tavonne carson, Naked in Twelve Steps

1. Set the mood. Draw the blinds. Light candles that waft a special fragrance into the air. Turn on some music. Create a Quiet Storm in your bedroom with a custom playlist, just loud enough to distract you from a thunderous heartbeat but soft enough to allow you to focus on your thoughts. And there will be a parade of them. More on that later. Do not dim the lights. They stay on. Light is necessary to seek out and purge the dark. Turn on every lamp in the immediate area, and bathe in luminescence. The artificial glow will do until your inherent one emerges.

 

2. Step in front of a full-length mirror. Go ahead and double check to make sure the windows are fully covered as you prepare to expose your nakedness to the one person who matters most. This is not the middle school locker room echoing with the judge-y chatter of a dozen or more ‘tweens. There is no three-minute sliver of time to exhaust while you wait for a stall to change into your gym clothes. You suffered the repeated consequences of being late for roll call to save your stretch-marked thighs and breasts, spilling from an ill-fitted bra, from a mean girl’s glance. An after-school detention was a bullet you’d bite, but baring what was beneath your clothes was potential ammunition for a school year’s worth of humiliation—not a chance you were willing to take.

 

3. Disrobe. Undress. Put on your birthday suit. Get buck.

 

4. Breathe. Constructing a positive body image is war. After years of slumped posture to detract from the ample bosom that developed in grade school, when boys popped bra straps for amusement, it is up to you to uncover and detonate the self-destructive landmines. That desperate need to layer t-shirts over swimwear in pool class graduated to a shapeless wardrobe shaded in a sad, self-effacing rainbow of neutrals. Each morning you select your cloak of invisibility from the closet. Enough of this hiding.

 

5. Look into your eyes. This may be difficult for many reasons. You accepted the idea that you weren’t much to look at because you weren’t the “pretty girl” with skin the color of Manila paper and “good hair” pulled into a wavy ponytail. When the boys made up report cards to rate the girls, you got failing grades if you made the roster at all. Their perception of you became real—obscuring your beauty and weakening your is-ness the way extreme heat distorts a horizon. Hold your gaze for as long as possible. Here is where that parade of thoughts will come in. You’ll hear all the horrible things they had to say about you; horrible things you had to say about you. Negative, ugly untruths you collected and held tight like precious currency.

 

6. Recognize that what others say about you is a gathering of consonants and vowels that form sounds. Words. Based on their piecemealed perception. They are not true by virtue of being spoken. That silver, afro-ed professor you admired who, during office hours, interrupted you mid-sentence to say, “They must walk all ova’ you at home.” What did she see? you wondered, wandering back to your dorm. Was it your tone of voice or your posture that read ‘doormat’ as you sat across from her? That relative who, in her version of a pleasant introduction, stated to a friend she “never thought it would be you” who would leave the hometown pond to swim in more venturesome waters. Somewhere in the storyline you shared, she pegged you as an unambitious tadpole. They don’t know you. Despite their words and their perceptions, it is your duty to know your own magnificence, to understand that being seen is worlds apart from actually seeing who you be. Internalizing this idea will be a difficult process; so do not expect instantaneous relief. It will take dedication and practice but, from now on, you can be the one who has the final say. You are who you say you are. Period.

 

7. Notice your breasts and vagina. But don’t linger too long. They are not the completeness of what makes you a woman. Even if there was that time he told you to lose his number, as you trailed him back to your front door, after refusing him sex. Even if he wouldn’t entertain dating you because he knew you were a virgin. After school, hanging out in the hallway—his voice echoed off empty and linoleum—without shame, in front of his friends and yours, “Yeah, I like her too but she ain’t tryin’ to fuh.” He was too immature to appreciate your virtue and know that you were a prize among women. Today, he is lost and desperate for someone like you.

 

8. Block out all images of Victoria’s Secret models, Cosmo cover girls, and the like. They are the airbrushed, digitally- and sometimes surgically-altered exception, not the rule. You are your own standard of perfection. The defined fullness of your lips, the muscular thickness of your calves, the creamy length of your neck, are all divine. The lines and curves of your body’s landscape were created by the exact intelligence that sculpted the Himalayas and populated the planet with extraordinary creatures with unbelievable abilities. You are the most glorious among them.

 

9. Take a visual tour of yourself. Think Sunday afternoon stroll as opposed to Monday morning rush hour. Forehead, cheekbones, jaw line. Collarbone, navel, that smooth place behind your knee. Notice your blemishes and scars. They tell the story of who you are. The moles and freckles inherited from your great-grandfather who built the house you grew up in. The inchworm-like keloid on your knee earned by crawling, as a toddler, into an empty cement pool glittering with shards of colored glass. The pockmark on the inside of your calf that remained after a bout with chicken pox. In front of the mirror stands a legacy, a fearless adventurer, a warrior.

 

10. Repeat Step 5. There will be a time when you only remember how you didn’t want others to catch you looking in a mirror. You’d rush away from your reflection or quickly snap your compact closed at the sound of footsteps approaching. You imagined they’d think you thought too much of yourself, or they’d finally find the flaws you concealed with foundation and distance, by then so convinced you were more mistake than miracle, more blight than blessing. But this work goes beyond vanity, far beyond the heft of insecurities—theirs and your own. So look longer. Deeper, and with the focused intensity of seeking out a truth that will transform you. It will arm you with a life-saving force. Find what makes you beautiful. It is there.

 

11. Touch. Lay hands on yourself and you will know what love feels like. Be gentle and present. Curious and probing. Go on an expedition of You, a land teeming with all the resources and treasures you will ever need. Study what brings a smile to your lips and a quiver to your stomach. There will come a time when you will have to teach someone how to love you. You must learn first. Take pride in knowing the whole of yourself. Inside and out.

 

12. Spin. Worship. Repeat. Again and again.

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