Self-Love: A Guest Post by Gwen Benaway
A guest post by Gwen Benaway.
Her voice on the phone line wavers. She pauses and takes a deep breath in. Through my cell phone’s hard casing, I can hear the words turn over in her mind, each one of them tumbling into position before she finally speaks.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if I should tell you this but he said some transphobic stuff to me after we left you. It kinda of threw me because I had just met you and wasn’t sure what your relationship to him was but it struck me as fucked up”.
I want to know what he said. I don’t want to know what he said. I linger between these competing desires before choosing the one that hurts the most. My fatal instinct – the cutting truth over the softness of uncertainty – asserts itself.
“What did he say?”.
My voice sounds ridiculous in my ears, refracted back to me through the cellular haze. It’s not musical like her voice is. I imagine her in my head, driving 400 miles away from me towards Minnesota in the middle of the night, her cell phone resting in it’s headset on her dashboard. Blue light filling the interior of her car, highlighting the tenuous digital thread to me in Toronto across the Great Lakes. Two women talking about a man that both of us loved.
“Well I said you were hot, reading that poem about sex, and he just laughed at me. I was kind of surprised by that so I was like, “you don’t think she’s hot?”, and he said “I’m surprised because you’re only attracted to women”.
“Right.” I fill in the gaps for her. “And I’m not a woman to him”.
“Yeah, that’s what I took from it”. She pauses again before adding “which is fucked up”.
“Thanks for telling me though. I mean, I knew he never saw me as a woman, but he always tried to deny it somehow because he didn’t want to lose his social justice cred”.
“But it doesn’t matter what he thinks though. You’re really cool”.
“Of course, yeah. He’s just a fucking asshole”. I lie back to her, pressing my hurt into the smallest part of my body. My heart’s inner values keep beating around a tightness that never loosens. I get through the rest of our conversation with casual ease, politely thanking her for talking to me before saying goodbye.
I’m good at pretending things don’t hurt me anymore. I’m not allowed to be hurt by the things that people say to me. The intense looks in public places or the confused stares at my body. The cashiers who call me “Sir” or the boys who drunkenly kiss me and then vanish. All of the thousand small hurts that radiate around a body like mine: a woman who is never woman enough.
Being hurt means that I’m weak. I don’t love myself enough. I haven’t decolonized. I’m corrupted by beauty standards. I’m trash. I’m garbage. I’m problematic. I’m worthless. I’m nothing. I have it too good to be hurt. I’m too privileged to suffer. Even in my pain, I’m not enough of anything to matter.
The only thing to do when I hurt is to ignore it. I imagine the spaces between my body and the world, the currents of air that slide between my skin and the tall buildings in my city. I notice how the wind sends eddies of dust scattering along the sidewalk. I count the number of puffy white clouds tracing across the wide blue sky above my head.
I breathe in and out. I hear his voice in my head. His laugh. My body slips out of my hands and falls to the ground. I break apart.
All that’s left of me is the thousand pieces of ache I call a skeleton. In the x-rays that the plastic surgeon takes in my consult for facial feminization surgery, you can see them vibrate inside my jaw bones. They loom on the black and white images, like ice flows submerged in a bay.
I’ll never be free of them I think as the surgeon tells me how he will grind my brow bones down. They’ll always be a part of me. My love isn’t the kind of love that mends wounds back together. My love – the only love I’ve ever had – is the kind of love that dents femurs and fractures ribs. My love doesn’t heal wounds – it crosses them, builds scar tissues over cuts and lacerations. It regrows bone tissues in lattices of fibrosis white protein. It imperfectly repairs, wipes down the cells and tries to start over.
Mutant, corrupted, monstrous love: as artificial as my face.
Self-love is marketing campaign for makeup. A desperate appeal to representation by a corporate machine, deluding us into a relentless cycle of social justice infused consumerism. Or it’s another way to blame the victim, a passive aggressive way to say that you don’t love yourself enough to be “better”. It assumes that we know what love is. It believes our bodies belong to us.
Self love says that I shouldn’t care what I look like. If anyone sees me as a woman or not. If strangers misgender me. The list of violence that I should be naturalized to grows bigger every day. Self love says it’s all in my head. I’m just sick inside, twisted up from my own stupidity and pettiness. I just need to “heal”.
Self love wants us to be indestructible. Immune to pain, invulnerable to shame. Perfect, entirely whole, unbroken. Self love wants us to not need other people. To never crack, to never crave. To be cleaned of hunger or envy. To be hollow vessels, poured out of all humanity until we can be infinitely positive vessels of other people’s apathy.
I don’t want to surrender my hurts. Wash my skin clean every evening of all the aches inside me. I don’t want to forget what she said to me or what he did. I don’t love myself. I have no idea how to love anything, much less myself. Love is something that I’ve never had access to and no amount of self-improvement will change that reality.
What matters isn’t my capacity for self-love anyway. I don’t control the systems of power which tear through the world I live in. I can’t change the material circumstances of my life, even if I go to yoga or buy a vegan cupcake. All I have is my desperate longing, my bitter bones growing around bruises and fractures. The dreaming I make in beds of nothing.
Each act of care that defines me is not of love, but it’s absence. Love’s haunting—its translucent nemesis— is the altar of magical thinking that I worship at. Crown me a failed saint and let me die in my vulnerability.
I would rather be a woman who dreams of more than self-love than a woman who mistakes a lie for kindness.
Gwen Benaway is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She has published three collections of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, Passage, and Holy Wild, and was the editor for an anthology of fantasy short stories, Maiden Mother and Crone: Fantastical Trans Femmes. Her writing has been critically acclaimed and widely published in Canada. She was a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ writers from the Writer’s Trust of Canada, the Lambda Literary Award for Trans Poetry, and the National Magazine Awards and Digital Publishing Awards for her personal essay, A Body Like A Home. Her fourth collection of poetry, Aperture, is forthcoming from Book*hug in Spring 2020. She is also currently editing a book of creative non-fiction, trans girl in love, forthcoming from Strange Light in 2020. She lives in Toronto, Ontario and is a Ph.D student at the University of Toronto in the Women and Gender Studies Institute.
This is the ninth blog post for our 2019 Summer of Self-Love! Every week for 12 weeks, we're sharing questions, activities or ideas that we hope will help you fall more in love with yourself this summer. You can find our first post here, or sign up for our Summer of Self-Love Newsletter here.