BEL AIR—It started on a sunny afternoon in our Los Angeles home when I was four. My dad, brother and I went outside to play basketball. Mid-game, my dad took off his shirt. My brother, copying my dad to be as cool as him, took off his. Finally, to act cool like both of them, I took off mine.
My mother quickly appeared in a panic, “What are you doing? What is wrong with you? Put your shirt back on!”
My father, as usual, calmly said, “Relax Leilah, she’s just a wee child. Let her be.” With that, my mother was silenced by my protective father’s shield. He told me to carry on, but it was too late. Her reaction scared me into putting my shirt back on. I was embarrassed of my behavior and somewhat of my body. That was the first and last time I showed my body without shame.
Later that year and a month before my 5th birthday, I was cast as the “Virgin Mary” in a children’s Christmas play. I was the youngest in the show. They gave me a heavy, realistic doll that weighed almost as much as I did. I had to hold it for hours every rehearsal. Continually losing him, the directors instilled the “fear of Jesus” in me. In an attempt to teach me how to “get into character,” they wanted me to treat the doll as a I would a real baby Jesus. I tried very hard to be a good participant.
I was sitting center-stage in the middle of a scene at the first dress rehearsal. The heavy doll was too much to burden. Trying to find ways to relieve the weight, I spread my legs and rested the feet of the doll between my legs on the chair. This move prompted my mother to rush from the back of the theater towards the foot of the stage, where she whispered and motioned to me to sit like a lady and close my legs.
It was disrespectful and intolerable to talk back to my parents, something I rarely did, but she didn’t understand how heavy the doll was so I tried to explain. It quickly became a big ordeal and the producer came on the stage, halting the rehearsal as I found myself in the midst of humiliation with fifty-plus onlookers.
At that age, I couldn’t wrap my head around anything more than everyone witnessing my mother scolding me for sitting like a prostitute. She wouldn’t even listen to me, and once again I felt jilted by her insisting I was acting out of some sort of evil, sinful nature.
The following year, some friends were over for a swim. We had a substitute nanny who didn’t want wet kids running through the house, so we had to all change in the cabana. I tried to go into the bathroom and she told me I couldn’t because there were too many of us and it wouldn’t be fair to the others. I was terrified to change in public.
Luckily, my father arrived home. He carried me into the house and told me this is my house, I can do as I please, saving me from the commandeering, nincompoop nanny.
Over the years, as my body developed, I welcomed my blossoming chest, defining waist line, and curvy hips with excitement. I found it to be beautiful and sexy, contrary to any reasonable person’s anticipated consequence of my first exposure to sexuality. As men started seeing me as more than a kid, I noticed how powerful, and almost dangerous having these assets were. I enjoyed receiving the attention of a more mature person. And yet, I was uncomfortable with the way the opposite sex became almost afraid of me.
However, saying or showing that I loved my new body was wrong, so again, a secret was kept. With the exception of a few rebellious teenage years, I maintained my cultural identity by covering my skin and minimizing my curves as a way of preserving my bodily innocence.
This cultural behavior is a way of respecting my body, not only for myself, but also for my future husband, allowing one person to enjoy my sacred gift and not minimizing my value by giving it freely or flaunting it in front of others.
Some mistake this requirement as shame. I only felt embarrassment in my childhood, but now, I feel a wholesome relationship with my values. Without my primary experiences and warnings about display of skin or sexuality, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the adult world.