A Bad Bitch Deferred: A Lesson in Faux Friendship
When I was fourteen I took on my first job: camp counselor for Children’s Garden, at Queens Botanical Garden. Before I spent those three months learning Mandarin through four year olds and getting farmer’s tans, the garden had an orientation so that my co-workers and I could meet and learn about each other. One of the girls I met was Christina, and we took to each other if for no other reason beyond living in the same neighborhood. Christina was an archetype of beauty I never thought to notice: a fair skinned, freckle faced girl with a body that literally stopped traffic. After work Christina and I would take the bus to Jamaica Avenue and hang for a bit before going home, which inadvertently became a crash course lesson in catcalling and street harassment. At every turn, men young and old whistled, stared longer than they should have, and made lewd remarks at her. It pissed us off for the wrong reasons, she for being gawked at and me for not even being paid attention to. I can look back and laugh now, but I was pressed more than Sunday school shirts as an attention deprived teen. Jealousy had me wrapped in its green aura, and wasn’t about to let go anytime soon.
Full disclosure: I have ugly duckling syndrome, I’ve since grown into an awkward swan. I was raised an only child and eldest amongst my cousins, so it’s safe to say I was given attention and affection when I needed it. Growing older, I’d watch music videos and see how the vixens of the era sauntered their way across my television in the fashion and beauty trends of the moment. Through glossy lips and hourglass figures, I saw how these women were desired, wondering why nobody ever desired me in such a way. Completely ignoring the fact that I was a child, and anyone looking at me with lust in their eyes would be an abomination, I unconsciously set out on a mission to achieve those exact reactions from men anywhere. As I became a teenager I’d nervously walk down the street, hoping that the men in my neighborhood deemed me attractive enough to bombard me with questions: ‘how old are you?’ ‘you got a man?’ ‘slow down, I just wanna talk.’ Christina had all of the things I wanted, and she knew it.
My relationship with Christina was equally rooted in my jealousy and her comfort in knowing no man would ever be attracted to my glasses, loosely fitting clothes, and twisted hair. She was Melyssa Ford, and I was Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee. I remember going to Christina for advice about boys who were into me, and each time she’d be surprised that anyone found me interesting enough to ask me anything beyond directions or help with homework. I felt that she found me inferior, so I did what any insecure teenager would do in this predicament—I talked shit about her to anyone that would listen. I confided in some co-workers my deepest thoughts: that she wasn’t as attractive as she thought she was, that the guys who were into her just wanted sex, and that I was more intelligent than she was. I was more upset with her for being more attractive than me, when I should have been upset with her lackluster attempts of friendship and using me to boost her own confidence.
Sadly, my jealousy didn’t stop with Christina. Any girl who wasn’t my friend became an adversary in my head: I’d watch how they’d walk, how the spoke, what they wore, and how men would interact with them. There have been, embarrassingly, many times where I’d be on the train, following men’s eyes as they watch women on the platforms or in train cars. I’d scroll on MySpace and set up camp on girls’ profiles, waiting for them to update their profile pictures so I can tear them down and prop myself up as an underdog who’d win an invisible battle. I’d try and copy these girls, fail, and comfort myself with pep talks reminding myself that I had smarts – and that’s all that mattered in a world where beauty fades faster than a fake Burberry t-shirt. What good is it to be smart when you’re using your intelligence to wage a one sided war? What good is it to have words that hurt when they’re self inflicted? What good is it to encourage yourself to be smart only because you’re afraid to be in touch with your own beauty?
As an adult, I look back on my teenage years and just want to go back in time and hug myself. I want to tell her that she’ll meet a man who would become her boyfriend and love her in a way she didn’t think she could be loved. I want to tell her that for every person who called her ugly, ten more people will laud her imperfections. I want to tell her that there’s so much more to life than her looks, but that in order for her to eventually like what she sees in the mirror, she’s going to have to love what’s on the inside too.
May my growth as a feminist and woman be abundant, and may my self esteem no longer be swayed by a bad bitch on Instagram.
Shanté is an American-Trinidadian photographer based in NYC, and founder of FLASH. Her 'Bad Feminist' series is centered around her newfound shortcomings, and understanding that the world doesn't revolve around her. When Shanté isn't shooting she's drinking at least three 24oz bottles of water a day and learning to love herself. Follow her on Instagram @shazthephotog and view her work here.