What my skin has taught me.

TRIGGER WARNING: Body image, rape, abuse, ancestral trauma. Reader discretion is advised.

“My body is my vessel. An archive of experiences. A weapon that has fought battles that only I understand.”

Sophie Lewis

I’ve been thinking a lot about skin. The journey that mine has been on and the relationship I have with it. How I have treated it. What my skin means to me. I don’t think I have ever paid that much thought to my skin–it was always something that was there, functioning as it was meant to.

I have never had a skin care routine. I would try different things because it was the thing to do, and then I would get bored and stop caring. I would hide my skin behind layers of makeup. I rarely used moisturizer. I never saw skin care as something I was worthy of. When other women would invest in their skin care, I would just get out an old cloth and use whatever soap was there. It never occurred to me that I deserved to have anything more.

When I was younger, I would receive comments about how my skin “looks like porcelain”. That it would look like it is “glowing” and all sorts of other white centered praise. I was given compliments only on qualitues passed down to me by colonizers. Any compliments given to me about features passed to me by my Taíno, African or Middle Eastern ancestors came in the form of microaggressions. Microaggressions were not things i learned about. When I was a kid, my skin was a golden brown. It was so beautiful and as I grew older, I became lighter and lighter and somewhere along the line this changed. My skin would react to the sun and I would burn instantly. It would be a burn so bad that it would leave scar tissue. It was a violent reaction to the gifts the sun was trying to offer me. 

The first time I ever really noticed my skin was when my grandfather told me the moles by lips were sexy. I must have been about 10 or 11. I remember not knowing how to respond. I remember becoming self-conscious about my moles. Instances that followed this were my grandfather pointing out blemishes. My skin was always a topic of discussion with him. My sister, who is gorgeous with darker skin and perfect hair, would always get a reaction from him like so: “Here comes Miss America!”. I never felt that my skin made me beautiful. 

Cut forward and I begin to take notice of how light my skin is compared to my family members and I become more self-conscious. This outer shell becomes an additional source of discomfort, and now I feel like I do not belong or that I do not have a place. I am reminded frequently of how much of a shock my skin color was when I was born. This places me further out, and I continue still to find shame in my skin cells. I grew up in a neighborhood of mostly Irish Italians. I grew up when the ideal beauty was thin, with straight silky hair. I did not see girls like me represented in the media with curly hair, my cheekbones, my nose, my eye color, my large hips, my 5 foot frame, my muscular legs.

I recognize now that my early experiences with other people’s commentary on MY vessel really impacted me. When people would comment on my skin, I would actually take offense. Whether it was a pleasant comment or not, I was uncomfortable. I didn’t want this type of attention. I wanted to hide. But skin is not something you can control, and so I was stuck being confronted by some stranger about my skin–someone who felt they had a right to take some form of opinion and voice it about the layer of flesh that holds my vessel together. There was no escape. So I would rebel. I would opt out of taking care of it beyond soap and water. I would let it dry itself out. I would refuse to take the day’s makeup off. I always felt like my body was subject to the opinions of those around me. My grandparents commenting on my weight or how they hate my curly hair. Someone always had something to say, like they were entitled to it. I find myself now, wondering how often my ancestors experienced the harsh grip of entitled abusers. 

I recall the first time I was allowed to become strong and feel respected based on the fact that I am a human. I was 23. I had just gotten a personal trainer. James. He was a fifty something year old, Black man. Aside from my own father and maybe one professor from college, he was the first man who never expected anything out of me. He knew I could do more, and he helped me realize it. But he did not push me, he asked me to be honest with what I could do. He never commented on how I looked. He only ever asked me how I was feeling. He told me right away, that our journey together would not be one about appearance. It would be about becoming mentally strong and focusing on how I was feeling. I trusted him. He knew it and he never took that for granted.

Looking back on all of this, my relationship with James was so healing. I wasn’t trying to change my body in our work together. I was changing how I felt about my body. I was becoming stronger. I was able to respect the time and the patience that come with devotion to this vessel.

I say all of this because I made a connection not that long ago. I was talking to a friend and I realized that after I was raped I wanted to hide from unsafe people. So I stopped caring for my body, my skin. I gained weight. I hid in very large clothing. My skin wasn’t enough to protect me. I had to hide that too, so I wore makeup. I grew furious with my body for betraying me and abandoning me when I needed it most. I disconnected.

When I left my abusive relationship, I read somewhere that skin cells replace themselves fully all around the body every seven years. I found comfort in waiting for skin that would never have been touched by my abuser. Then I was raped. I felt a disconnect from my skin in a very visceral way. I wanted so badly to remove my skin and let it become something I could hang dry like laundry and wear again when I was ready. My skin became this entirely separate entity for me. I could not associate with it because it became too painful. It held too many devastating stories. It held no scars for me to be proud of. It felt dirty. It felt shameful. My showers would entail 25-30 minutes of intensive scrubbing. So much so that I would rub my skin raw to try to erase the stories it had to tell. And I just could not escape. 

In all of this, this hatred for my skin and resentment towards my body, I had never stopped to listen to it. To really hear how it works. What it was trying to say, and how my ancestors have communicated to me through it. In fact, I think there was a time where I actively tried to avoid hearing its message. I blamed my skin for so long. I blamed it for making feel like i was lacking– like i was not enough– “not Puerto Rican enough” or “not Italian enough” or not this or that enough. I blamed my body and my round frame for not allowing me to fit in and wear clothing that was never designed with me in mind. I blamed my skin for making me feel like I didn’t belong among family, or the people I share lineage with. I blamed my skin for something it was not responsible for. I blamed my skin for allowing pain in. But skin is a gentle barrier and it is porous and toxins will be allowed in from time to time.

The first time I listened to my skin, I can remember the love I felt. I was overwhelmed to the point of tears. That it replaces itself to ensure I am always refreshed. That regardless of how I feel about it, it will never stop loving me. The love my skin and my body have for me is unconditional. I can’t help but feel like I wasted so much time wishing it was different, all the while it always just wanted to make me feel like I am enough. This unconditional love is where my ancestors speak to me. 

When I really listen to it, I hear it ask for my patience. I hear it tell me how rewarding patience is. I hear it tell me that my hips are big because my body was designed for resilience. This resilience is not loud. It makes itself apparent in my womb as it has within all the women who have come before me. My skin holds stories of violence, and death and rape and sorrow. My skin holds stories of pain. It holds stories of hurt and helplessness. But it holds stories of love too. It holds gentleness, tenderness. It holds stories of hope. I am here now because my ancestors prayed for me. My ancestors prayed that I would be the one to heal this pain. They show up for me everyday in the way my skin does.

My skin heals slowly, showing the fruits of patience each time. When I nurture my skin, and my body I am nourishing and healing for my ancestors who were never allowed to nurture their skin; they were criticized for their skin; they were not fortunate enough to have restorative time. They were made to feel non-human. The sun left visible kisses on their skin and they were punished for it. When I rest, I am resting for my ancestors who were never allowed to rest. My body has blood from the oppressor and the oppressed. Its very existence means it is at war with itself. I have to work extra hard to find peace in that every day. Every individual cell in my body works hard every day so that I can continue to work at healing the pain of the wounds I have inherited and encountered along the way. My skin did not originate with me. It was passed down to me by the people who prayed for me to exist. This makes it so much easier to love. 

When I wear soft, clean clothes I am providing tenderness that they needed and never received. When I cleanse my body with water, I am washing away pain. When I nourish myself, I am giving nourishment to the vessel that carries me. I can cherish the shape of my eyes knowing that my soul speaks through them. When I rest, I tell the women who came before me that the struggles they encountered were not in vain.

My skin means more to me now, than ever before. I have been unkind to it. This was a learned behavior. I work everyday to unlearn it to honor the people who have come before me. This skin and this body do not exist for the commentary of others. It is strong. It is healing. My skin has taught me so much– 

It is not similar to the vessels of the many folks I encounter each day. It does not have to be.

It does not have to be perfect for me to love it. Each time the sun kisses it, wounds heal.

My skin greets each day with softness. It allows everything it meets in, and pushes what does not serve it right back out. It teaches me to learn everything and use what serves my healing best.

The skin on the bottoms of me feet is rough and calloused. It is deliberate and prepared for the steps which propel it forward. It teaches me to be fearless on the gravel path of lessons ahead. It is ready.

The skin on my legs is thin, and weathered and yet it is unwavering. It holds scars that tell stories. It teaches me to carry the stories of my past, and to move forward with intention.

The skin of my stomach is always warm and soft. It stretches as it needs to, teaching me flexibility. There is nothing rigid about this skin.

The skin on my chest hold lines and marks from where it has been confined. It remind me each day of how liberating it is to be let free of constraints. It graces cloth and the reward of freedom is sweet.

The skin on my shoulders is scarred from a sunburn. This scar will likely last a year before my skin fully heals. This teaches me patience and an admiration for what i cannot control.

The skin of my neck is covered in tags. I used to hate them but they are companions for one another. Teaching me that nothing in this life that makes itself known does it alone.

The skin of my hands is my favorite skin. They teach me every day to pay attention to detail. each cell so well defined and embracing whatever sweet relief they can find.

The skin on my face clings to a bone structure passed down to me by my ancestors. It teaches me the importance of knowing where I have come from. My skin is the gift and the language of my ancestors.

I leave you with this today:

I would only encourage you to consider the things that your skin is saying to you. What healing do you need to provide for your skin? What do you know about yourself because of your skin? What is your relationship with your skin? 

Be soft with yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Be tender with yourself. Be well.

Gigi

on taking back your power after sexual trauma.

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains themes of sexual assault, sexual violence, depression, military veteran violence, and suicide.

“…and your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Walt Whitman

Of all the fruit in the world, I find the fig to be one of the most fascinating. For those of you unfamiliar with this fruit, I will take a minute to describe. The fig, though it has many varieties, usually is a tear drop shaped fruit. It is not generally bigger than a child’s fist, and it can come in many shades varying from green all the way to a deep purple. The fig feels heavy in the palm of your hand. It grows best in warm weather, and is native to climates in Africa, the Middle East and Italy. It is one of the oldest fruits, and is depicted in art throughout history. It’s considered the fruit of the gods. The fig tastes like honey. Sometimes floral, sometime more fruity. It pairs well with goat cheese, and various other creamy based cheeses. It is an excellent accent to your bitter based salads or dishes. Add a little prosciutto and a couple of nuts and you can’t go wrong.

Figs are a tricky thing to perfect. They can be finicky when they do not grow native to an area. They are a sensual fruit. To bite into one feels indulgent upon your tongue. When they are ripe, they drip a sweet milky honey from the bottom. Some folx dry them in the sun and let their natural sugar emerge. They can be used for baking and incorporated into desserts.

Something that has always drawn to me to this fruit, is that it is not actually a fruit at all. It is a flower. And the flower grows within the confines of its sacred, round, form. This flower is pollinated by wasps specific to their species. The wasp pollinates the fig from within, and when it is done the wasp dies. The fig, then consumes the wasp. This silent process is symbiosis.

The first time I ever saw a fig, I was small. I remember being smitten with the taste and drawn in to look closer at all the beautiful fibers that made up its inner contents. I remember holding it and feeling its weight. It felt like more than the tiny thing it was. To grow a fig tree takes time. It takes nurturing and communication with the plant. It takes deliberate intention, and devotion.

October 2017. I had just moved into my apartment on Alexander street. It was fresh and new and small and adorned with furniture and textures that were incredibly me. I was close to everything, I was paying my own rent and my own utilities. It was mine. It was not perfect. It was hot. It had minimal counter space. But it was mine.

This was a busy time in my life. I was in grad school. I was doing my internship. I was beginning research for my thesis. I was trying to balance so much and I was doing it well. My routine was perfect. I would get up around 8:00 am and head into my internship. After that, I would go home, have dinner and go to class. I would come home and do my homework and do it all again the next day. It was busy but I was liberated.

One day, I got a message from an old friend from highschool. We didn’t know eachother super well back then, but we knew eachother enough where he was more than an acquaintance to me. My palms are getting sweaty as I type this. I don’t know that I feel safe saying his full name in this space. I may come back and edit this one day, but right now, I don’t know.

Anyway. I got this message from him. We hit it off really well. Like really well. It was the first time we had spoken since highschool and I was, frankly, surprised. He told me he went on to join the Navy and that life was very different for him now. I told him about my experiences with college and we decided to meet up for coffee. We found out we lived really close to one another, so we met halfway and walked the neighborhood with our coffees. I told him about what I was studying and he told me about his experiences, and we were able to relate in big ways. I felt comfortable, but cautious as one usually is. The date ended and we parted ways. But one thing that I remember him telling me, and I guess hindsight is 20/20, was that he believed “the military should provide sex workers for free so that men wouldn’t rape women”. I get angry at this now, because I feel like he was telling me something and also why the hell didn’t my red flag alarm go off here?

Cut forward to a few days later, we’re talking a bunch and it seems light and fun. I was having a really busy day with school. I went home and wanted to just relax, but he asked to come over so I let him. This time, he was a little pushy physically. I remember feeling uncomfortable and asking him to leave. He did.

Give it a week, and he was back to asking me to hang out. I really didn’t want to. I told him I wasn’t sure it was a good idea given what happened last time. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get involved anymore. I felt less safe. And yet, he convinced me he just wanted to come and talk. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I let him in. It gets late. We’re talking. His apartment isn’t far but he says he really doesn’t want to walk home and “can I please just stay the night?”. I really didn’t want to let him stay. But I did let him. “Fine”. The wasp.

I mentioned the trigger warning above. I am going to mention it again here. These next few paragraphs are graphic.

I remember I was asleep when it started happening. I was wearing my usual pajama shorts and a t-shirt. Soft grey with draw strings. I was face down. I felt his hands on my wrists holding me down. I couldn’t turn my head. I felt his breathe on my neck. He was pressing past my shorts. It hurt so much. I remember whispering stop. I remember thinking “I do not want this”. I remember saying stop. I felt him get mad and more forceful as his body stopped cooperating. It might have been ten minutes? It might have been more or less. I can’t really remember. I stopped thinking and I stopped moving. He was in the Navy. He was much much stronger than I. I might have let out nervous laughter. I waited until it was safe to move and he was off of me. He put his clothes on and left. I don’t remember what I was doing in these moments. I know I texted my best friend because I really wasn’t sure what had just happened. I told her. She sent the word back. “Rape”. My whole body hurt.

I texted him. “I am not fine with anything that just happened and I need you to know that”. His response? “I understand, do you still want to be friends or nah?”. I was baffled. I don’t remember if I answered. I might have said something cynical like “nah”.

I was in my bed. It was quiet. There was dim light coming in from the window in my bedroom. In my soft gray shorts that would never mean comfort again. I loved these shorts. I remember being really mad about that. I couldn’t register what had just happened to me. So I got up. I took a shower and went to my internship and I tried to just forget.

The months following this, I remember feeling very confused and very angry. I told a few of my closest friends, but I still couldn’t say the word. Rape. I felt like my body betrayed me. I felt like I should have known this would happen. I felt like “I was the one who let him in. I opened the door”. I blamed myself for letting a snake into my sacred garden.

I would have trouble sleeping for months. I would go into a very deep and sad depression. I would start going on dates with random guys and hoping I would feel something again. I threw myself into it, because I was fearful that if I didn’t meet new people constantly, I would never want to meet anyone new ever again. So I met new guys and I tried to be present. But I wasn’t. There was only one new man after that that I would feel safe enough to come fully into my life after this. He is my life partner, and I am so grateful for him.

I don’t know what it is about power, and why humans need it. I don’t know why, when humans feel like they don’t have power, they feel entitled to take it. I can say, I have a strong bias against the military at this point. I know that isn’t fair. But neither is what happened.

I often find myself wondering, that at what point the switch goes of for someone that makes it okay in their mind to do this. I try to understand from their perspective, and there is never an answer. Because it’s not okay, and just because you wear a uniform, does not and should not give you a special pass. You do not have entitlement to the bodies and brains of others. You do not just get to take the things you want because you wear a certain color. I showed this person a small glimmer of who I was and like the wasp, he crept in and died. I felt dirty. I wanted to take my skin off and hang it up with the laundry. No amount of scrubbing helped me feel clean.

My therapist should be crowned a saint. She stuck with me through this in ways i will never understand, and that is even as a therapist. I was hopeless. I was calling suicide lines. I was trying to figure out what to do next. I was staying up until the early hours of the morning, calling my parents at 4:00 am because I was too afraid to be alone. I would sleep on the futon in my living room to avoid having to sleep on the bed.

I have mentioned EMDR on here, before but when I say it helped save my life there is no exaggeration here. My therapist and I completed at least eight EMDR sessions before I finally started to feel like I was clean again. I am learning about the pieces of me that have begun to bloom from within.

Why now? Why tell this story almost three years later? I was afraid. after this all happened, he called me again and I was home alone. I don’t know what his intention was because I didn’t answer, but I do know I slept with my doors and windows barricaded. My peaceful little home had become a dark place for me. I was not ready to tell this story in full. In my eyes, it was the past.

I never reported it. I think a part of me knew that my word would mean nothing against that of a man who wore a uniform. If this can happen outside of the service, it sends my head spiraling to think about what happens within. Vanessa Guillen’s story is the reason I am telling this story. There is a lesson here. People are people, no matter what they wear and who they serve and sometimes they are bad. We cannot trust that the people who belong to an organization or system are inherently good and that their intentions will always be to protect and do the right thing. We see it every day, more and more within our policing systems and now within our military. Accountability is the fruit that comes from deliberate intention. Like the fig, it takes time to rebuild an entire system. It takes devotion. It takes compassion and nurturing and communication with the plant and with the people. How can a nation stand on anything solid when the soil its planted in has rotted? What are we telling the world and the victims of violence and sexual assault about their worth? How are they ever supposed to “pull themselves back up” if the nation only cherishes those who pushed them down in the first place? Without taking a cold, hard look at where we plant seeds in this country, fruit will never fully ripen for everyone. And what is the point of planting seeds when the fruit will never fully nourish? There is no symbiosis here.

Here is what I know about reclaiming power in a system not made in your favor.
1. rest is rebellion. When you allow yourself compassion and rest, you are allowing the sun to kiss your leaves a little longer. You are filling yourself with nutrients.
2. You do not have to claim power alone. Pick your people. and if it doesn’t work out, pick them again.
3. Power is not anything but a feeling. It comes from real, authentic freedom. So rather than focus on power, ask yourself when you feel the most free. And do more of that.
4. If you do not want to do something, don’t fucking do it. “No” is a complete sentence.
5. If your gut is telling you you need something, listen.
6. Spend time alone with yourself. It will be hard to hear your thoughts. But your heart, and your head only ever want what is best for you. it will feel like a storm. It’s about what happens when the rain clears. Get to know yourself after this. Do not abandon you.
7. In healing, power is not definitive and loud. It comes in small, myriad ways every day. You can choose to turn left instead of right on the way home. You can choose to have an extra plate of something. You can claim power in the decisions you make every day.
8. If the very best you have for any given day is getting out of bed, then so be it. You do not have to honor anyone’s expectations of you.
9. You are not dirty. Your skin is clean because it is yours. You can bathe in mud and still be clean. recognize that your body did not betray you. Your body protected you. Your very flesh is a poem. Sing your praises from the mountain tops, even if the praises feel small today.
10. You can love people again. You can love you again.
11. Wear the textures that make you feel safe. Surround yourself with fabrics and pillows and make your environment yours.
12. When you start to leave your own head, call yourself back in kindness. You are not required to be mad at yourself for dissociating.
13. Feel. Own your feeling. You do not have to numb the pain to feel human again.
14. When you are fearful and act in ways you are unfamiliar with, it is a trauma response. You do not owe anyone an explanation for that.
15. Nourish yourself. With music, art, writing, meditation, dance, laughter. It is okay to do these things and in fact, they are necessary. If there was something you loved to do before your trauma, know that you do in fact deserve to do it again.

Try to find ways to refrain from punishing yourself for the things that were done to you.

I have claimed back my power in many ways, most of which are silent. It is what has worked for me. I feel stronger every day. I plant my seeds in soil that is rich, and full of nutrients. I spend time with my seeds before I plant them. My figs are sweet and full of honey. That honey belongs to me. It always has. That honey is mine. My flowers bloom more each day and I decide who gets to see them.

I will leave you with this:
What will you need to do for your soil to ensure your tree grows strong? What can you do right now to be gentle and tender in your process of healing? What does healing mean for you ? In what ways can you and the ones around you contribute to change? What do you choose everyday to re-claim your power? How will you refrain from self-blame? What does accountability look like for you ? How can we make sure that it happens? What allows you to feel safe?

Be will,
Gina

if you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault and trauma and are seeking help:

RAINN- 800.656.HOPE (4673)
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK


Call you local government to inquire about accountability for people in positions of power.
Write letters to government officials.
Donate. Defund. Be Vocal.