When my daughter, Elenni, was about 7, she went South for the summer and encountered her first Sunday school lesson. She called me, excited: “In the Bible, it says you should love your neighbor like yourself. That means you have to love yourself first, right, Mommy?”
Frozen, I clutched the phone as a rush of conflicting feelings flooded through me. Pride: My baby girl got the secret of life from her first serious church service. Terror: After realization comes application, and trust, she will ask “How?”
In that moment, I thought back to every piece of generic advice I’d ever received. Countless times I’d been told, “Girl, you just have to love yourself.” Yet for the life of me, I couldn’t recall anyone teaching me how. So for years, I dressed up the negative self-talk in funky gear and fancy friends. Now, here I was exposed before my own perceptive precious little Black girl, who needed me to teach her about a love I didn’t quite understand.
If I could have predicted that moment, I never would’ve wasted so much of my young adulthood abusing myself by silently repeating how unworthy, fat or fake I was. I would have addressed what made me feel ugly, undeserving, invisible or disposable—things so many of us struggle with, despite how fly we may appear. How could I love my life like it was golden? How could I raise a Black girl who loved and worshipped her sacred self if I hadn’t figure it out for myself?
I began to model my love for myself after the love I had for my darling daughter. I told myself encouraging, empowering, delightful things—out loud. I fed myself wholesome, delicious meals, regularly. I made sure I got plenty of rest and plenty of play. When I got cranky, I took an adult-sized time-out via meditation or a walk. I allowed myself adventures and space to be reflective and creative. I honored my imagination and tried not to take myself too seriously. If something hurt me, I said that it hurt, in real time. (And, psst, I sought help for pain that wouldn’t go away on its own.) I rose to “Good morning, beautiful” and set to “I love you” every night. I practiced mothering myself—something one can do even if you’ve never given birth.
As a Black person, I’m in a constant state of brutal awareness of the attacks on our people. I’ve seen Black girls in bikinis and box braids flung to the ground and dragged across classroom floors by grown men in uniforms and Black boys hunted down by self-appointed vigilantes. Black women shot in cars with their daughters seated inches away and left to die in county jails, Black worshippers gunned down during prayer service. For this kind of trauma there is no preparation. What I do know is that in these times especially, I must fiercely protect my psyche and spirit, practice radical self-care and turn the love all the way up on me first, if there is any hope of my healthily loving anyone else.
[Read more moving, personal essays examining different facets of Black love in the February issue of EBONY. On newsstands now! Click here to subscribe. ]