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Life has a funny way of bringing things around in a full circle kind of way. I bought some hair products from a Black-owned business, and it started caking up my hair. I tried to wash it out numerous times, and the product stuck closer to my follicles than white on rice. Eventually, I gave up trying to untangle my hair and just chopped it off.
Now mind you, I’ve been meticulously growing out my crown because I desired the long, flowing, thick wooly look that the natural hair girls flaunt on Instagram. But lately, my life has made me reevaluate some things, and I decided that cutting my hair was a start. I valued the length of my hair, but now it didn’t matter as much. So much stock is placed on a woman’s appearance. Reading Ashlynn Duval’s piece Becoming Eve was a bit triggering. I had to look at myself and question all the things I held dear and wondered how much of my supposed values resulted from brainwashing and conditioning.
She spoke about her beauty, but she also wrote about her trauma, which brought up some deeply buried hurts in my life. The whole piece made me stop and nurture the courage to become my authentic self without bearing the guilt of living up to someone’s expectations.
As the adage goes, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, loving yourself is a rebellious act.” Finding the strength to be comfortable in my skin is a journey I continue to travel. But little steps along the way serve as building blocks to help me reach that peak of peace.
Associate Editor of Carefree Mag
#HairDiaries: Becoming Eve
by Ashlynn Duval
Editor’s note: Major trigger warning. This story is heavy and deals with mental and sexual abuse. If you or someone you know is dealing with something similar, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
Cutting my hair was how I chose to renounce the idol of my childhood.
It was April 2015 and I’d recently moved in with my cousin after not being able to enroll in the spring semester of school. I needed more money for rent and tuition than I had available. My caption on Instagram with the photo revealing my haircut read, “cut if all off now she look like Eve,” quoting the popular hit “All Falls Down,” by Kanye West.
For 19 years, I was showered in compliments by everyone because I had long hair. An indicator of my femininity. My custodial parent, Tanya, favored me at home because I was compliant with whatever she wanted. I was docile, and all the attention on my physical appearance, complicit behavior, and inflated sense of self had gotten me nowhere. Tanya spent my childhood propping me up and wasn’t coming to save me now that I was “grown” and out of her way. This wasn’t the first time.
When I was young and impressionable, there weren’t any Tik Toks about modesty and femininity. My conditioning came the old-fashioned way—Tanya groomed me first. Our common interests and talents in music at church along with my inability to speak up for myself made me desirable to her. My sister, Elizabeth, who has always been sure of who she is, was rejected by Tanya in many ways. Elizabeth was not interested in being molded, she wanted to be affirmed in who she presented herself to be. Tanya vilified my sister for stating her needs, asking questions, having a preference, and making decisions for herself. I was socialized to believe all of those things were inherently bad because of most adults’ reactions, including Tanya’s, to my sister. My childish thinness was affirmed as attractive when Tanya would compare me to girls my age, all while she would make disparaging comments about their weight and appearance.
Sunday mornings were Tanya’s platform to parade my sister and I around like possessions rather than children. She was affirmed in her efforts in presenting her girls as prizes with all of the doting and compliments we received. Our appearance was a social currency for Tanya. Through these insidious behaviors, Tanya showed me what she would and would not accept from me.
The first time I disagreed with Tanya was in the car before heading to a doctor’s appointment, and I immediately received backlash. Tanya let me know I would need to be on birth control. I tried to assure her that I was not having sex nor considering it, and she let me know it did not matter. She responded to me at that moment as if I was my sister, shouting, “you will have sex, and I’m not taking care of a baby,” damning my future with this unavoidable act. She gave me no choice but to choose birth control.
At that moment, at age 14, I learned I had no say in my body and no control over what happened. That moment stands out so much to me now because it was the first time I can recall my agency actively being taken from me. I tried to establish a sense of self and received contempt in return. Being manipulated by the person who was “raising” me set the foundation for another person to come in to do the same.
All adolescents need acceptance, love, and approval and I was no exception. I have always been a writer, musically inclined, and an avid reader. Despite my interests, I was accustomed to receiving praise solely for my appearance, primarily my hair. Adults showed me what they valued about me with their compliments. “Being cute and having a dollar won’t get you on the bus” was often my grandma’s warning. Unfortunately, she was the only one to voice this sentiment, and I was hearing it less and less.
By the time I turned 15 in October, I was at home only to sleep because I was spending all of my time with my recently hired chauffeur. Let’s call him Rat-man. Tanya hired this 21-year-old man to drive my sister Elizabeth and I to and from school in the spring of 2010.
Over the course of 9 months Rat-man slowly isolated me from my family and friends while he groomed me. He would have tantrums when I chose to spend time with other people separate from him, and the only way I could appease him would be by being with him. Rat-man had conversations with me about what type of person to date, using the ability to drive and having money as qualities for me to look for when dating. He would keep me with him after dropping Elizabeth at home on nights that I or Tanya had choir rehearsal. Rat-man would verbally assault me in front of my peers, making crass jokes and hypothetical situations of me having sex. In private he would give me compliments about my appearance, as I was accustomed, and by December 2010 he’d worn me down.
My first experience with sex was my rape at 15 with 21-year-old Rat-man. The dynamic between my custodial parent and I already prevented me from having the skills necessary to assert myself. While I am unable to recall the moment past him kissing me, I do remember him telling me, “I just laid there like a dead fish.” Rat-man laughed at his own comment while he cleaned himself up.
After he started to have sex with me consistently, he constantly let me know how he would beat me if I was his daughter because of what I was doing with him. At 16, I tried and failed to separate myself from Rat-man. I wrote him a letter and left it in his bedroom in a place I knew he would find it after he’d taken me home for the evening. In this letter, I let him know that I did not believe that the relationship between us was OK, and expressed that I felt God was displeased with the situation. I didn’t want to do it anymore. A few hours after I’d been home he called me. While cussing me out he reminded me that he was the only person who cared for me, and told me I was his God-ordained wife. In his mind we belonged together. I put all of my courage and energy into writing that letter, and with one phone call it had all diminished. I cried myself to sleep that night. I was defeated and felt stuck in the worst situation.
Rat-man convinced me that it was my responsibility to protect him, I could never tell anyone about our relationship until I turned 18. “If anyone found out, I could go to jail,” and I remembered that hot July day in 2013.
Rat-man had become more controlling after I got my license and was able to drive myself around. I became angry enough to “break-up” with him after he harassed me via call and text for not sitting at an oil change appointment with him. I told my mentor about the demented relationship, after he began stalking me, and showed up as a chaperone on a week long youth-trip I was taking. My mentor was required by law to at least share this information with Tanya. All that came from my confession was Tanya letting me know I could have told her, so she didn’t waste her money paying my boyfriend to drive me around. I already knew Tanya believed being attractive was a “one up” on other women, but I did not realize she did not care what anyone did to me. I have never endured a moment more heartbreaking than that in my life to date. Tanya let me know her money was more important to her than me. After all of the superficial support and attention she gave me, my actual well being was not on her list of priorities.
Separating from my abuser gifted me the realization of autonomy. I didn’t have to have sex with anyone, so I didn’t. When my abuse stopped, so did my binge drinking, and I spent a lot of time at home. Alone. My junior and senior years of high school went by quickly. As my classmates worked on scholarships and college applications, I did nothing. I turned in one application to a school I knew I could get into and didn’t think twice about it.
In the true nature of the parent that raised me, Tanya asked me if I wanted to spend my graduation money on revamping my look. She thought I would have a strong chance at finding a “good” man if I did. After declining her offer I packed and headed to school a month after I graduated. Being away from home made all of my norms feel foreign. I immediately started dating a football player from one of my summer classes. We broke up shortly after he dotingly called me a trophy. The way he reduced me to my appearance disgusted me. That contempt grew every time a boy would point out the physical difference between my friends and me. I began to feel uncomfortable because some would try to position me as more beautiful for something as trivial as hair.
As my grandma warned, being cute and having a dollar did not get me anywhere. On April 20, 2015, I sat on my bedroom floor and cut all but 3 inches of hair off. At the time I didn’t realize the lyric, “and she’s been dealing with some things that you can’t believe,” applied to me just as much as the initial lyric I used in my Instagram caption.
I received the reaction I wanted. Tanya immediately texted me acting as if I had hurt myself. In a sense, a version of myself did die that day because I had enough. By June 2015, I left my childhood church for a small one across the street and began my soul-searching journey. I worked for a non-profit organization and received ongoing training on trauma and abuse, which opened my eyes to the tragedy of my life.
During that time, I also attended a non-denominational church and felt undesirable. The biggest take away in my life is no woman or girl is safe until we are all safe. No woman is genuinely respected as long as a sister is being disregarded and harmed in her presence. Society sells women and girls a dream that being a certain way will earn them a man.
Some women will become just as violent as men in pursuit of the attention they aspire to receive. Women will take on the role of tearing down those who are too dark, too fat, too loud, too ratchet, and too different to fit into the mold. A woman who groomed me to be that way to get a man. Trying to squeeze a beautiful and unique woman into a box of what a man expects, it is unsustainable. When the box breaks, the man is going to react. While it might not be physically violent, it could be mentally, financially, or emotionally damaging. The only victims of desirability politics are women, and we should all be working to reject them because the consequences are dire.
Ashlynn is a 26-year-old writer who recently moved to Georgia. She returned to school and plans to pursue a career in writing and producing. Ashlynn is inspired by the work of Toni Morrison and bell hooks. She hopes to create a safe world for black women and girls with her writing.
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