Y’all ever been doing some self-reflection, trying to focus internally, and on that random-walk happen across a tiny outpost of neo-colonialist thought just lurking in some obscure part of yourself? I ran, full-force into one I didn’t know I still had last weekend. I tried writing this then, but I had to step away for a while. I wasn’t ready to eternalize my inability to love myself fully by writing about it just yet.

I was going to a friend’s 21st birthday party. It was on a part of campus I’d never been to. The white sorority section of Central campus. Y’all know that feeling when you’re in a neighborhood where nobody looks like you, and you can almost feel everyone locking their car doors as you pull up? That’s how I felt. I walked over from the familiarity of Anderson St. with my Australian friend. She’s brilliant, all legs, and recently very blonde. I trailed behind her excited to celebrate our friends’ special day. We passed a group of white guys, potentially affiliated with a greek organization, and instantly found myself stumbling back into the nightmare that was middle and high school. Each of them checked my friend out in turn, slowly, methodically. There was a hunger and an appreciation. They passed me next. I felt the indifferent graze of their gaze as they looked through me.

Reminiscent of the many times boys at my predominantly white middle school would rather not dance, than dance with me, I found my fiercely proud and apparently fragile self-esteem shrink quickly back as I was awash in old insecurity and self-critique. Arriving at the party made things no easier. I was surrounded by white women. Of all varying shapes and sizes, yet still cloaked in the same basal self-assurance of being subconsciously affirmed in the media, on campus, and in pop culture. For a long time, I was the only non-white woman in the room. Wearing all black, with big hair, and bright red lipstick, my fashion choice only augmented the differentiation that my skin initiated.

I faded between the present and middle school me. I could almost smell the burnt hair from all the time and energy spent straightening my hair to try to blend in more. Though I really was convinced that straighter hair, a narrower nose, and lighter eyes were things I no longer desired, or coveted, I did find myself nervous in that room full of what I had been socialized to believe was normative beauty. At one point, I shut myself in the bathroom and forced down tears. I choked back years of looking at movies, magazines, TV shows, and books that showed me that beautiful would never be attainable for me.

I forcefully tucked my hair behind my ear and reminded myself of how far I had come. I wore my hair big because it was a part of my personality. I drew attention to my big lips and the shape of my nose because they were a part of me. In that party, between toasts and wishing people happy birthday, I confronted an old me. A Ghost of Insecurities Past. I confronted those old desires, and forgave myself for having ever pursued them. I contemplated the system of white-washing and socialization that I continuously find myself ensnared in, and comforted myself with the fact that I recognized the source, and chose not to entertain it.

I took deep breaths and reminded myself of the many people who helped inspire and nurture my self-love. My boyfriend and I have talked several times about this experience. I have told him how I felt in that moment. I haven’t told him how much he has helped me move past it. Obviously in the moment, when I was having a small break down, his texts were reassuring and affirming. But I’m talking about the everyday affirmation that occurred before the birthday party, during the birthday party, and continues today.

I mean the many different ways he carves out space and time for me to be myself and learn to love myself. The more in love I fall with him, the more I also love myself. He pushes me and moves me to be introspective, to challenge myself, and to stand up for myself. I was able to recognize those old desires and fears, and rebuke them because I have a stronger sense of who I am today than I did then. I teared up for these old desires and was frustrated by how they could still give me such a sense of discomfort. Yet, I was also able to refute any claims my insecurity might’ve made swiftly and instantly. My sense of self-awareness and self-love ushered me safely past that danger zone.

This February, during this hallmark holiday that starts with a V, I’m celebrating a couple of things. I’m celebrating my ability to recognize and accept that I am a product of the society we live in. I’m forgiving myself to having some socialized misconceptions that I still have yet to root out. I’m jumping for joy that I have such a beautiful person to share that journey with. And I’m glad to reminisce on every step of that journey we’ve already taken which inspires me to fall more and more in love with him, but also with myself.

Mia King