Several songs have been floating around my head recently…as if to reinforce me, as if to validate the path I’ve chosen in life. It’s been a beautiful, exciting and at times a uniquely painful journey. I would like to share some of its twists and turns with you now. Consider it a brief introduction into my world…
I was a tomboy when I was younger. As a little girl, I never played with dolls nor did I care to wear dresses. Dresses always got in the way of my activities. I loved racing boys and girls to see who was the fastest at every distance. I played Around the World and kickball mainly with and against boys. I frequently risked and, in several instances received, a public whipping from my father because I was too busy “kicking it”. I never came home on time unlike my brother.
Not much changed in this regard as I grew and went through puberty. As a matter of fact, I became increasingly boy like in attitude although I remained distinctly feminine in appearance. Instead of spending my free time with kids in the neighborhood, I went to the stables. I began working there to satisfy my need to be around animals and others who were as horse crazy as I was. I’m fairly sure my persona was quite different at the stables, more at peace and serene. My name was even different there, Crista. It somehow evolved I think. Strange, I couldn’t tell you when or from whom I first heard it, but it stuck.
Quite honestly, it took me a long time to understand and appreciate how different I was and am. It has taken even longer to embrace my uniqueness as a gift. I mean this in the sense of stereotypes and profiles; i.e. what boys and girls or minorities and non-minorities are supposed to be like, do and how they are supposed to be and feel according to society’s mores. There are quite a lot who comfortably fit into those norms. I never have.
As regards society’s norms, mores and expectations, I have always been in a predicament simply due to the fact that I am black. I look back on TV shows from the 80s and am thankful that some existed that put my face on television screens. One in particular gave me and my family something to look forward to and truly enjoy because “we” were finally on TV, the Cosby Show. Although we weren’t in New York, we were a black suburban family in the Midwest. Both of my parents were highly successful in their careers and could afford the best things life could offer to a middle class family of four.
Despite the fact that the show and my television twin, Denise/Lisa Bonet, were so popular with the American public, my real self was constantly challenged by a society that didn’t offer many roles for me to play without first proving my worth through extraordinary performances. I went out of my way to show how smart I was, how cordial and culturally savvy I could be as well as how dependable a person I was. This is the 200% performance that minorities were and still are faced with on a daily basis whether it is necessary or not. Not that I was looking for a role to play or someone to idolize, but a deep-seeded inferiority complex can surreptitiously develop greatly affecting one’s own self-perception when “your kind” are marginalized into obscurity.
A change in my self-perception is one reason why I started this blog. It has taken me decades and a spiritual evolution to realize how much that time affected me and I’m sure many others before and since. When you live in a society that marginalizes you or places an adjective in front of your profession or identity (eg. black actress, black professor, black colleague) it leaves a bittersweet taste in one’s mouth irrespective of how positive it may have been meant. On one hand, it can denote an achievement, something extraordinary given the historical circumstances. On the other hand, it alludes to a difference and it is up to the person receiving the information to make it a positive, negative or neutral apparition. Be that as it may, when I reflect on how it felt to not see many “me”s on TV (America’s main purveyor of cultural, ethical, professional and beauty standards) playing hundreds of varying roles, I can unequivocally admit that it slowly eats away at the psyche.
It has never been a secret that TV and printed mass media promote cultural, beauty and even professional ideals that not many of us can achieve. Although my father and mother instilled a sense of self-respect and self-worth in me through frequent talks, mass media still shaped me and was, indirectly, instrumental in determining my self-worth. My parents always made me cognizant of the fact that, as a minority, I would be marginalized until such a day came where the power structures not only in Washington but also in Hollywood would have to change due to changing demographics. They taught and I listened.
But, I was still affected. You cannot imagine how disgusted I was with myself for not being able to fit into a pair of Jordache or Calvin Klein jeans due to my thick thighs and huge buttocks! After dieting for a few weeks and trying them on again and again with little to no change, jeans and the thought of them pretty much disappeared out of my closet and vocabulary for a few years. And that was because I had come to believe that my figure was unflattering in any brand of jeans. When I finally began to wear them again or any type of closely fitting pant, I always made sure that “danger zones” were covered by long shirts, vests and/or jackets; thus, my penchant for a kind of bohemian-gypsy eclectic look.
Mass media beauty standards affect even those who preach. My father felt my hair wasn’t straight enough to get a proper job despite my degree from Stanford. It was too wild and needed to be tamed with a relaxer. Well, the relaxer was grudgingly accepted and all of my hair fell out. Today, people would kill for the head of hair I had in its virgin state. But I must admit that I knew that back then and still followed his suggestion. I even enjoyed it for a while until my hair started to come out in bushels. This experience gave new meaning to live and learn.
I had to live and learn about the pervasiveness of cultural ideals and standards in other more intimate instances, as well. It is difficult enough to have to cope with the natural physical developments that puberty and womanhood bring with them. But it is more difficult, unbearable if you’re told, notice and/or feel that your “special” someone feels that the Hollywood ideal is the better ideal than what you have to offer. Sometimes saying and thinking that he doesn’t deserve me can’t staunch the wound. When you know your legs won’t get any longer, your body any leaner or your hair any straighter or blonde without unnatural methods, you begin to compensate and completely and utterly divorce yourself from all things trendy in fashion. You can live quite comfortably and with great dignity and sincerely focus on “what’s important” especially if you are happy, to a great extent, with how and who you are. But such a wound can still lie in wait and reopen at any time. Normally, when you least expect it.
In 1989, I moved to a culture that was more accepting of the “average” but exceptional person. At that time, I just considered it to be a culture that was free and in which I could move freely and where I didn’t always have the feeling that I had to perform to be validated. This culture was found in Berlin, Germany. Berlin in 1989 was well-known for its alternative, cosmopolitan, dynamic and open/tolerant lifestyle. A perfect fit… I spent most of my adult life there and learned a great deal about myself, America and our world. It was there that I discovered a liberating freedom, both communal and private. If asked backed then why I chose to relocate there, I would not have been able to put a distinctive rational to it. And honestly, it also took my move back to the U.S. in 2007 to give me a clearer perspective as well as a deeper and very profound appreciation for that city, country and the experiences I had there.
It is my intention to share myself and my experiences with you in everything I publish here. I hope that some of my stories or postings will inspire you or simply validate some things you have felt or known. I know that many of you reading these lines share the same or similar experiences. For those that don’t, I hope that by sharing with you, you will add another layer and perspective to your life. Ultimately, I simply want you to know that you are not alone.