Thursday, November 19, 2009

thank you Miss Jackson

I watched the Janet Jackson interview tonight with tears in my eyes. As I’m sure is the case with many of you, I tuned in to hear how the sibling who seemed to be closest to Michael was reacting to his death. It sickens me a little inside to know that seeing someone else’s pain at such a loss intrigues me so, as if that were my brother I don’t think I would give that to even my closest friends – let alone the world. But regardless, that’s why I came home to watch. What I was not expecting was for the most poignant part of the hour for me to have nothing at all to do with the loss of the only celebrity I ever became captivated by, but with the personal struggles of a woman that I grew up wanting to be.

As a kid, Janet was “it” for me. I wasn’t exposed to a whole lot of popular culture- but anything Jackson related was on the approved list in my household. She was everything I wanted to be on the outside- beautiful, talented, successful and expressive. And at ten years old, what more is there really to care about? My attempts to emulate her started with learning every step in any video off the Rhythm Nation 1814 album with my brother. Then onto letting a friend weave what felt like about twenty pounds of Korean corner store hair into my head for those Poetic Justice dookie braids while I was in LA one summer- despite my very hate/ hate relationship with the reality of weave- and right onto working out daily to get her abs from the Again album. (To my dismay, I maxed out at 4.) The last of my “be like Janet” years was with the Velvet Rope album when I was sure that opening the doors to my sexual side was what would bring me out of what was going on in my head at the time. All things I look back on and say to myself “Really? What were you thinking?” But hey, we were all young and dumb at some point; you know you had your moments too. And as I reflect more on those memories, each one lines up with some of the most painful experiences of my childhood - the moments when I had to grow up much too fast. The moments when I needed to emulate what I thought was perfect in her because I thought that being perfect was the only way to hide what was really going on.

While it came as no surprise that Janet has her own hang ups, what brought me to the point was listening to her verbalize hating what she saw in the mirror and not understanding how the worlds view of her was so very different from her own. Not being able to see the beauty in her smile or being so scared to share the talents that the world was waiting to see that she freezes up when people look at her too closely. These are all things that seem obvious when you think of her and her shyness, but points that I never really internalized until tonight. Hearing this, as I thought back on the times I wanted to just escape and be her, it hit me just how much I used her to cover the things that I never wanted the world to know where imperfect about me.

How I didn’t just decide to learn the Rhythm Nation dances because it was cool, but because my father wanted me to be a dancer and when you spend weeks in a safe house because of his rage, you will find any way you can think of to please him just to be able to go outside again.

How I hated every minute of getting those damn braids, and even more- that cheap plastic hair poking me in scalp, but when you get to Inglewood and don’t know what Soul Train is, you think you have to do something to fit in and prove you really are half black and not just a white girl with a tan and hips.

How I loved soccer, but making my private goal to have my ribs showing was much less about excelling at the sport or being in shape and more about not being the only one of my friends above a size six and the fact that my prom dress that year was a seven and I was mortified to be in pictures with them. (Oh the irony of still having that same problem to this very day, but looking at that size seven dress with envy instead of disdain.)

How that ‘sexual awakening’ was essentially a bullshit excuse to justify that my self worth had become so tied to affirmation from others that I cheapened myself just to get that fix, walked into situations I should count myself lucky to walk out of and ultimately left home entirely too early to be adequately prepared for the world because the physical affirmations I was getting there were preceded with insults instead of shopping trips and cars.

And yet, after years of going the opposite direction and completely rebelling against needing the acceptance of anyone for anything that I do, I still haven’t been able to totally let go of the need for it in order to feel validated. I still hate looking in mirrors. I still am too scared of people looking at me to share my talents. I still fear letting anyone see the most imperfect parts of me. So why write about all the things I never wanted anyone to know? Because I don’t want to wait until I’m forty to look in the mirror and think my smile is beautiful.

Thank you, Miss Jackson, for the one action I refuse to emulate.

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