There are few things I'm more grateful for than the lack of censorship in my childhood. When the 1993 Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got To Do With It? hit theaters, my grandmother and I saw it opening weekend. I was five years old. Two years later, I overheard my mother telling my aunt she couldn't lend her our rented tape of Poetic Justice, since she'd promised me I could watch it the following day. Both of these movies were rated R, but I was permitted to watch them until I'd memorized entire scenes of dialogue. The only films or music I can remember being restricted involved some form of witchcraft, chanting, or mystical behavior my mother feared might bring the devil into her house. I harbored no such fear.
Eddie Murphy's Boomerang had its share of colorful language and sex scenes, but at least none of the characters seemed to be pagans. My brother and I surrounded ourselves with blankets and pillows on our living room floor before popping it into the VCR. From the opening, I was hooked. I saw young, professionally successful, sexy, single, black people in a real city. I was too young to recognize that this particular depiction of black lives was rare, and much too young to appreciate the role reversal of gender stereotypes. In fact, the only thing I processed clearly was my immediate and fervent love for the woman on my screen named Strangé, played by the inimitable Grace Jones. She was ferocious, and I thought she could eat me alive if it meant I could get closer.
My brother covered his head with a blanket during the scene where Strangé is in her own commercial, her eyes wild, teeth bared, giving birth to a bottle of perfume inside a skirt made of branches.
"She's scary," he said. I worried he'd yell for our mom and ask her to pick another movie, probably The Land Before Time again. The thought filled me with indignant rage. I'd only just met this woman, and I wasn't going to let him take her away from me. I reached over and put my hand over his mouth.
"Shut up," I said. "She's not scary. She's beautiful."
Strangé, written specifically for Jones, was meant to be a bit of a parody. From the moment she rides into the middle of a party on a carriage being pulled by four white male body-builders, to the scene in which she removes her black lace thong in a boardroom and slides it under the nose of a scientist insisting that whatever he smelled was "the essence of sex," I was enamored. Her Egyptian-inspired jewelry fueled my love for thick (fake) gold rope necklaces, and bracelets I'd have to remove midday to relieve my wrists. It was no longer good enough that my clothes be clean, or in-style. Whatever I wore had to stand out.
The leather body-suits with matching headdresses, and off-the-shoulder, all black floor-length gowns of my beloved Strangé may have been out of my age-appropriate range, but I could wear bright leggings, mismatched socks, and oversized sweaters covered in big pom-poms. Most of these pieces came from my grandmother. She supported my desire to play with my look, though she had no idea what had inspired my transformation. Each time my mother would look over my outfits and ask who exactly I was trying to dress like, I would always respond the same way: "me."
As I grew older, my love for Strangé endured, though eventually it became easier to refer to Grace Jones. My body was changing, my sexuality blooming, and I wanted to master this transition in plain sight. Unfortunately, no matter how many movies I watched with Grace Jones in them, or pictures of her I cut out of magazines, I couldn't quite emulate her body confidence. For her, the presumption of glamour seemed effortless. I wrote down quotes from most of the women I idolized in a journal, but Grace was all about the image. To honor her, I pasted my cut-out photos of her between and on top of their words. At the top of the page was Dr. Maya Angelou's quote, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." The bottom was from Florence "Flo Jo" Joyner, "I believe in the impossible because no one else does." In the middle was Grace, standing regal on a wooden stand while white people fluttered around her, astounded by her, begging her to gobble them up.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, I floated somewhere between "cute enough" and "invisible." Even when I wore a body-hugging slinky navy blue backless dress to my first high school dance, I spent half the night covering myself with a thick matching shawl. The other half of the evening I spent practicing my impression of Grace by leading dances with my classmates and posing for pictures with a come-hither glance cast over my shoulder. When I look back on those photos I see two girls: one hiding and the other performing. I see the tension between my mother's good girl, and the She-Devil Man-Eater I wanted to be. What I don't see, is me.
For a while, due to illness, injury, subsequent weight gain, and the inevitable life experience of taking a lover who teaches you how to hate yourself a little, I gave up on my quest for a happy medium. On the days when I decided to love my body, I adorned it lovingly, and when I wished I could trade in this skin for a new one, I hid behind shapeless clothes and colors I couldn't bring myself to call anything other than "ugh." It took a year of living with a drag queen, and another year of living in New York City, for me to embrace the path I'd all but abandoned after high school. It started with seeing Grace Jones at the AFROPUNK Festival in Brooklyn, a reminder of the journey toward physical self-expression I'd been on since I was seven years old. It solidified with the inheritance of my grandmother's jewelry, a wardrobe of staples that make me look like me, and a photo of Grace in my wallet, a visual benediction of my own design.
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Text Ashley Ford
Photography Ron Gallela via Wire Image