Updated: Oct 16, 2020
I think about who I was as a young girl: opinionated, silly, loud, always concerned with how I presented myself. I internalized all the messages shown to me about what it meant to be a good daughter, a good sister, a good student.
Young Shewa always had a book in hand. Whether it was Nancy Drew, Babysitters Club, or Sweet Valley High—I loved a book series—I never left home without something to read. In retrospect, because I read so much, so often, I formed strong opinions about any and everything. I dissected each character in every novel, picking apart their character traits and the mistakes they made. I would piecemeal an imaginary, perfect version of myself that I strived for as a young girl. I believed if I was perfect, then bad things would not happen to me. If I was nice enough, if I acted this way, if I got perfect grades, if I looked a certain way, I would be exempt from conflict. So, I embarked on a journey of perfection. I thought about being “the Perfect Woman” when I was eleven. I strived to make anyone around me comfortable and happy. I did what I was told without hesitation or question. But I quickly learned being perfect does not protect you from hardship.
I thought if I was always smiling, I would not make people uncomfortable. I thought if I spoke a little softer, then people would listen to what I was trying to say. I thought, instead of saying I what I meant, let me soften my point by beating around the bush, then people would not dismiss my opinion. I thought if I were all these “positive” traits of a woman, I could bypass discomfort. If I was the perfect person, I could be spared harm.
Growing up, it dawned on me: I was performing an amalgamation of imagined perfection. This quiet, gentle, moderate version is not who I am. I am complicated and complex. I am also silly and sensitive. By hiding parts of me, I am just losing sight of what makes me unique. Why would I hide that? Why would I want to perform an untrue version of who I am to make others comfortable?
I am a writer. I am opinionated. I am wholly vested in justice for Black people and others who are marginalized. I am a poet. I love to dance. I love to cook. I love to read books. I love watching movies about cults. I am interested in the effect racism has on self-image. I love to travel and live in new countries. I love trying new things. I am sensitive. I am a romantic. I love sardine and eggs. I hate Vince Vaughn movies. I am Pan-African. I love doing impressions. I am all these things and I do not need to downplay any of them to make people near me comfortable.
Being aware of how people saw me and changing myself to make them more comfortable was a big part of how I grew up. For a long time, I kept my appearance a certain way because I was told this is what makes women attractive. I distinctly remember when I first got my haircut, it was a low fade usually sported by men, and an Aunty approached me after church to tell me, “Shewa, you are different.” I smiled at what I thought was a compliment. After a beat, she followed up with, “…maybe too different.”
At that point, I fully leaned into being “too different.” I started speaking my mind and, because of that, sometimes I am told my opinions are too harsh or divisive. I started talking about mental health and, because of that, I am told my emotions are too much. Those opinions of being “divisive or too much” bring me down because it’s healing for me to be honest about what I believe or how I feel. But instead of letting other people’s feelings dictate how I should behave; I alchemize them into my writing.
I read a beautiful woman’s caption on Instagram the other day that said, “Am I too much, or are you too little?” I’m starting to believe when someone tells you are “too much,” it’s because they have tucked away parts of themselves that they wish they could celebrate, and when you embrace your full self, it makes them uncomfortable because they wish they could do the same. This is the hardest part about being an adult. Embracing your full self regardless of the criticisms you receive. Celebrating all the things that do not make you perfect and still finding joy. Openly talking about your emotions and not allowing others to silence how you feel.
August's question: What is the hardest part about being an adult?
Bonus: Think back to your younger self, that could be as a young child or a young adult, and think about a trait you thought was positive but now as someone with more perspective can clearly see as harmful behavior. Practice compassion and celebrate your growth