At some point last year, I made a conscious decision to be more aware of practicing self-love, self-care, and body positivity. As a fat, black woman, I felt it was necessary to my life and work to be intentional in the ways in which I treat and think of my body. I can’t lie: I’m not great at upholding these practices. It’s not uncommon for me to go most of a working day without eating food. It’s also not uncommon for me to overextend myself by piling on too many responsibilities. And when I’m trying to be intentional, I still find myself not truly embracing body positivity when it comes to my own body.
One of my biggest issues is that, oftentimes, the way I talk about my body is problematic. Most times, I just talk about my body in a very general sense and, if I do talk about specifics, it’s always about my hair and my stomach. While yes, I’ve experienced very real, oppressive, and harmful ways of thinking about these two parts of my body, they are not the only parts that need love and care. My body is comprised of many parts that are all equally deserving of love, even if society tells me that they are gross.
I live in Atlanta. Summers in the South can be rather warm (read that as “hot as hell”). I spend many hours throughout the summer worried about “boob sweat” – the sweat that accumulates under the breasts. I’m worried that it can be seen through my clothes and, more than that, I’m worried that others will smell it. Because I work in fragrance retail, most times I make sure I smell like a fruit or floral arrangement in order to avoid that nightmare.
But why is it a nightmare? Why does the thought of someone being able to smell my body cooling itself down so frightening? It’s normal (whatever “normal” means). Boobs, armpits, backs of the knees, and genitals all sweat, because skin sweats. Does rejecting the notion that a bodily function is gross make me a radical feminist warrior? I am a radical, Black, feminist warrior princess, but that’s not why.
Boob sweat isn’t my only gross part. I’ve been stretching my ears since high school. So over the past ten years, I’ve become very familiar with “ear cheese.” Ear cheese is the buildup of dead skin cells and sebum, one of the body’s natural oils, and it smells as gross as it sounds. As long as I clean my ear lobes regularly, I typically don’t have much of an issue of smell, although it’s not atypical to have a slight odor. But I avoid talking about ear cheese at all costs.
When people admire my ears and ask about the process, I’m never forthcoming about ear cheese. And when I have sexual partners who want to get engage in some ear action, I strike awkward poses like I’m an extra in The Matrix. Yes, ear cheese can be pungent, but I shouldn’t be ashamed of it. In the same ways that I’m not ashamed of smells that come from my vagina, the natural smells coming from my ears shouldn’t be treated as abnormal.
When we’re talking about self-love and body positivity, we should also be challenging ourselves to discuss and critique the ways in which we neglect what we deem gross and yucky. We can’t talk about embracing our fat without embracing the skin between our fat rolls. The yucky parts of our bodies aren’t any less deserving of intentional love. We should devote more intentional time to caring for those parts of ourselves.
Sweat, ear smells, and fat rolls are not the only parts of us that are considered yucky. Body hair catches a lot of flack from society. For the past few months, I’ve secretly stopped shaving my underarms and legs. To be completely honest, I stopped out of laziness and being cold. I didn’t want to take the extra time in the shower; once my body was clean, there was no other business that I felt needed to be handled. But then I started thinking about why I was shaving.
I bought razors and shaved for the first time in the eighth grade. Once I’d found out all of my friends were, I was motivated. My pubescent mind rationalized that since they were shaving, it must’ve meant that it was just a part of “being a girl,” like wearing a bra. Obviously, now I understand how ridiculous that it is, but ten plus years later, I was still shaving as a part of my routine. If it wasn’t difficult for me to release notions around the gender binary, then it shouldn’t be difficult to rationalize not shaving my pits and legs.
Hair is not disgusting when it’s growing from our scalps, but once on our legs, armpits, and genitals, it becomes gross. And let’s be real: most of the prescribed notions surrounding body hair are assigned to woman-identified bodies. So not all body hair is gross – just the hair that is on certain bodies. I tend to believe that if society is putting stipulations on a rule, those exceptions indicate that the rule is a complete farce.
I want to make it known that I am not insinuating that people who do choose to shave their bodies are prescribing to the sexist norms that society forces on us. I believe that we are all autonomous human beings who should be empowered to make liberatory choices about our own bodies. However, the topic of shaving body hair is only one part of a much larger conversation around body shaming and terrorism.
While many of us may not be actively thinking about the “gross” parts of ourselves, the beauty industry is, and it’s thinking of ways to capitalize off of it. Case in point, Dove’s armpit campaign. This campaign was dedicated to making the armpit beautiful and, of course, the most important step was to use their Dove Advanced Care deodorant. But why do we need to beautify armpits? Why aren’t they beautiful as is? An armpit is a patch of skin with hair that gets smelly when we sweat. There is nothing inherently gross or ugly about it. It is just a part of our bodies, like the other parts.
What is it that you consider gross? Is it your facial hair? Is it the smell of your feet? Or are you like me, and it’s your boob sweat? Whatever it is, you should know that it’s a loveable part of you. You can and should love and care for those parts of yourself no matter how yucky society has made you feel about them. Because at the end of the day, those parts of you aren’t gross or yucky, but the oppressive systems that wish to break you very much are.
Your armpits need as much loving as your hair and belly. So, the next time you’re about to call a part of you gross, please stop. Then, take a breath and reflect; from there, think of the ways that you can love and care for that part of yourself.
And always remember the wise words of Queen Beyonce: “You wake up, flawless.”
[Headline image: The photograph shows tennis player Serena Williams wearing a grey top and an orange head band. Her long brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She is actively swinging a tennis racket and hitting a tennis ball. She is sweating. ]