are descended from the British ones. Spain just lost out in the fight for super powerdom and thus we don’t think of Spaniards the way we think of the British colonialists who went on to go for the rest of the world in the centuries that followed. There are different prejudices for sure, being an immigrant in this country despite your color, and being fetishized by men the second they find out you’re “exotic” (on a first date a man grabbed my thighs and told me, “I bet you have a fat Cuban pussy” but that is a tale for another time), but the elitism and white privilege in Latin America is still the same. I remember reading in a sociology book that Cubans were the most successful Latin American immigrants in the US. Sure, Cubans are the best, and I will shout it from the rooftops, but as I've grown older, I wonder if that success came from the light privilege that accompanied many of the Cubans who were able to leave in the late 50s and early 60s as the Castro regime first took hold. Yikes. I know I keep bouncing from history lesson to present day issues a lot but it’s all connected. 

  The tone I aspired to be (and if I'm being 100% honest, I still do).

The tone I aspired to be (and if I'm being 100% honest, I still do).

Why am I talking about any of this? Because the skin we inhabit, its color, its pigmentation, its melanin, affects millions of people's abilities to love their bodies. To feel safe in them. To allow them to feel like home. It’s one thing to move through cycles of imperfection, it’s quite another entirely to feel like your skin makes you a target for violence. I cannot imagine what that must be like. There are parts of me that make me vulnerable, sure, but for the entire surface area of your body to be a calling card for discrimination because of false narratives dictated by colonizers, to make them feel better about owning people is beyond fucked. I've seen videos of young black girls choosing white dolls over black ones because they have been conditioned to believe the white ones are prettier and it breaks my heart. Folks using umbrellas just to avoid the slightest darkening of their skin. Meanwhile, the white girls and light skinned Latinas like me were sitting poolside throughout all of high school slathering Maui Babe Browning Lotion all over our bodies to find that perfect shade of darker, without questioning the unconscious biases we held towards folks who glowed in those tones naturally.

We have beauty brands urging us to “love the skin you’re in,” but what about when that skin doesn’t conform to your BS beauty standards? This isn’t all gloom and doom. We’ve made tremendous progress over the past decade. We’re moving past the “colorblind” motto of the 90s… slowly but surely… and moving into a space where “Black” isn’t a bad word. Where every skin color has beauty and value, just like the souls and bodies inside those sacks of cells. But there is still work to do. So I guess to conclude this piece, I hope you made peace with your blemishes, even if you don’t like them. I hope the skin that wraps you up feels like a home. I hope that one day everyone can feel safe in their skin. I hope we can continue to question the fucked up things we were taught growing up by an ignorant society concerned with maintaining the status quo of white supremacy and create a world that facilitates that safety. And I hope that if you are white or lighter skinned and you hear those shitty jokes, you say something, even if everyone rolls their eyes at you and makes fun of you for being a major bummer. Or thinks you have no sense of humor. Because in your own family, in cleaning up our own root system, that’s where it starts. 

The Body Series :: On Weight and Body Image

I lay in a twin bed surrounded by pastel pink, now darkened by the night. A dim glow seeps in through my curtains. In my head, I say a little prayer, still Catholic in convictions. I pray for my family and friends and for peace in the world. I wish for slim thighs and a flat stomach. I wish for a narrow rib cage and longer legs and for the pudge beside my armpit to disappear. I am seven.

 My precious upper arm pudge <3

My precious upper arm pudge <3

Growing up in Miami, I have realized is not the healthiest place for a young girl. Many places make it difficult to fall in love with yourself. There really is no haven from the parade of images of Photoshopped “perfection,” but, in Miami, you even see it IRL. On the beach, at restaurants, fake tans, hair, breasts, noses, asses. Bodies molded by starvation and an exercise regimen that would make earning a living impossible. This is what you saw and what you knew, so you believed this is what you’re supposed to look like. Having a gorgeous mother who easily slides into a size 0 or 2 and DID wake up like this #flawless didn’t help either. By the time I hit puberty I could fit into her clothes, but once my breasts and ass and thighs really grew in, I could only squeeze into a few pieces.

In 2nd grade, I started ballet lessons because I was apparently too fat for gymnastics. Yes, an 8 year old me was told she needed to be thinner in order to roll around and bounce on a trampoline. And so, I got my leotard and tights and learned how to wrap my hair in a perfect slicked back bun. I learned how to pirouette and apply makeup for recitals and competitions. And the the promise always lingered, doing ballet will make you thinner, which is what we were all striving to be.

 The strategically slimming lean.. ugh I wish I could tell 14 year old me that she is allowed to take up space!!!!

The strategically slimming lean.. ugh I wish I could tell 14 year old me that she is allowed to take up space!!!!

I look back at photos of myself and can’t believe how much bigger I felt back then. How much I felt I wasn't allowed to be bigger. It isn’t until you learn to love yourself that the effects body dysmorphia become clear. I knew what it was, of course. By the time I was in middle school, I co-wrote a “Stations of the Cross” play (hey Catholic school) where I played someone with body dysmorphia, having the “devil” character come in and show what my character saw in the mirror. You see, I thought because I liked myself a little, that it was just a little more weight I constantly wanted to lose, a little bit of myself that I wanted to disappear, that it wasn’t a problem. The character would pass out from working out too hard. I didn't. I was healthy. I didn’t starve myself. Not yet.

I had a tendency to show a lot of mid riff, despite how self conscious I felt about my stomach. Once, at my uncle’s house, he pinched the space between my belly button and the band of my jeans and said “if you can pinch an inch…” I’m not sure if he finished the sentence. Those are the only words I can still hear in my head, but the meaning is implied. “If you can pinch an inch of belly fat, there is too much of you.” And this message came from everywhere. From my stick thin friends who pinched themselves in despair, wishing for more bone and less meat. That scene from Mean Girls where everyone is hating on bits of their own body, that is hilarious because it's so true. Because it's so sad. 

Once the message was clear, I learned how to monitor my eating. This was especially difficult for a young Latina child growing up with a grandmother who wouldn't let you leave the table until you've cleared your plate and down your glass of milk and your dessert. Leaving any food behind was a crime, a travesty, a sin. But I had to rise above that Catholic guilt to be "skinny" right? I tried less carbs. I remember for a while in high school, I would just crush chick peas, drizzle olive oil on them and scoop it up with some vegetables. I thought that was healthy. When I rowed crew and had to stay under 130 lbs to compete in the Lightweight 8, an excusable cycle of starving and binging began because I “had to.”

 "Tankinis" and shorts were my favorite way to hide.

"Tankinis" and shorts were my favorite way to hide.

And then there were the insane diets. The Master Cleanse, where you drink only lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper in water. That lasted 2 days. My mother made me eat a baguette when I started going delirious on second night. This insane thing where you inject yourself with pregnancy hormones and eat only 500 calories per day. I don’t remember the name, but dear god, how did I think that was a good idea. After about a week of that, I caved into a box of Krispy Kreme donuts.

I thought because they were few and far between, it was ok. And to be honest, I'm one of the best case scenarios. I never questioned my self- esteem because at least I stopped openly stating "I'm so fat," like it was the worst thing you could be. At least, I didn't have a "real" eating disorder. By comparison, I was the model of health. But of course, it's never really about the weight or the food. When you have low self-esteem, that becomes the easy focal point. At least that's something people have "tips and tricks" to work with. And what came first? The issues with body image and eating or low self-esteem? Or did they swirl inside your psyche, manifesting almost simultaneously enabled by an environment of other contributing factors? 

Like many young people, I couldn't function without external validation, and measuring my worth through numbers on a scale and pant sizes became an easy game. Always trying to drive them down. This story isn’t new. This story is so unbelievably common, the sheer magnitude is the depressing part. This struggle doesn’t make me special. It makes me just like everyone else.

This is the story of how girls learn how to diminish themselves, and in turn, are told they are not worth taking up space. I look back at photos and I see the girl compressing herself, forcing wide hips to conform to the restrictions of a size 4, when she sits on a spectrum of 6-8. (Size 6 was the largest she felt allowed to be because Julia Roberts said she was a size 6 in a movie and she’s taller than me so how dare I be wider.)

But I am not your 00. These hips cannot be contained by designer jeans bought at stores where they scoff at your size. These breasts weren't meant to feel constrained by your too small button ups, or be pushed up by your bras. My thighs will not be shamed by pants that are too tight and too long. I don’t wear knee high boots anymore, because my calves are tired of your narrow bullshit. The rolls on my stomach are not forbidden folds I hold my breath to avoid. Sitting straight up or laying back to prevent the flesh from touching. 

 Blurry because I'm having to much fun dancing and jiggling!

Blurry because I'm having to much fun dancing and jiggling!

Last week, as I prepped for an audition, dancing about in my backless sports bra top and Lumpy Space Princess boy shorts, I filmed myself in the mirror. As I looked at my body, I thought so sincerely, “god damn you are perfect.” This feeling is new and it is incredible. I remember the girl who hated her thighs because at the top they become extra wide and soft. I look at them now and can’t imagine what it would be like to want so deeply to slice into. My belly, too, has a certain softness to it. I no longer cringe at the inch I can pinch. I play with it. My lovers have always liked my softness and, now, so do I.

I wanted to be hard for so long. Ripped and resilient. With lean muscles and an iron will. I wanted to stop crying all the damn time, but now I like the soft parts. The parts of me that receive and feel. I’m a Pisces Moon, baby, and these waters run deep.

Because of course, it was never really about my body and what I put into it. It was the impossible hope, that a certain shape or size would fill an empty space inside of me. “When I get back down to 120 lbs, I’ll be happy.” I wish I could tell teenage Alessandra it is unlikely she will ever dip below 130 lbs again, and that it’s beautiful up here.

I don't know when exactly it happened. When I started to really love my body and not only my body, but the shapes of all the people around me. When "fat" stopped being a bad word. I'm still figuring it out, because on one level, I never saw other people's bodies the way I saw mine, but on the other, there was always that thin layer of judgement. The "you know who got fat" and all the other whispers of judgement. I am not proud of this part of myself. The part of me that saw the world through the lens of the overculture. But in admitting to you this was once a part of me and that every day I choose to let those glasses go, I hope you can let yours go, too.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I know that the irony of all this, is that the first shift came when I tried yet another diet. I started The Paleo Diet as part of an online New Years fitness challenge and leaned up pretty quickly. It didn't last. I missed the flexibility of eating out and, it's expensive to eat that well all the time. However, it was my first taste of eating food as fuel. Of noticing what felt really good in my body. What gave me more energy.

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I know that therapy helped. I know that meditation and yoga helped. I relearned how to live inside my body. How to listen. I have no doubt that learning to feel my anxiety instead of shutting it down, has allowed me to better listen to my body's signals for hunger and satisfaction. I say no to dessert, when I genuinely don't want or need it, not because of some overlying guilt. And even that we put pressure on. "Come on, don't you want to try it?" Why do we bully each other into eating and not eating? 

I don't know exactly when it happened, but I know that when I focused on becoming a better person, something shifted. When tarot and yoga became daily practices, when I realized there are things bigger than me, it all became a little easier. The weight and the inches seemed to find a natural resting place without me even noticing. And I don't know if I'm actually a different size or if finding way to feel good inside your body just make you feel like the right size. I breath and I move and I listen to the vessel I live inside. I see the magic of this flesh that tells me quite clearly when it wants meat or vegetables or starch. When it needs food or feels perfectly satisfied thank you very much. And non of it is an emergency anymore. Food has finally become fuel instead of a coping mechanism. (Except sometimes your soul craves ice cream and that calling is sacred <3)

I look at this body. In the mirror. Photographed. Recorded. I feel it beneath my fingers. Curl up into it. Twist and stretch it out. And I wonder how could I have hated you so much. Could have resented the fat cells adorning my thighs and glazing my stomach. And I know it is a privilege to work through that sense of projection looking the way I do. Because the only stigmas I’ve had to face are the ones I’ve created. I am not model or Hollywood skinny, but I am thin enough. And that in itself is a separate problem. That we have come so far, but still have such a ways to go in seeing the beauty of all bodies.

And as I've spilled so much, I feel like I've only scratched the surface. I hope to continue this conversation with you over the coming months exploring so much more of our bodies and our depth.

:: The Body Series :: An Introduction

After a long hiatus, I am back on this page with new words and a little more purpose. I find I often lack the space to explore things as deeply as I would like to. Or when I attempt to create it, I get scared of the places my writing takes me, and become resistant or hesitant to share it. How much is too much? What parts are just for me? I am still figuring that out, but in the mean time, there are things to share.

Over the next nine weeks, on this blog, I will be sharing what I will call, The Body Series. Every week I’ll talk about my process of discovery and acceptance with one aspect of my body or another. They are outlined below. I share this to connect with you. Because I ask you to trust me with your process. I want to be worthy of that trust. I want to show you where I’ve been and where I’m at. To let you know where you are is perfect because the spiral never ends. Life is a video game with endless code. There are more levels to unlock and side quests to master than we can even imagine. I have learned so much, but there is so much left to uncover. Sometimes that feels exciting. Sometimes it makes me want to crawl into a cardboard box and cry. All I can try to do is be here. Feel it. I hope you will, too.

Part of me wonders if these tales have been over played. If there are too many voices with the same stories. But if my stories add one more layer of nuance, that resonates with you in a new way, this will be worth it. And besides, I think it's kind of beautiful that so many of us are opening up and sharing the weird shit we've realized is really toxic behavior that we once thought was normal. Keep sharing. Write on. 

  This is a woman who used to be terrified of being caught with the folds of her skin touching. We'll go into it with a little more context next week, my loves.

This is a woman who used to be terrified of being caught with the folds of her skin touching. We'll go into it with a little more context next week, my loves.

2/19 On Weight + Body Image

2/26 Skin: On Blemishes + Color

3/5 Hair: On Growth + Removal

3/12 On Faces + Symmetry

3/19 On Exercise + Ability

3/26 On Periods + Power

4/2 On Sex + Pleasure

4/9 On Intimacy + Sharing

4/16 On Psychosomatic Connection