When I was 22 I was in a relationship with someone who told me my hands looked like "slave hands".
It was said as a "joke" but he didn't mean this as a term of endearment...and I certainly didn't receive it as one. It was many years later before I was able to call it what it really was--a comment meant to be funny at the expense of my self esteem. Keep in mind this was someone I'd known for a very long time. Someone who said he loved me. Someone I shared a bed & my body with. Someone who wanted to be my husband. Can you imagine what it's like to be in relationship with someone who helps you dislike parts of your body that you didn't even know were up for critique?? I pray to God you never have to find out.
It was easy to walk away pointing the finger at all of his faults but many years later it hit me--he was never my real issue. It was me all along. My issue was that I wasn't appalled enough to leave at the first signs of bad behavior. That I didn't throw him the deuces when he casually mentioned that an ex-girlfriend (whom we both had restraining orders against) was prettier than me. And that I didn't bounce when he squeezed his hands around my neck in a fit of rage one summer afternoon. Did he have his own issues? Absolutely. But they were his to uncover & heal--his and his alone. But what makes still makes me cry for that young woman is that she didn't KNOW BETTER. That no one specifically taught her about the depth of her worth but instead, like most young women, assumed she knew because she fit a few superficial social markers: she came from an educated family with "good jobs". She went to GATE schools and took AP classes. She was exposed to different cultures and experienced the luxury of traveling to new horizons. But those things didn't automatically translate into knowledge of self because, as I can now confirm with all certainty, job titles, social classifications & educational degrees don't mean shit when it comes to recognizing your own worth. So she made up her own rules as she went along. She thought holding onto her virginity, getting a Spelman degree & having the courage to speak her mind made her someone special...someone of value. She didn't understand that we don't BECOME special--that there is nothing we can do to BE special because every single one of us is special by sheer virtue of being alive. The only thing "specialness" requires is breath in your body. It would take her many, many years to understand that...and to learn to let go of the things she'd been holding onto that were never hers to carry in the first place.
When I talk about Personal Empowerment, it comes a deeply personal place. It's not just a rallying cry for me--it's how I've made sense of my life experiences and it's the gift that's enabled me to take painful stories & transform them into teachable lessons...both for myself and for others. It's helped me heal and tell a different story about so many situations I've experienced. But do not be fooled--the Dayka you see now is someone I've had to intentionally GROW INTO over the years. I was the girl who never really felt like she fit in with the other kids. I was the girl who was never "chosen" by the popular guys. I wasn't having sex, didn't cut class (mama did NOT play that) and didn't drink or smoke weed. I was just there, in plain sight, desperately wanting to be seen. So I spent the early part of my life trying to be different than who I naturally was because I didn't feel like I was good enough with my brown skin, "weird" name, "broken" family, assertive personality and borderline "acceptable" address (being one of only a few black girls in my classes throughout elementary, middle & high school didn't help, either). And because I didn't feel like I fit in, I tried to find ways to make myself smaller than I was because...well, that's just what we do when we think there's something wrong with who we are--we try to find ways to blend in & disappear. Why? Because I didn't know my own worth. I thought my success lie in trying to shave down my edges & round off my corners instead of uncovering new ways to accentuate those unique features. Eventually--and luckily--I found my way though.
And here's why I'm sharing all of this with you:
The early part of my life had to be exactly what it was so that it could prepare me to become who I am today (and who I'm yet growing into). Yes, I'm a designer but I'm also a woman who's incredibly passionate about personal responsibility and self empowerment, especially as it pertains to women. Why? Because we are often taught--and even encouraged--to shrink. Don't be too confident. Don't talk too much. Don't curse. Pull your skirt down. Be nice. Keep the kids well dressed. Make a fresh meal every night. Look like you did at 17. Polish your nails. Be agreeable. Don't intimidate a man. Don't talk too much about your accomplishments. Put some earrings on. Keep the house clean. Take pride in "keeping your man". Be sweet. Don't ask for too much. Be a freak in bed. Make sure your pedicure is on point. Keep a Brazilian. Be humble. Wait your turn. Don't sleep with too many men. Get along with the group. Don't be so assertive. Be grateful you have a man. Look pretty. Don't be a know-it-all. And be quiet. OMG, it's straight up exhausting! And when we grow up being bombarded with these messages, it dulls our ability to trust in ourselves & our natural instincts. And let me tell you, a lack of trust never, ever turns out well. In any situation.
We learn to shrink at home, we learn it in school, we learn it from our fathers, brothers & boyfriends, we learn it from our mothers, colleagues at work & women in our social circles. But it's time to start unlearning some of that stuff if you truly intend on embodying your highest vision of yourself. And here's the catch: only you can do this unlearning for yourself. It is not your parent's job, your best friend's job or your spouse's responsibility to make you feel good about who you really are. That is purely an inside job, my little sugar muffin. Making someone responsible for your wholeness is too much power to give any one person (or group of people) over your life. And once I really understood this--realizing that I didn't have to wait for other people to change because I could change MYSELF, a whole new world opened up to me. There may have been certain things I feel like I didn't learn in childhood but those very things have become my platform NOW (Looka Gawd!). To remember that at ALL times, it is not only my right but my responsibility to EMPOWER MYSELF. To make choices that are soul affirming. To stand in my power at all times and not hand it over to someone else. To fill in my own gaps and not expect someone else to do it for me. And to remember that the only things I really need are the things that come from within.
So back to him. If I had truly known my worth from the beginning, we wouldn't have been together in the first place. And that's the real truth--it's the responsibility that I OWN about my involvement in that relationship. And once I had the courage to be honest with myself & acknowledge that I simply PUT UP with too much for too long because I didn't know better, something just shifted. I was able to release him from the story I'd been telling (his fault! his fault! his fault!) and start to do the work that really mattered--my own. Is it easier--and more socially acceptable--to blame him for the negative parts of our experience? Of course--because society tends to love a "he done me wrong" narrative. But taking responsibility does not look like me regurgitating all of the ways I thought he fell short or pointing out all of the ways I thought he should have shown up better. Instead, it means asking one simple question:
What was it about you that made you decide that kind of behavior was okay in the first place??
And answering that question, my friends, is where the real work starts.
There was a time many years ago when I didn't know better but now I do. And I want you to know better, too.
This is my Why.