I received a reminder about self-love this week that God put on my heart to share. For many people loving self is a real challenge and many don’t even realize it.
I was in the studio of photographer Jason McCoy doing a photo shoot for new headshots for my publisher. Accompanied by makeup artist Debbie Davis and a young creative stylist, Stacey Lynn, I was teamed up with the best for a successful photo shoot.
Lights, camera, action. Look this way. Stand this way. Weight on this leg. Hold your hands like this. I followed Jason’s lead, smiled, and looked right into the camera. Shot after shot.
Indeed, all was going well until Jason said, “now, no smile.”
For a quick moment, I panicked inside and thought, “But I have to smile; my lips are too full not to.”
I tried to comply. I closed my lips and looked into the camera. Yet, Debbie noted a dissonance: “you’re still trying to smile.” Stacey Lynn looked on, capturing a few behind-the-scenes photos.
Again, Jason persisted, “Now, no smile. Use your eyes.” And just like that, I settled into a serious look, lips closed, without the slightest bit of a smile peering through.
I’ve been thinking back to that moment in the photo shoot. And as I prayed and reflected on that moment, the Holy Spirit brought back messages I had been given down through the years that caused me to doubt the beauty of my lips.
First, I remembered a segment on a talk show years ago in which the host had women of various races take pictures smiling and without smiling. Then a so-called guest expert opined that Black women were deemed less attractive when they didn’t smile. Harmful message.
Next I recalled a male cousin telling me, “Black women with full lips like yours shouldn’t wear red lipstick.” He spoke with a tone of authority. Ironically, I thought I had dismissed them, but his words must have lodged deep into the recesses of my mind.
Throughout our lives, we have received messages that settle into our spirits and cause us to doubt ourselves. These internalized messages create moments of internal conflict in which we try to project confidence with our actions yet feel insecure.
It may be skin tone for some of us. It may be hair texture or length for others. For some, it may be messages about our weight, body size, or shape. Consequently, these messages get ingrained in our brains and we get programmed to think of ourselves in a less-than-positive light. And these thoughts lead to feelings about ourselves that for some take a lifetime to sort through and shift.
These messages that cause women like me, Black women, to doubt our own beauty are false. They are lies rooted in a racist, misogynist narrative that attempts to make whiteness and European beauty standards supreme.
Toni Morrison, in her novel Beloved, described Baby Suggs, an “unchurched preacher” who, in warm weather, preached outdoors in a place in the woods called the Clearing. The community of enslaved people gathered to hear her—women, men, and children. And she proclaimed to them a message of love of self and of community.
“’Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh.’” She continued, “Love it. Love it hard. Yonder, they do not love your flesh.” Starting with the eyes, then the hands, she described how “them out there” would try to destroy their body parts in an effort to destroy their souls.
Then she continued, whether an eye or a hand, “You got to love it, you!”
And here’s the part that spoke to me this time: “And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth…No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it.”
Baby Suggs taught them the importance of loving their flesh by touching, holding, and caressing their flesh. She showed them the significance of resting and dancing. As I reread that section of Beloved, I touched my lips, taking in all their fullness. I must say affirming my lips in that way brought a smile to my face—this time not from an effort to hide the fullness of my mouth. This time my smile emanated from a place of contentment and self-acceptance.
With that gentle touch, I reminded myself that from these full lips, I speak messages full of hope and love. With these full lips, I share kisses that touch my loved ones deeply. From these full lips flow words of praise and adoration for the One who created me and fashioned every part of my being.
Ms. Morrison, in her prolific way, touched the heart of decolonizing the minds of Black people. This is the work we must continue to do because too many of us still receive and internalize the self-loathing messages from former enslavers and colonizers that now get perpetuated by media, families, and friends.
Pay Attention to the Messages Swirling Around in Your Head
In that photo shoot, for a moment, my internal dialogue about the attractiveness of my own unparted lips clashed with the facial expression I was trying to display for my photographer. The same thing can happen to you, not necessarily in a photo shoot, but in your workplace meetings. In your training sessions. On your video calls. Or sales calls. You intend to show up one way, but your thoughts sabotage your actions. You lash out in defense rather than listen. Think about thinking: In what ways may you be trying to overcompensate for your insecurities that stem from negative messages you’ve received?
In my photo shoot, my makeup artist noted the dissonance. She’s trained to pay close attention to her client’s faces and expressions. Her aim is to creatively accentuate a client’s beauty. Debbie had worked on my lips and knew what they were capable of. She made an observation: while I was trying to look at the camera and not smile, I was smiling ever so slightly and didn’t even realize it. Receiving feedback is a gift to us from those around us who know us and whom we trust. You must ask yourself, who is around you that you can trust to give you feedback?
Watch the Little Leaks
This lesson of self-love and self-acceptance extends beyond the photo shoot. I’ve learned that if my thoughts don’t align with my behaviors, I will show up to a business meeting or event with other leaders feeling and looking uncertain. After all, if I doubt I belong in those spaces, then that uncertainty will leak out in my posture, facial expressions, and gestures.
Not surprisingly, when there is a gap between what we feel about ourselves and what we try to portray to others, the truth will slip out in our nonverbal behaviors. And most people can see the leaks. They hear the reactionary words. They see the eye rolls. Still others hear the harsh tone used when we feel we need to prove ourselves.
Too many of us go through life on autopilot, rushing from one meeting to the next, from work to the grocery store to home, and back out to an evening engagement. We are too busy to even grasp the lack of self-love we have. It takes slowing down to become more attentive to the thoughts and harmful messages we’ve received and intentionally addressing them and removing them. It takes time of quietness and stillness; prayer, and reflection. You owe it to yourself to carve out space to pay attention to your inner world and make sure it aligns with who you really are or are being called to be.
Love ALL of Yourself!
With a reminder from Baby Suggs, showing up confident inside and out starts with loving ourselves. Loving our hands, feet, neck, eyes, and lips. Loving our entire being. And knowing deep inside that we are the Beloved. We are loved by God and worthy of self-love.
Take a moment and lay your hands on yourself. Touch your face, eyes, nose, lips, legs, and feet. Touch your hair and appreciate its texture. Celebrate your distinct hue. Then praise God for you are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 13914, NKJV).
While I can’t wait to share with you my new headshots, I wanted to give you a few behind the scene photos of the shoot now.
I have a new book coming out in August 2023, “Leading Well: A Black Woman’s Guide to Wholistic, Barrier-Breaking Leadership.” In it, I give tools for reimagining our leadership, leading from a place of authenticity, and loving our whole selves.
Finally, if you still need to do so, join my mailing list for exclusive updates and giveaways and to be the first to know about the launch of Leading Well.