Knee Length #8
By Khalisa Rae
In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.
Being Beautiful Versus Being the Object of Desire
My mom says I had curves and a sashay “that could stop traffic” at eleven or twelve. Puberty hit, my hips started to bulge, and my breasts grew in tandem with my awkwardness. Back then, I would have put Beyonce’s hourglass figure to shame. I was tall and curvy, fair-skinned with long, honey-colored braids. I was Destiny’s Child before Destiny’s Child and honey, could I work it. I’d throw together cute outfits: a red top and flared dark denim jeans, paired with an over-the-chest purse and matching shoes. A blue jean jacket with patches and pins, graphic tee, and matching backpack— a true ten fashionista. I had all the pieces of a confident girl. The recipe for self-esteem was there, but something was missing. Most of the time, I just felt like a giraffe in a sea of graceful swans.
Part of it was that I didn’t look much like my sister or my mom. Back then, we were practically opposites. I was tall, fair, and slim-thick, while my mom and sister were brown and short, full-figured with matching round faces. I wanted so badly to feel connected to the legacy of our family matriarchs, but instead, my appearance made me feel distant. My mother begot her mother’s nose, lips, and body type, and my sister begot hers. I would look in the mirror, hoping to see the matriarchs alive in my face, too, but I couldn’t find them—only paternal features that muddied my reflection.
At home, hiding was impossible; the investigation to discover where my hips and ever-expanding chest originated from made me feel more like a science experiment, and less like a beautiful girl. I’d smile and laugh, laying on the “operating table” being poked and prodded by older siblings, but inside, I’d recoil, uncomfortable with any and all scrutiny of my body. I was the oddball out, struggling to find my place and mine the beauty within.
I was hypervisible at home, but invisible at school. You would think being one of the only curvy Black girls at a private, Christian middle school would make me stick out like a sore thumb, but instead, I faded into the backdrop among the swath of thin, white, blue-eyed classmates. I was no match for Ally, Ashley, or Alisa, the pampered, privileged, populars. And of course, the boy I had a crush on, Spencer, was into Ally, not me. At parties, I’d get dressed up in my cutest dress, sure that I would turn heads, and yet I remained invisible. Despite my efforts, I was still the awkward Black girl that ruined their perfect white atmosphere.
Once, I was asked out on a date by a white boy. I showed up at the movies early, dressed in the cutest outfit I could put together. When Jessie finally showed up thirty minutes late, he told me he couldn’t date me because his parents disapproved. And we both knew what that meant— they disliked me because I was Black. I was devastated. 90’s fashion magazines and music videos already did enough damage to Black girls’ self-worth and conception of beauty, but being rejected for being Black further reinforced the belief I held that I’d never be beautiful enough to be wanted.
When I arrived at high school a year later, I finally got my chance to sit with the popular crew. I looked around and measured my beauty against theirs—was my hair pressed out enough? Were my clothes fashionable enough, my makeup and accessories in line with the latest trends? I’d strut my stuff in maxi floral dresses and wedge heels and get invited to all the football and basketball parties. I was the epitome of every pretty Black girl you’d see on your favorite teen dramedy. Tia Mowry, Raven Simone, Lisa Bonet. I finally had it all— the popularity, the wardrobe, the look—but I still didn’t feel beautiful unless the most popular guy or beautiful friend was validating me. The guys I would get entangled with were always jerks, but I would buy into every empty compliment they threw my way. I would try to fill myself up with superficial praise, but I felt nothing on the inside. Much of high school passed struggling to unlearn the damage I had internalized during puberty.
I’d go out with my mother and catch the stares of men my mother’s age; this quickly became a repeat occurrence. We couldn’t shop in peace anywhere without their toothy grins and wandering eyes running over my body. At one point, the unwanted attention grew so uncomfortable that my mother and I would leave restaurants or move seats to flee.
“What are you looking at?” my mother would sometimes demand, angrily confronting them while they stood, dumbfounded. Men twice my age would hit on me and tell my mother she and I “looked like sisters” as a cringe-worthy pick-up line. At times, we’d smile and walk away. Other times, we’d fuss them out and send them packing. To cope, I’d wrap sweaters around my waist to keep them from looking and wear baggier clothes to hide my curves. I was swimming in shame and awkwardness. The only option was to try and hide.
My hair was too coiled, my skin too brown. Speech too cultured. Taste too flashy and flamboyant. I never fit in. It began to feel as if I lived in two worlds— one where my body was the object of unwanted desire, the other where I was painfully invisible. Both soured any chance at confidence I might have developed as a teen.
At church and school, we’d learn of women whose modesty was their armor—those who refrained from drawing attention to their hips and breasts. We learned of the two opposites: the Jezebel figure and the Virgin. Where did I fit in? When married men would stop and stare at me against my will, it was hard to stop myself from feeling ashamed, and harder still to not internalize their attention as my fault. When were men going to be held accountable for their leering? In spaces where I wanted to be seen, I wasn’t. In spaces I tried to hide, everyone could see me. When would I be given the space to feel beautiful without being ashamed of my body or rendered invisible?
I grew tired. I had done enough hiding and covering up. I couldn’t go on like this. I had to own my sexuality and stop hiding in the shadows. Sunday School lessons never included the Song of Solomon’s praise of the female form. When I asked about it, my mother would evade the details. “That is a celebration of marriage. A letter from a husband to his wife,” she would explain. While that was partially true, Song of Solomon is also about celebrating a woman’s body. It helped me understand that my body is nothing to be ashamed of, but to be celebrated—that our bodies can and should be praised on our terms. I thought about the Garden of Eden and how Eve and Adam hid because they were ashamed of their nakedness. I began to long to be naked, but unabashedly so. To walk in the fullness of my inner and outer beauty. To affirm that my body did not exist for the male gaze.
When I arrived at college, I began to feel more emboldened to exert autonomy over my body, beauty, and sexuality. As I grew older, I also grew more confident calling the objectification I received out. I spoke up and refused to allow what I was learning to cherish to be disparaged any longer. As I launched into adulthood, I learned that what I experienced as a child was a type of trauma and sadly, was not uncommon. As I began to expand my reading beyond the Bible, I learned by studying Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Maya Angelou that my stride and step were for me and me only. What I wore and how I displayed my body would never be an excuse to harass, assault, or abuse me. In college, women writers became my teachers, my spiritual guides as I worked to find and protect my beauty: Eve Insler, Gloria Steinem, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. They were my champions, my beacons as I embraced my unique voice and my self-worth.
But perhaps most importantly, they guided me to the realization that there was no dichotomy—that my sexuality and beauty were not separate or distant from my spirituality. That intersection was at the heart of my healing. On my lifelong journey to heal and unlearn shame, I could be a beautiful, sexually empowered, and spiritual being, all at once. My conservative upbringing had led me to believe that beauty, sexuality, and spirituality were mutually exclusive when in fact, they were kin, constellating parts that made up who I was. I didn’t have to be separated from my spiritual self in order to feel beautiful and empowered. My connection to a higher power, my faith and my belief in goodness—that’s what made me beautiful most of all.