Saturday, June 28, 2008

Raw Divatude: Reclaiming My Inner Vegan Vixen

Most black women own a pair of jeans that they love, that flatter their curves, that display the derrière in high definition. Sadly, I’m curves-free, and I suffer from booty envy. But once upon a time, during my sojourn in the City of Angels, I did have denim that I adored. They made me feel sexy. Not Kim-Kardashian-showing-off-the-backshot-every-time-there-is-a-paparazzo-in-breathing-distance sexy, but confident. More than just a functional relationship, the jeans symbolized my victory in the battle of the bulge, a formerly overweight chick at ease in her own skin.

My denim was far from designer, but a cast-off Mudd brand that I had inherited from a good friend. They were a tight size 7, not camel-toe inducing, but comfortably cradling my tush, my hips and my legs. I never washed my jeans; I had them dry cleaned to preserve their true blue swagger, and I wore them like a uniform to the club, the industry parties and once, even up in the sanctuary.

But that fateful day arrived when I was no longer able to zip my jeans. No amount of struggling, lying on the bed, or sucking in my gut would force those defiant metal teeth to close. Even though junk food had been my constant companion, and I had gained about twenty pounds at the time, I felt sure that my true blue wouldn’t betray me.

I had struggled with my weight before, but a strict vegan diet helped me to lose fifty pounds, and I plummeted from 175 to 125 in 2000. I was able to hold obesity at bay until about 2005. A steady diet of emotional eating, lack of exercise and sporadic depression helped to pack the pounds back on. Even as my midsection expanded, I desperately clung to the belief that I was still a fly girl goddess flaunting my loveliness in size sevens. But I had to face the fabric. When I tried to squeeze into my jeans, they would rise no higher than my thighs. I was crushed. The love affair had ended. With much sadness, I bid those denims adieu, packing them away in the furthest recesses of my closet, a purgatory for pants that had not yet passed over to the other side.

I laid my jeans and my confidence to rest two years ago. In no time at all, I went from hottie to haus frau, hiding my girth in flowy skirts, oversized shirts and muu-muus. Belts were out, as was lycra. I wore nothing that called attention to my gut or my ponderous thighs. From time to time, I would venture to the nether regions of my closet, pushing past hanger after hanger of elastic-waisted pants, and hideous size 14 skirts, just to touch the fabric that once lovingly enshrouded my sexiness.

I was morose for a while, refusing to linger in full-length mirrors or department store fitting rooms. Not only did I miss my jeans, but I missed my self-esteem. A black woman without self-worth in Los Angeles — where fashion billboards glare down at her, daring her to aspire to Melrose’s size 2 standards of beauty, and every other ad is touting tummy tucks and liposuction — is lost indeed.

I found my mojo in living foods. On April 16, I embarked on a journey into the world of unprocessed, raw foods, and I haven’t looked back. No more lonely nights on the couch with a bag of Uncle Eddie’s vegan cookies and a book, or a bag of Barbara’s All Natural Potato Chips and a Slurpee. If it doesn’t grow, I don’t eat it. It’s that simple. I find my strength in sprouts and smoothies.

A little over a month after eating raw foods only, I lost 16 pounds. Although the mirrors of Nordstrom and Arden B. still intimidated me, I was slowly regaining my confidence. Not only did my new lifestyle provide me with tons of energy and mental clarity, I was also able to reclaim my inner vixen.

A few weeks ago, while getting dressed for work, I decided to try on some outfits that I hadn’t worn in awhile. While riffling through my wardrobe, my hand fell on the hanger that houses my beloved jeans. Even though I hadn’t been weighing myself regularly, I was certain they would fit. It was time for my old friend to cross over from pants purgatory to the heaven that is my heinie.

Cautiously, I wiggled into them. With some struggle, they rose over my thighs, but what if the defiant metal teeth still refused to close? As I zipped and buttoned my jeans, I felt like doing cartwheels in my bedroom. My sexiness had been resurrected. To be sure, my muffin top was still in effect, albeit not as bloated as before. My inner thighs still kissed. Not a long, passionate smooch, mind you, but a friendly peck. Self-love indeed.

Earlier this week, while at the nude Olympic Spa in Koreatown, I decided to weigh myself. What better time to hop on the scale than when you’re in the buff? To my surprise, I was 148 pounds. I’ve lost 27 pounds since April 16. Although I’m ecstatic to be within 10.5 pounds of my goal weight of 137.5, what brings me greater joy is feeling blissful in my own skin.

No matter how much weight I lose, I’ll never be bootylicious, nor do I aspire to be. But there’s nothing wrong with flaunting a little raw divatude in my denim.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mane Manifesto (or The Nappy Goddess Emerges)

Give me your perms
Your fried hair
Your huddled naps
Yearning to breathe free …

kitchen \kich- ɘn\ n. 1: a place (as a room) with cooking facilities. 2: a [shameful] place at the nape of a black woman’s neck that houses her naps; resistant to heat. See also buckshot and beedy bees.

I was having a Do the Right Thing moment. It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon, and I was driving back home from Juliano’s, my favorite raw food restaurant in Santa Monica. Perspiration leaked down the sides of my face. My halter was clinging to me like a needy kid, and I was feeling cantankerous. Even the maca iced coffee that I had recently chugged down couldn’t cool off my emotions. Like Mookie, the ne’er-do-well pizza delivery guy from Spike Lee’s epic flick, I was certain the triple-digit heat would force me to do something radical.

Stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway and listening to Mary J.’s womanist anthem “Just Fine,” I fingered my kitchen, the snarl of hair at my nape. Although I secretly preferred this kinky texture to my straightened, highlighted tresses, like most black women with processed coifs, this area was often kept hidden, a deep source of personal shame if someone rolled up on you from behind and saw your buckshot on display.

I had been thinking about my mane a lot lately. Even though I was on an every-two-weeks schedule with my hairdresser, the flurry of flat irons, blow dryers and spritz, and the results they produced — kink-free tresses — didn't bring me as much joy as they once did.

For colored girls who have considered peroxide …
When I met with my stylist last month, we laid out my look for the summer. She would give me a cute short cut and then highlight the hell out of it. I was thinking in advance of the praise I would receive for my bold new look, how the multi-hued ‘do would compliment my features and the color-coordinated outfits and accessories I would rock with my new style. But I couldn’t shake the unease I felt about going through with the plan. Every subsequent visit to the salon found me putting off the peroxide. My hair had been growing out for a few months, and I was reluctant to undergo a chemical process. Dare I say it didn’t feel natural?

Just as I had embraced a raw foods diet a few months ago — shunning chemicals and processed foods — I was experiencing a similar paradigm shift with my tresses. I felt like my hair needed to be healed.

Deep down, I didn’t want my mane to become my identity. Although I liked the attention from folks in the organic market and random shoppers at the mall, I felt weighed down by my hair. As summer approached and temperatures climbed, my social life was restricted. The slightest bit of moisture could wreck my pressed coif. Invites to the beach were reluctantly accepted, swimming was a no-no, bikram yoga was definitely out. Even exercise was limited for fear of jacking up my edges and incurring the knotty wrath of my kitchen.

A radical idea was budding. I would cut my hair. Off. All the color out of it. I would rock a natural hairstyle, free of chemicals, preservatives, BHT, Yellow #5 and dye. Immediately after I had that thought, I was gripped with fear. I couldn’t chop my hair off. I lived in L.A. — the yaki capital of the U.S., where long hair is privileged and straight hair is queen. Ten years of living in this town have shown me that most people judge you on appearance alone. Folks would no longer think I was cute. Brothers wouldn’t look at me three ways. White women would pet my hair and fetishize and exoticize as if I were some caged animal on display at Universoul Circus.

Reluctant revolutionary
So I was still stuck in a sea of chrome and brake lights, humming along to Mary J. and trying to figure out the future of my mane. Short cut and highlights? Shorn like Audre Lorde? What was a diva to do?

I’m conscious … for the most part. I realize that natural hair is a form of resistance to accepted standards of beauty, a smack in the face to the weaves and extensions that were blowing past me on the 405 freeway from convertibles and through the windows of SUVs. Unprocessed hair is also a form of self-love, a way of saying, “Yes, I accept and embrace my kitchen, in all its kinky glory. I am black and beautiful.”

And yet the most pressing (no pun intended) decision on my mind was this: How could I rock a natural look and still preserve my flyness? In my mind, unprocessed hair was reserved for revolutionaries, and even though I’m down with Fanon and bell hooks, and listen to Pacifica radio on the daily, I wasn’t ready to trade in my designer duds for kente cloth and cowrie shells.

Like Mookie, I had a decision to make. I couldn’t deny that I felt oppressed by my tresses. I didn’t feel like a fully self-actualized woman with my current state of hair. Besides, it was hot as hell, and I wanted to get in the water without worrying about my locks for once.

Like Mookie, I was a reluctant revolutionary on the threshold of enlarging my consciousness. I envisioned Spike Lee’s character on the cusp of such a decision, an average Joe, an affable baby daddy with a one track mind — to get paid. But a sizzling New York day brought out his inner militant. I pictured him in the scene outside Sal’s pizza parlor, Radio Raheem dead at his feet, white racist cops behind him trying to restrain the growing black tribe of protesters. I saw this common pizza delivery cat picking up a trash can, and with an angry warrior cry of “Radio!” smashing the plate glass window of his oppression, increasing the margins of his existence.

I too am just an average chick with a one-track mind — a desire to succeed as a writer in the sunny jungle of La La Land. But the heat — external and internal — has radicalized me. I have been wearing my hair straightened or chemically processed since I was eleven, the victim of a failed kiddie perm. It was time to change the paradigm. I would defiantly break through the attempts at marginalization based on my appearance, even those efforts that were self-inflicted. I would cut my hair off, and I would still be fly, Ntozake Shange of the Sex and the City set. I saw the nappy goddess in me and loved her fiercely.

Kitchen liberation politics
By the time I exited the freeway and was a few miles from home, my mind was made up. My hair would be three or more inches shorter before sunset. As if further confirming my decision, I saw a peculiar sign outside my neighborhood church. Every week, the marquee in front of the building features a new message, and this week’s motto was: “Let’s go swimming.” It was as if the Almighty himself was saying, “Just do it already. Sheesh!”

As soon as I stepped into my apartment, I changed clothes, washed my hair and grabbed a pair of scissors. But uncertainty was a clenched fist in my chest. Even though the ends of my mane were dry and damaged from years of highlights and press ‘n curls, I was hesitant to part with those dead strands. I would be severing myself from an identity that I had held onto for so long, one that I had privileged and cherished.

But my kitchen was begging for liberation and defiantly so. The day’s heat had morphed that area into a baby afro. I was already halfway through the process. Why not just hack off the dead hair and let my new, revitalized self emerge?

Emboldened, I started snipping. I lifted a handful of hair and cut it. Lift and cut, lift and cut, lift and cut, until my reddish-brown tresses pooled at my feet. I stared at myself for a long time in the mirror, trying to decide if I liked my new look. I checked myself out from all angles, taking in the jagged tufts of hair, the kinky-curly texture, the bold new kitchen that had suddenly shifted out of the shadows and into the light. I liked my new style, but more importantly, I liked me.

Lady in the Water
The next day, I threw on a bikini under my sun dress and headed to Santa Monica beach. In the ten years that I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I can count the times that I’ve visited this particular body of water, or Venice Beach or Malibu, on both hands. But I was on a mission to submerge myself.

As usual, the shore was filled with sun seekers, kite-flying kids and couples getting their PDA on on a beach towel. I found a spot on the sand next to a woman engrossed in a novel. After asking her to watch my bag, I headed to the water’s edge, unafraid this time. I splashed handfuls of the Pacific Ocean on my upper body, getting acclimated to the cold temperature. In the distance, surfers rode a massive wave, whooping with delight. I rushed to meet it, and the briny breaker washed over me, baptizing me into my new life.

I stood in the ocean for a while, watching seagulls lazily circling overhead, gazing at the mountains sloping in the hazy distance. Not only would I be a fly girl with a natural ‘do, I would also become a beach bum. Maybe I would make the trek to Malibu next weekend. Whichever shore I selected, I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about my kitchen. My kinks were on display for the world to see, and for once, I was unashamed. I knew I had done the right thing.