Body image is something I find myself preoccupied with often, and almost always in the contexts of my Black and queer identities.
As a queer man, I am bombarded with images of ideal and idealized manhood, and am made to wonder how my own body measures up. I worry, against my better judgement, about whether I am too skinny or ought to be in better shape, if I am too hairy or not pretty enough.
As a light-skinned Black man, I am reminded constantly how my body appears to other people of color–when Black folks are unable to recognize me as theirs, when I am assumed to speak Spanish, or when people confide in me their distrust, dislike or fear of Black people.
As a queer man of color, I have to see the ways Black and Brown bodies are only held as beautiful in certain contexts, only given attention for certain features. I worry about whether partners are only interested or attracted to me because I am light-skinned, don’t look like “a real Black person.” In other words, most of the thoughts I have about my body on a daily basis, while inextricably bound up in my Brown and queer identities, are about how other people are perceiving it.
My body image–which is tied to race, class, gender, and so much more–takes a particularly forward position in my mind when it comes to sexual interactions. For it is in exploring this area that I have had to think in new ways not just about my own attractions and desires, but about what attractions and desires lead people to me. I have had to learn about what makes me feel comfortable, but also about what it takes to make others feel comfortable. I have had to think about respect, both in the contexts of what makes my body feel safe and attended to, but also how to attend to my partners in ways that honor and protect theirs.
While this is an ongoing process, it has led me to realize how strange it is that so many of my perceptions of my own body should come from how others look at it. What about the things that my body is regardless of how it is seen by outsiders? How do those things effect my image of my body? This question, I have found, is perhaps more linked to my queer and Brown identities than any of those mentioned before.
My body is not just the parts of it which are desired. In fact, my body is not merely what is seen. It was given to me by generations of people whom governments, militaries, systems of forced labor, and missionaries have tried repeatedly to destroy. It holds wisdom in the forms of dance, language and movement, springing out on occasion from places in me I did not know existed. It is capable of many things, and incapable of many things, and in that, too, the hard-fought battles of many people live. To love my body is to love all the things it holds inside of it. To respect it is to respect the histories which it carries through its many bloodlines. To desire it is to acknowledge the beauty of anti-colonial struggle, the eloquence of demonized traditions, the pleasures of raging against power. To demand that it be treated with care, consideration and reverence is to demand that my people and their concessions be treated with the same.
This manifesto is not just for my sexual and romantic partners to take note of–it is equally for myself. My desires, my spirit, my body and my ancestors are all inseparable. You cannot access one without opening yourself to the complex powers of all the others.
Recognizing these links and learning to love them in unison is radical, not only because it takes my body image out of the hands of advertisers, legacies of racism and patriarchy, and the desires of other people. It is a reminder that my physical being, wonderful as it is, is good for more than just sex. It connects me to family and communities of people I love. It supports me as I learn, grown, and come to find my own voice in the world for change. It bonds me to traditions of struggle against violence, genocide and injustice on a global and historical scale. The process of learning to love, trust and respect it is the process of committing to all the people that have given it to me, to carry them and their struggles forward.