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I tried to fit into someone else’s standard of beauty for too long. Now I’m creating my own.
I have an unhealthy obsession with mirrors. It started when I was a teenager taking dance classes at first one, then two, then three different studios. Ballet, tap, jazz, modern, acrobatics — I did it all.
In the beginning, it was fun. I did it for the love of the art form and for the friends I made.
But somewhere around the age of 14, I began to take it more seriously and see it as a possible career — a future where I could combine my love for the performing arts with my love for writing. By 18, I decided I wanted to major in dance and English so I could write and choreograph musicals.
But I had a secret. I wasn’t healthy. I was purging to keep my weight down ahead of every major performance, audition, or anytime the scale crept up higher than my liking.
It’s no secret that the dance world has historically elevated a standard of beauty and fitness that’s unattainable for many — and for Black girls, especially.
My quest to pursue a professional dance career meant forcing myself to meet an expectation that wasn’t designed with me in mind.
It was the first time I felt what so many Black women have felt when trying to navigate the fitness world, where the message is that the “ideal” body isn’t a Black body.
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Letting go of impossible standards
Rejection compounded the pressure I felt as a dancer. After auditioning for several university dance programs, the top programs said “no,” and those I was accepted into, I didn’t want to attend (though now as an adult I truly question my reasons for turning down Howard).
Rejection and unattainable standards are a potent combination.
I binged when I craved sweets and junk food, or anytime, really, because I also liked to eat. I enjoy food — it doesn’t matter if it’s baked salmon seasoned with dill and a side of sautéed kale with garlic, or a large chicken finger plate from Zaxby’s. Mealtime is a time that makes me and my stomach happy.
And afterward, I purged when I felt like I needed to control the outcome.
When I finally started college, I auditioned for the dance program at my university twice. I was rejected twice. At 19, I accepted the fact that dance was something I could not make a living doing, no matter how much I loved it.
I settled for dancing with an on-campus extracurricular company and switched my academic focus to journalism and creative writing.
By releasing the pressure I put on myself to excel at dance, I was able to release some of my unhealthy habits, too. Soon after I started undergraduate school, I stopped my cycle of binging and purging.
The “freshman 15” was my friend. I went to the gym when I felt like it, going through cycles of working out heavily to not wanting to work out at all. More than a decade later, these are still my habits, for better or worse.
Finding my own path to health
My relationship with my health, fitness, and overall wellness is complicated and messy. Right now, I’m in a period of not working out. I haven’t been on my yoga mat since October when I confirmed I was pregnant with my second child.
I look at the mat and know I should pull it out and go through a flow, especially since I continued to practice yoga until 36 weeks when I was pregnant with my son — but I don’t.
I’ve had gym memberships that I’ve actually used. I’d go three times a week, spend an hour doing cardio and another hour to 90 minutes doing strength training.
I’ve had memberships to various yoga studios that I would visit at least twice a week. Recently, when I was in a workout phase, I followed along to live Baptiste yoga podcast classes (because, free) and got my fitness in that way either with an electric heater running in my bedroom, or outside in the heat and humidity at the height of Florida summers.
Still, I am motivated by the mirror, my vanity, staring at my reflection and praying I see what I like in my body. But I’m not trying to be skinny. I don’t want to be.
I’m a Black woman. I’ve got boobs and booty — the latter I’d like to be a little thicker — along with some hips and thighs. I’m not mad about it. I’m not trying to get rid of it.
I want to keep my stomach as flat as possible but even there I give myself some grace. This body of mine has produced life and will do so again soon.
It has taken a long time for me to get to this place of acceptance. To look at the number on the scale and be kind of OK with it. To see myself in clothes and be like, “Damn, you fine girl.”
Still, when I look at the number in my body mass index (BMI) chart on my health app, it constantly says I’m overweight — even at my smallest. I dismiss it laughingly as “racist.”
Defining our own standards
In the world of fitness, wellness, and beauty, the ideal is lithe and white — adjectives that will never describe me or many other Black women.
Yet, we have to navigate our way through the fitness, wellness, and beauty industries knowing that even though we aren’t the standard — or even the target audience — we’re still beautiful and deserving of safe spaces where we can work out, relax, meditate, and vibrate a little higher.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), non-Hispanic Black adults have the highest prevalence of obesity. While rates of obesity tend to decline with an increase in income, the CDC found that for Black women, there’s no difference in obesity prevalence no matter how much or little we make (1).
It’s common knowledge among Black women that we often put ourselves last to make sure our family, friends, and even coworkers around us are taken care of.
This overextension compounds our stress, which is a factor in weight gain. And, if we’re taking care of everyone else, we usually end up being too tired to take care of ourselves, even though we know we should.
Carving the way forward
This is why groups like Black Girls Run exist. The organization was founded in 2009 in an effort to tackle the growing obesity epidemic in the Black community, especially among Black women.
It’s groups like these that make the fitness space more inclusive and accessible. They intrinsically understand the unique fitness and wellness challenges of their audience, reach out to us, and love on us anyway.
Such compassion is also seen in a group like Black Girls Hike or the work of yoga influencers Jessamyn Stanley and Britteny Floyd-Mayo from Trap Yoga Bae.
We’re living in a time when the “quarantine 15” is a real byproduct of the stressors of living life in a global pandemic, and stress is more compounded for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) for a myriad of reasons — from racism to health disparities to income inequality (2, 3).
In a time when women have lost the most in terms of position and footing in the workforce and overall economy, fitness may not be top of mind for many of us Black women right now (4).
But when it is — when it becomes a priority for you, and for me, again — there are spaces curated just for us. Whenever we’re ready to say “yes” to us, there are people out there working to help us become our fittest and healthiest selves.
As for me, one day (likely after baby number two makes her arrival in the world) I will find a way to return to my mat and take care of myself physically.
Until then, I remain encouraged because I know Black girls run, Black girls walk, Black girls hike, Black girls bike, Black girls swim, Black girls skate, Black girls dance, Black girls practice yoga, and so much more.
Our health matters. It’s integral to our lives, and fitness is for us.
Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award winning news producer and award winning author. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, and attended Florida State University, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Communication: Mass Media Studies and Honors English Creative Writing. Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. “Four Women” was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Nikesha is a full-time writer and writing coach and has freelanced for several publications including VOX, Very Smart Brothas, and Shadow and Act. Nikesha lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but you can always find her online at firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook.com/NikeshaElise, or @Nikesha_Elise on Twitter and Instagram.