This essay is the result of seeing Mitski live, reading ‘Crying In H Mart’ and searching for comfort in the music of women of colour. How brave they are to detail their pain to the public. Writing is what you do when you have nobody to talk to. It’s a lonely thing to share your secrets with the page, so I wonder whether sharing them with you may help me start a difficult conversation. These are my (limited) experiences of life and love as a woman of colour, told through a soundtrack that echoes similar reflections.
The list of men who love me falls short, stopping at the title. I often find that I am only wanted when I am a token. Others may say a trophy here, but I have never been pretty enough to be displayed so proudly. A token implies exchange, a sense of competition, an act of service; I’m often the answer to unlocking even more superiority in the white people who date me. Lugging a prop as big as me around will do more for you in left-wing circles than reading hooks (or so it seems). It makes me feel like a game; roll up, roll up, triple points for getting a brown girl in bed and win ten more if you get her to trust you. Too many times, I have only felt wanted because of what I am able to offer — which is all of myself. Too quickly, it seems that all of myself is not enough.
“…I don’t have enough
When you quantify my love,
You may find it’s not enough…”
I’ve been very lost this year. I’ve lived in five different houses, changed jobs, moved cities and my body has changed a lot too. It’s not often that I look in the mirror anymore, a lot of my clothes don’t feel right or don’t fit right and I can’t say I have more than five photos of myself that I like from recent times. Last year was incredible, but very difficult at the same time. It’s like I’m working to get written back into the script of my own life. Like there’s a big me-shaped hole.
SASAMI’s songwriting is one of my great comforts when I lose sight of myself. She reminds me that I’m not crazy and that a lot of my upset boils down to issues of racism, misogyny, fatphobia etc. For me, ‘Pacify My Heart’ describes an inability to be a lover — not in the sense that you cannot show love, but instead what it means to be someone who is continually denied reciprocal, romantic love. I know I am loved by my friends and family and I know that maybe that should be enough for me, but I don’t think a diet of platonicism is enough to sustain me forever. (I’ve looked it up and platonicism isn’t a word but I don’t know what I’m meant to say instead). Maybe I’m ungrateful and greedy for wanting more, or maybe I’m just honest.
Another artist I turn to in these moments is Mitski, whose song ‘Your Best American Girl’ narrates similar feelings of introspection. Describing the impossibility of being loved by someone who has been built so differently from you, she sings:
“I’m not the moon, I’m not even a star”
The line is one of my favourites of her entire discography; it encapsulates what it means to be so far away from someone else’s ideal — who they’ve been conditioned to love, the beauty standard etc. I’m too boisterous to be the moon and too ugly to be a star. Instead, I think I’m closer to a black hole — too much going on all at once, yet simultaneously, a symbol of emptiness. I am no man’s land. I am nobody’s ‘person’, I am not intimate with people often. In fact, I am not someone who can be traditionally / heteronormatively intimate. I’ve been made to feel destructive and strange and unearthly — something also emphasised by the instrumentation in the song. Mitski opens ‘Your Best American Girl’ with a metronome loud enough to be heard leaking from the headphones she wore when recording. It’s messy and distracting and most artists would hide it, but she doesn’t. As she works up to the chorus, the chaos builds with fuzzy guitars and her voice tears over (white) noise as if she’s begging someone to listen.
“I want you and you want something more beautiful”
You know the scene in Fleabag where the speaker says “raise your hand if you would trade five years of your life for the perfect body”? I would raise my hand. I say this because it’s funny and stupid, but also because I mean it. Perhaps, it would be nicer if the body I have could be perfect as opposed to me changing, but almost everything I’ve ever known has told me that I’m unattractive. There is a forced self-awareness that comes with being othered and I’m sure most marginalised people will have an understanding of what I mean. For me, it plays out as a constant examination of myself. I’m my own muse. But not in any sense of beauty or inspiration. Instead, I’ll pick every inch of myself apart until all that’s left is a breadcrumb trail to nowhere in particular.
I have been force-fed everyone else’s perceptions of me and stuffed full, left wondering if I’m a real person. I exhaust myself by analysing every inch of me and I spend so much time mining myself to find something worth loving that I fear there’s not a lot of me left. My mind sounds like heavy traffic. It’s jumbled noise that you can quickly get used to; there are the voices of a million different people, the low rumbles of self-critical comments that never seem to switch off. On the rare occasion it is quiet, I sometimes feel even lonelier.
Dating as a woman of colour is a very different experience from dating as pretty much anyone else and it can be really difficult to get people to acknowledge that. I have tried to have conversations about feeling like I’m being left behind and I’m usually met with defensiveness. I’m not looking for answers or pity, but I would like to be listened to, and it does often upset me that people outside of the community fail to understand that. I get thrown around in so many different directions, it’s exhausting. I’ve been called slurs, fetishised (for my race, but also for not being slim and even for the way I express my gender identity), I’ve been sexualised as a result of misogynoir, yet also infantilised and put down due to my disorder / issues with intimacy. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for people to treat me as a person without all these rigid preconceived beliefs. I don’t know when it will be my turn to be loved. And I don’t know why I let that question rule over me so much.
“I feel alone again,
Stuck between my friends”
In my experience, one of the most painful parts of being a person of colour in their early twenties is the fact that I seem to somehow be both invisible and overexposed. It is easy for some people to dismiss my presence completely, whilst others seem to find it remarkable — obsessed with the opportunity to taste something new. I must always be prepared to entertain myself when I am not welcomed into the conversation, yet ready to entertain the crowd when their curiosity strikes. It is exhausting to live with polarised treatment and constantly have your otherness emphasised. I never quite know how much space to take up — if any at all. Should I become part of the furniture, something that everyone is ‘used to’ and only there because it always is? Is that even possible? Blending into the background is a privilege I’m not sure I can be granted.
“Did you want me all?
No, not for life
Did you truly see me?
No, not this time
Were you ever sure?
No, no, no, not with me”
I’ve never loved myself less than when I thought I was in love with someone else. The first thing I realised after my relationship ended was that I was never going to be enough. Opposites may attract, but there’s something to be said for having little more in common than a couple of favourite films and a bit of overlap on your Spotify playlists. Whilst I’ve had more positive emotional connections with other people, there was usually something else in the way. Yet, on the other hand, it hasn’t been so easy with everyone:
“I was a window into something you didn’t like”
Something that’s been difficult to learn is that all I need to do to make white people hate me is exist. I don’t necessarily use the word hate with vigour or aggression, but I think we constantly water down the realities of racism. No matter how left-wing you may be as a white person, you will still have been shaped by your whiteness and racial privilege. (This also isn’t to say that I don’t benefit from many other privileges — my light skin, my class / upbringing in a wealthy area, my University education, etc.).
I think I’ve terrified some of my previous partners, dates, situationships etc. because I’ve shown them the uglier sides of themselves. I’m not usually an aggravator in my romantic relationships, but I am also not so passive as to say nothing. My previous partner would reprimand me for absurd things like putting the ‘wrong’ TV show on, or for falling asleep too early in the evenings. For some reason, I seem to bring out the worst in some of the men I’ve been with. Before dating them, I’ll be assured by my friends or theirs that they’re “one of the nice ones” and that I’m lucky to be seeing them. Yet, a month or so down the line, it becomes apparent that they’re not who I thought they were. I’ve been tricked and I will continue to play the fool, holding out for hope that they will return to the version of themselves I met initially, but, softness is reserved for those with sharp features.
“And you’d say you love me and look in my eyes
But I know through mine you were looking in yours”
After all this, I will still second guess whether these are the roots of the issue or whether it is just me. If they dated someone who looked like me, it would be one of the most painful things in the world. To know it was not my appearance but my personality that they fell out of love with.
“Can you tell I’ve been posing
This way alone for hours?
Waiting for your affection
Waiting for you”
Sex can be tricky to navigate for everyone and I can’t say I appreciate the added layers of complexity thrown in by having a disorder. Casually dating (mostly) men whilst not being able to have PIV (*penis in vagina lol) sex can make you feel 10x more insecure and can admittedly be a bit of a mood killer. Dating can feel like I’m subjecting myself to an ongoing cycle of sex obsession / dead affection. I’m innately unsexy. Which is a fun way of saying I think I’m unattractive and I’m awkward in bed. Having to discuss my disorder any time I want to get close to someone I’m seeing isn’t easy. It leaves me left open and embarrassed. It’s odd talking to near-strangers after a date or two about a very private part of my life, that lots of my friends don’t even know about. I’d like to be more open about my experiences with my disorder, but I’m not sure if many people are ready to hear them or if I’m even ready to share them.
Sex is everything in your twenties. Or at least that’s what you’re led to believe. It’s meant to be your hottest, silliest, craziest age, and I want it to be, but it doesn’t feel like I have permission. I know people will tell me that PIV sex isn’t a big deal and a couple of people I’ve been with have helped me to learn that, but others have made me feel useless and sexless and unloveable because of my disorder. I couldn’t get them to love me with sex and I couldn’t even get them to love me with love.
“I will take good care of you…
I will wash your hair at night
And dry it off with care…”
I know that most women who date men tend to mother them, but the weight of care you are expected to provide as a woman of colour is unmatched. Mammy archetypes, slavery and general racial/class divisions have played into this, but I think that the extent of these perceptions is overlooked in the modern dating scene. Although I believe that I am not meant for motherhood, I seem to be very good at it when it concerns men I date.
“I’ve been making you a tea before you know it’s what you need”
I’ve always felt as though I lacked a maternal quality that a lot of women seem to possess. I’m convinced that the only people I will ever be capable of mothering are the men I fall in love with. Why is it that when I am forced into this caregiver role, I suddenly become good and patient? I’m more likely to cook if providing a meal for someone else, I’ll keep on top of chores if it means clean towels for two and I don’t even want to think about the way finances may have played into dating. I hate myself for it. Maybe care is something built into your blood. Has my kind and selfless mother created the sacrificial other? I am repeatedly deluded into believing that offering tenderness means it will be returned to me, but it’s not the case. All I want is to be treated with that same patience, that same warmth.
“You’re my baby, say it to me”
Instead of looking for one person to love me in this way, I’m trying to shift my focus and gratitude towards the many people who do this for me. The friends who want to go out for dinner together, who will sit with me in the dark and watch a film together, who will send me songs that remind them of me, or writing they think I’d like. The ones who will make sure I get home okay, who will tell me they care about me without their words and want to see me for no reason other than that. I’ll try to teach myself that this is still precious. That although it may not be romantic, it is still something to be cherished.
I’ll try to remind myself that warmth is a weapon. That belonging to myself is something to be proud of. That I’m worth getting to know. That I may never be much to look at, but I can always be someone to talk to.
***Before we begin, I feel a need to explain myself for some reason. I think it’s taken me nine months to finish this essay because it’s a lot more than some words sewn together. What follows is a series of thoughts, insecurities, hopes and lyrics that all come together to form a map of my healing — one that is still being drawn. I’ve done my best to make it all coherent, and I really tried to make it feel like my other essays (some people seemed to like those — thanks x). I will warn you, this one isn’t very funny, and maybe it isn’t very good, but it is very me. Maybe the most me. I thought this was a bit cringe to put in the actual essay, so I’ve dumped it at the bottom and used an asterisk ha.