NAME: Esther Calixte-Bea
What was / is your biggest ‘struggle’ as a woman?
As a woman, my biggest struggle was being hairy. Being aware that I had a lot more hair than other women made it difficult to bear because I didn’t want to be different. Yet hair not only grew on my legs, armpits and stomach but also on my chest. Another one of my struggles which is also tied to this one is that growing up I had self-esteem issues. I did not believe I was beautiful.
What significant event had the biggest impact on you (positive or negative)?
I was marked by a series of events that were all the same. These events are simply the moments when I had no other choice than to shave. My body hair had stopped me from going swimming because the act of removing was hell and having to shave just because body hair was not ok on women’s bodies made it worse for me. In fact, every time I shaved my body and tried to remove my chest hair it would grow back thicker, longer, stronger and blacker. On some parts of my body such as my chest, my skin would get irritated and have terrible ingrown hair. The phrase that I would often hear from the women in my family when I had to go through painful procedures such as waxing was ‘Il faut souffrir pour être belle’. This expression caused me to create a painting that captured all the pain I was forced to put myself through in order to fit society’s beauty standards. The moment when I realized that my soul was suffering, that I was depressed and felt hopeless was an important event that marked my life because it was the moment when I made the decision to work on my self-esteem because I had had enough of hating myself. This moment happened twice, once in high school and once again in university when it came to my body hair issues.
What did you learn from that?
Through a period of 10 years, I learned many things. Having to torture myself and seeing how my body would react made me see that I was at war with myself and that my body was fighting back. Every time I would remove my body hair, it would counteract by spreading and becoming thicker. I had to continuously work on myself and pray, and it was through prayer that I heard Yehovah say “There is nothing wrong with you, there is something wrong with society”. This very statement changed everything for me and I then realized that I did have a choice to keep my body hair and to also find myself beautiful.
What is your relationship with your body now?
My relationship with my body has changed over the years. Being black, skinny, hairy and having acne for most of my childhood made it hard for me to believe that I was beautiful. I wasn’t desired according to the white women protagonist who’d win over men’s hearts on television. To be desired I had to fit the standards according to society. I’ve been to white schools for the longest and wasn’t wanted because most boys wanted a white girl with curves. Being a skinny black girl in my community wasn’t praised because men wanted women with ‘meat on their bones’ as they say.
Therefore, I wasn’t enough everywhere I went. Being hairy just made me feel not enough for myself. I was very shy as a kid which made it worse when it came to my self- esteem to the point that I was afraid of brushing my hair and putting lip-gloss in public. I had to make these steps and give myself spiritual strength through prayer to get through that and come out victorious. I had to learn to encourage myself every day and call myself beautiful in order to believe it. My relationship with my body evolved and continues to do so. I had to accept myself as I am no matter the repercussions. This is still hard because people’s opinions and stares can make one feel uncomfortable. I’ve even had someone film me at the mall because I was wearing shorts and my leg hair was visible. Although I now feel beautiful and believe it, it’s moments like these that make me aware that there’s still work to be done on myself so that things like that may not affect me and there is work to be done in society in order for the world to unlearn these propagated teachings.
What women inspire you the most and why?
Fearless confident women inspired me growing up. I had seen a documentary of a woman who decided to let her beard grow and accept herself as she is. I remember seeing women like Harnaam Kaur and Sophia Hadjipanteli accepting their body hair and even Ashley Graham loving her body. My biggest inspiration though was my mom because she embodied everything I wanted to be. She was confident, strong, fearless and always encouraged my sister and I, as kids, by making us stand in front of the mirror and tell ourselves that we were beautiful and smart. She also taught us about our history in order for us to be proud of who we are as black women. She has always encouraged me in my decisions and believed in me.
What is the hardest / most important decision you had to make regarding your body and your perception of it?
As a painter, painting became therapeutic in a way because I could express my struggles and trauma through this form of art. Self-photography became another passion of mine and because I knew the beauty industry had convinced women that they weren’t enough through photographs, I knew photography held great power and that I could work with this medium to change the world. Body hair was natural and beautiful. The hardest decision I made was to stop hiding my chest hair. To do so I created a project titled the Lavender Project which was about femininity and body hair. This project consisted of me wearing a purple coloured dress I had made showing my chest hair with the motto ‘Power: On montre nos poils avec classe’. I wanted to show that as a woman you can be beautiful with body hair. Going through the constant struggle for over 10 years of having to remove my chest hair or hide it caused my mental health to deteriorate. I had no one to save me. So I had to save myself. Creating this self-liberating project and posting it on Instagram lifted this burden off my shoulders and was the start of a new journey including the first step to my new found freedom.
Why, according to you, does society put such an importance on beauty standards and even more specifically on women’s bodies?
I believe that society gives importance to beauty standards specifically ones affecting women’s bodies because of the money involved. It’s a business itself. In this business you create a problem by propagating a false message that will make people believe in it over time because that message will be seen on every media outlet. Once the problem is created you offer the public the solution. When it comes to women specifically throughout history we have wanted to feel desired because being desired meant that we would find a husband and make children which was important for women at the time and still is for many today. We had to always look beautiful and appealing to the opposite sex and also to be accepted in society. By propagating a positive message such as ‘love yourself and accept your body hair’ it can make entire businesses fall to the ground.
Capitalism and propaganda go hand in hand and the most profitable product is women’s bodies.
What is the most crucial thing for a healthy relationship with oneself?
The most important part to a healthy relationship with yourself in my opinion is a relationship with God and also knowing that you are worthy and deserving of love, which also means love that you can give to yourself. Being aware that there is a creator who has made you as you are perfectly has been helpful for me. It’s also always important to keep in mind that a healthy relationship with yourself isn’t easy, there are many things that need to be unlearned but you need to remember to be kind to yourself, have a goal in mind and believe that you will get there even if it isn’t easy but it is possible. Determination and patience are key.
When do you feel the most beautiful?
I feel beautiful when I take care of myself, when I’ve showered and get to dress up for an occasion. Beautiful has stopped being a simple feeling but now it is a state of being and a state of mind. I believe I am beautiful and always feel beautiful when I have slept enough and have the strength to fight the voices that try to tear me down.
Why did you want to participate in this project?
I decided to participate in The Womanhood Project because I believe the project is powerful and I always enjoy when I get to be vulnerable and share my experiences with others. I truly believe by sharing stories you can free souls.
How was the experience?
It was a fun experience! The ladies made me feel comfortable and proud of sharing my story with them.