this is how you lose her – a slam poem

I recently performed my first slam poem at an annual arts show called Verbal Emancipation. It was magnificent. Here is the poem:

this is how you lose her.
as you make love to yourself
through a cellphone screen.
your red-lipped smile is as hard as your hairspray
oh, what a shame
that filters erase pores, but not unhappiness.

this is how you lose her.

as the facebook likes rise
you feel the meter go up on your self-love scale.
you don’t mind the numbers this time
because they’re not telling you
that you take too much space
like that godforsaken bathroom scale.
‘fat’ – a curse word hurled by girls
who try to love what the mirror shows them
but fail. chase after self-esteem
inside a no-cream
skinny latte.

this is how you lose her

when the pop of orange bubbles in the corner of your screen
tells you how you confident you’ll feel today.

flawless. like. stunner. like. slayyy. like like like.

follow.

but let me ask you one thing
as you angle yourself thin
which do you love more?
the girl on the screen
or the girl in your skin?

and this is how you lose her
when your answer to that
becomes your hesitation.

and you lose
when society points its fingers
and you turn them all to point to
yourself.
because you’re female.
you were built up that way.
raised on a plate for catcalling men,
your body a meal for the
wolves in your head.
but take it with a pinch of salt,
the world says. life is a contest,
you’ll always be second best.
this is how you
lose her.

when you listen to that.

today, you noticed your face cream’s called ‘fair and lovely’
but darling, you’re unfair
more caramel than vanilla, you wish
your skin told a different tale than of how it was once oppressed.
see, black girls have lupita, brown girls have mindy kaling
but white girlfriend jane over there has the rest of hollywood
to spare.
isn’t that what’s unfair?
that if you’re dark, you’ve already got a burden to bear.

and you lose her
when you notice the symptoms
of this snow white syndrome
flare. and as you place that filter on your face
do you notice how it makes
your skin get
lighter lighter lighter
and the world gets brighter brighter brighter
as the comments roll in,
a sea of ‘yass girl SLAY’s
never mind that I don’t know your last name
but I’d still double-tap that.’

this is how you lose her
when those words become gospel
leading you to the light
but instead of god, you find Perfection.
and you’re forced to realize
that Perfection is the kind of lover that never stays.
this is how you lose her,
in his too-tight embrace.

and you lose when you pick the guy that only
desires you
because desire is a wolf that rams its
tongue down your throat, brands its touch on your skin
but forgets what your favourite colour is.
yes, he will learn the outlines of your legs
faster than his math assignment. desire
is when he thinks girls become less pure
after they’ve been touched by a man,
well maybe he should take a look
at his hands
this is where and how you lose her.

when you think love is when he looks at you
from between his legs
and desire starts to equal respect, an equation that can never make
sense.
do you raise your skirt’s hem
for him or yourself?

see, a soul can’t be dressed
a soul can’t follow a trend
but if this world was a cup of coffee, then soul
would be the sugar grain
forgotten on the saucer’s edge.
these are the thoughts that pour from your brain –
your tongue calls them ‘feminist’
but the world always thought that
your mouth should be drained.
so angry
so angry it has to be this way.
but anger doesn’t look good
on a woman, they say.

‘a soul can’t be dressed.’
‘a soul can’t follow a trend’
and you cry.
because nothing’s about the soul anymore,
it’s all about the skin.
isn’t it?

and you lost her
when you forgot to ask the girl in the mirror
if she’s happy.
when the lipstick’s gone, the concealer erased,
are you happy with yourself?
when your phone is down, the camera turned away
are you happy with yourself?
‘cause you could drip in gold
or just wear your skin,
you’ve always heard but never
known that what matters is within
‘cause a soul can’t be dressed
and it shouldn’t be a
revolution
to love yourself
but it is.
you always thought being a girl
came with that string attached.

but this is your call to arms
to try to love what you have, what you own,
what you are.
you’re a girl. you’re a woman.
you’ve got your beauty in knots
all you need is to untangle it in your thoughts
because

this

is how

you find her.

***

 

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Geared up for the show – me & my beautiful friend Tsaone. He sings.

 

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You Look Disgusting

I got acne when I was 9 years old. I’m 13 now and still have it. I don’t think people understand how much it affects me. I get bullied for it. People tell me “it’s not Halloween yet.” And “What’s wrong with you?”

The comment above has 164 likes on YouTube. A ribbon of replies follow – ‘I can relate’, ‘I feel your pain’, ‘people can be so cruel’.New sob-stories swell by the hour, each commenter relishing the comfort of being faceless in this conversation about faces. ‘I can barely look at myself in the mirror,’ one 11-year-old writes. A horde of well-wishers reassure her that she’s beautiful, she’s worth it, never listen to the haters. Love yourself. It sounds so easy. As sweet and neat as a wrapped candy.
I wonder if she swallows it.

Last year, a British beauty blogger named Em Ford released a short film titled ‘You Look Disgusting’. Ford suffers from acute adult acne and often posts images of herself without makeup – the perennial ‘before’ picture – freely showing her blemishes and scars. The response has been shocking.

Seriously, has she ever washed her face? Revolting. Imagine waking up next to her in the morning. Gross. Ugly. You look disgusting.
In the film, Ford sits bare-faced in front of the camera, as these comments (all of which she has received in real life) materialize around her. She is motionless, unsmiling, distraught. As she begins to apply her makeup, the words around her change. She smiles. You look beautiful.
But this is so misleading.   

A still from ‘You Look Disgusting’

Society never lets you win with makeup. If you don’t wear it, people stare and comment, especially if you have acne. If you do wear it, compliments quickly slide into digs such as ‘you’re fake’ ‘clown’ and ‘this is false advertising’. But a woman is not a product. And since when is she trying to sell herself to you? Yet society behaves as if a woman’s face exists solely for its viewing pleasure. Therefore, it must adhere to its ‘perfect’ standards -which are really double standards.

Most people think that a woman only wears makeup if she’s insecure or she’s trying to please a man. And yes, while it is true that some individuals, especially young girls, use makeup as an emotional crutch or a ladder to higher self-esteem, this is only because they’re trying to please the very society that judges and shames them.

However, many find makeup empowering, and a means for self-expression. Others see it as an art form, using their faces as a canvas on which they can play with colour and texture. They feel equally comfortable with makeup and without. Swiping on some lipstick is simply a choice they feel they have a right to. But we all know that society has a tendency to deny women their choices. Wearing makeup today has become more of an obligation; it stems from an unspoken expectation of women to always look flawless. After all, isn’t this is what all the magazines and adverts and films whisper to us daily? Be perfect, be perfect, be perfect.
And then we wonder why some women can’t leave the house with a ‘natural’ face.

You can’t talk about beauty without mentioning the media, society’s obnoxious loudspeaker. If you switch on the TV or flip open a magazine, every single female is wearing makeup. The high-school girls all look runway-ready in homeroom, their eyeliner winged to the heavens. Some of them even sleep with it on. We see no images of confident, bare-faced women. So we begin to believe that prettiness and confidence can only be found in an eyeshadow palette. Meanwhile, young girls see Kylie Jenner’s stardom spike after she gets plastic surgery and extensively uses cosmetics. So they too begin raiding the MAC counter in hopes of becoming more likeable, more popular, more beautiful. Just like the girls who are #goals on their screens.

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We tell girls that beauty comes from within but we show them that it’s only skin deep. The comments in Ford’s video itself are a testament to the idea that beauty is dependent on makeup, and even then it is never enough. The spectrum of ‘being beautiful’ has become as narrow as an eyeliner pencil. No wonder people find it normal to viciously judge others’ appearances – so casually cruel in the name of ‘stating their opinion’.
Do they ever realize how much it can hurt?

Should such comments be banned?  I don’t believe this will solve the issue. Despite the venomous nature of the words, it would limit one’s right to freedom of speech. And we would only be skimming the surface. What we really need is to change the mindset that somebody’s appearance must conform to your own, or the media’s, set standard of beauty. We need to make people feel the knives in their words before they post a nasty comment on somebody’s face. We need to stretch out our rigid perceptions of beauty.

Because beauty is not a template you can contour yourself into; it is the love and compassion within you. It is your humanity. And you cannot conjure that from a mascara tube.

 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

There is only one book I have ever read that made me physically jump up and down with exhilaration. Upon reaching its last page, I was overcome with the feeling that all my initial thoughts and beliefs and values about the world had been quietly rearranged. It was magnificently disorienting, as if my mind, prior to that moment, had been an unfocused photograph which was now finally clear.

This was not a book of philosophical revelations. It was not written by Albert Camus. Or Dickens. It was not even written by a man. The name of this book is Americanah, and its author is a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This novel has been quickly categorized, or perhaps I should say ‘dismissed’, as a ‘race’ novel. Someone broke the mould and actually wrote a full story of honest racial discussions; this was not a case of tweeting #BlackLivesMatter, sitting back and calling it activism. This needed acknowledgement. This needed labels – loud labels. Thus, critics were quick to sprinkle their reviews with such glittery adjectives as ‘bold’, ‘courageous’,‘astonishing’ and here are the best ones – ‘rambly, angry and brave’.  (I noticed a bunch of white, suburban women on Goodreads called it ‘too much’)

Some of us had only one response to Americanah – ‘finally’. And a large portion of this ‘us’ consists of women of colour. Why is this book such a gift and such a grace to us? Perhaps because we have grown up reading stories about people with pale complexions, who live in places with sunny, comfortable names like Fairfield, and are called Hannah and Elizabeth, names that spill smoothly off the tongue – names completely unlike our jagged ones. Many of these stories are riveting and well-written; they are undoubtedly good literature. But they are not ‘our’ stories. They do not form that magical bridge between their voice and our ears, that bridge of understanding that truly powerful writing creates, which makes us sit back and say, ‘Yes. That’s it.’

After I read Americanah, I researched Adichie in a frenzy. I devoured the rest of her books and articles, her TED talks and even her fashion choices. Somewhere along the way, she became the paragon of the woman I aspired to be, the invisible hand I chose to grasp and lead me into my own womanhood. Because her words made me feel more than comfortable in my skin – they made me feel proud.

I loved Adichie because she wrote about women who are told they are not strong enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, pale enough, NOT enough and made it sound like poetry, both brutal and soft. She wrote about feminism, before Beyoncé glamorized it. She wrote about girls like me, chasing after self-love and not knowing what that means. She wrote about women living in a man’s world and exactly what that means.And I thought it was a miracle. No one, I felt, had been this fearless and sensitive when writing about society in the age of misunderstandings and microaggressions.

Adichie’s crystalline prose is a mirror and we see ourselves in all the ways we try not to. If you open up her books, you find a face with all the makeup wiped off; it is full of truth. But what makes her writing so extraordinary, is that its power does not announce itself through a loudspeaker. Her words are quiet lightbulbs flicking on in the mind, rather than violent protests of ink.

One of my writer friends once said that Adichie writes beautifully but is sometimes too much of a ‘social warrior’ and this is a bit aggressive. I bristled. And then I realised that my friend simply had the luxury of calling the storm too loud while sitting in a soundproof room; as a male, it was not his anger to question.If Adichie’s writing is aggressive, it is an elegant aggression, mixed with equal parts hope. And I say too loud is better than too silent – women are tired enough of being unheard.

Adichie once said: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

And this is why the greatest gift Adichie has given me is the confidence of owning myself. Reading her stories, her mosaics of colourful, broken life-pieces, I have become less afraid of writing about my own experience as a person of colour, as a female and as an Indian – even if I know my words could make society, beginning with my own mother, wag its finger. I have unearthed my own feminism and let it dangle like a charm bracelet. Because I owe this to myself and because I deserve it. And, perhaps like Adichie, writing is the only path I can take to come home to myself.