“Love yourself … embrace who you are … be true to yourself” are examples of clichés that are often heard. However, what do those statements really mean? And how can someone begin to love themselves if they struggle to receive love from others?
Some of those answers were unpacked this week as North Carolina A&T hosted Love the Skin You’re In, an event that was part of the chancellor’s speaker series. It was groundbreaking because of the diversity of the panelists, who included Shaun Ross, Amber Riley and Laverne Cox.
Cox is a transgender actress known for her role as Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black. Ross is the first male model to represent albinism, and Riley is a plus-size actress best known for her role as Mercedes Jones on the TV series Glee.
“I am very grateful that this event happened,” said Amara Johnson, a senior multimedia journalism student who is an active member of Prism, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-plus organization on A&T’s campus.
“I believe many things were intentional when planning. One example would be students who are in Prism, the LGBTQ+ organization, had reserved seating in the front rows. This was such a big deal for us because normally we are an afterthought. Also, this particular event was historic because it was the first time a transperson has been invited to speak on campus.”
The panelists tackled topics centered on self-concept, self-acceptance, self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love.
They opened up talking about their differences and how they knew they were different.
“I never truly knew I was different until I stepped out into the world,” said Ross as he discussed the challenges he faced having albinism while going to school with kids who were also African American, but had darker skin that his.
“I only knew I was different when I went to the beach and got sunburn,” he joked.
Dealing with their differences
Besides their differences, they discussed dealing with the shame of them.
“Shame is an intense feeling of unbelief. Shame is instead of thinking, ‘this is a mistake,’ you say to yourself, ‘I am a mistake,’ ” Cox explained.
They talked about not only acceptance of oneself but acceptance of one’s accomplishments.
Ross said that for a long time he was being humble to a fault. Whenever he would accomplish something, he would say to himself, “What is next?”
“Sometimes I don’t feel what I’ve done has been worth it because of my past,” Ross said. But now he’s in a place where he recites to himself, “remember where you were, not what you want.”
Not only can self-criticism be a heavy burden, but the criticism from others can be, too.
“It doesn’t go away once you get in the magazines,” Cox said. “It actually gets worse because you have more eyes on you. If you do not know who you are. If you do not have a sense of your inherent worthiness because you are a child of God, what other people say about you will destroy you.”
The importance of self-confidence and how it is crucial to surviving in life was another topic.
“I got to the point where I felt like I was drowning,” Riley said. “I felt like I didn’t know myself. I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. Does anybody feel that way?”
Several people in the audience raised their hands, symbolizing they, too, could relate to her struggles with self-esteem.
“But eventually you will get to a point where survival mode kicks in,” Riley continued. “It is inside of us to survive.”
“Listening to them talk about their journeys to self-acceptance reminded me that I need to be patient with myself as I embark on my own journey,” Johnson said. “To paraphrase a quote that Amber Riley said that stuck with me: ‘Self-love is a journey, not a destination.’ ”
Moderator Dr. Raushannah Johnson-Verwayne asked the three to discuss some tangible things they had gained on their journey of self-acceptance.
“I think that one of the most tangible things that you could ever receive is the truth. The more I got older, the more I was able to live in my truth. So, living in your truth is one of the most tangible things you can ever have,” Johnson-Verwayne said.
The LGBTQ+ community on campus
The event shed light on the support and advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community at N.C. A&T.
“I feel like this event contributed to the growth of the LGBTQ+ community on campus by opening these conversations up and opening these dialogues up and letting people’s humanity be seen,” said Morgan Turner, a junior psychology student and member of Prism.
“Being able to have examples of people you see on social media who are famous and who are in all these different identities telling me their story goes a longer way than what Prism and other students can do at times that are just out of our hands,” Turner said.
Asia Hill is the president of Prism, whose purpose is to support members of the LGBTQ+ community on campus.
“The goal of Prism is not only to make LGBT+ students feel safe,” Hill said. “However, it is also to make LGBT students visible on campus and to make other people see how advocating for the LGBT community can look and how it can help not only yourself in your own community but also communities you don’t even know about and people you haven’t even reached.
“The stories that they told and the energy that they had helps with the advocacy piece,” Hill continued. “There are people who aren’t LGBT that still came just for the sake that it’s a chancellor’s event. They got a story that they wouldn’t hear before, and think that helps people understand the LGBT community and understand just the people around him.”
Conveying the importance of therapy was Johnson-Verwayne, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, saying, “Everyone should have a therapist.”
They stressed academics and relationships as well.
“Also be sure to watch the energy around you and watch the energy that you’re putting out to other people,” even in college. “The problem is people are so hung up on where people are right now than where they’re going,” said Ross.
Some students said the evening was valuable and they were grateful they were understood, walking away with valuable life tips.
“I think the program was absolutely amazing,” said Aaron Johnson, a senior liberal studies student. “Being a gay black male myself, it took me a while to find self-acceptance and what the panelists pretty much talked about, I could relate to. It felt like everything just resonated with me deep down in my spirit.”
“There was something Laverne said about when she’s feeling anxious she finds the space in her body where she feels the most anxiety and subsequently finds the space in her body where she feels the least anxious and it helps her get through the anxiety step by step,” Hill said. “That to me was groundbreaking because I never heard of anything like that and the physicality of it was really life-changing. It’s crazy that your own thoughts and your feelings come through somebody else’s experiences and I think that’s what this event captured tonight.”