In This Body
Though my eyes were closed, I could feel her circling me slowly. We were naked. Both my request, both by agreement. When you stand still, simply, your awareness warps and focuses and travels. I felt the weight of my arms by my side, then the posterior tilt of my pelvis. When she completed her turns, I felt her move to set up her camera, and I opened my eyes. My memory of this moment has the rough, static detail of old analogue film.
With medium format cameras, you have to hold a pose longer than we’re used to now, maybe 15 seconds. We took four photos. We said we’d trust each other, so I didn’t look in the mirror as I was posing, though I wanted to. The film camera was a working Polaroid relic on loan to Dianne from the university. It printed A4 pictures within minutes, so we crouched on the floor of her room and watched the black-and-white prints emerge.
“Do you like them?” I asked.
“How do you feel?” she responded.
In one photo, I had my back turned, shoulders strong and rounding together. Another is side on, my face turned towards the camera; my gaze (I like to think) catches you. I would describe it now as piercing and vulnerable; mouth closed but loose, eyes staring. I connected to this last one. I wanted to do them all again. Instead, I biked to my house and tried to stay ahead of what I felt. Can there be failure in research?
Photos are a siren call I had not yet learnt to resist (have not, actually). The allure of what they offer wraps around me time and time again and tempts me close. On the one hand: recognition; on the other: affirmation. How could you not be compelled to look for yourself in your reflected image? What better place to find that slippery, elusive essence that is you? To see. To see you. And to find beauty. To find something to love. The joyous reality of a successful photo is heady and wonderful. But like any reflected image, the photo is imperfect in its limitations. A photo offers only a version; a single brush stroke in the tableau of you. A brush stroke shaped, informed, and judged by beauty standards irrelevant to the unique concept of you. On the one hand: joyous recognition. On the other: despair at the deviation from popular culture’s prescribed shapes and sizes.
I spent the summer of 2014 in Hawaii and was spotted for a shoot by a friend’s mother. She met me at night, in passing, at a boat club in Honolulu. Admittedly, orange has always been my colour — yellow too. I was healthy. The sun had both deepened and given light to my skin. Being dark-skinned is still, I’m learning, a social handicap, but the last time I felt insecure about my skin I must have been 12. That’s the last memory I have of being tempted to use the skin lightening (‘brightening’) cream I found in the bathroom cabinet at home.
For someone to ask for your photo is flattering and perilous, in my experience. I said yes. The cost was extremely high. It’s hard to understand what many photo shoots are like until you’re in or a part of one. For one, if you’re not in a studio, you’re in public. I found myself modelling at the ‘golden hour’ against a tree on a busy beach in ill-fitting clothes and a bra that wasn’t mine. The sun was in my eyes, so I squinted. I moved my body into half-remembered positions from magazines that did nothing but prompt the mum to ask if I knew what an ‘S Curve’ was.
Photos are a siren call, and the embarrassment I felt was acute and profound. A feeling complicated and compounded by the dissonance of several beach-goers exclaiming “how gorgeous” I was. Sometimes I let myself believe it was true. Mostly, I think they just meant black. Or foreign. There was another dissonance, much enduring and much endured: the separation of who I felt myself to be and the person being perceived (and captured.) Images are sirens, but even sirens have their own undeniable reality and will tell you about yourself. They will reveal your weaknesses and the desires that compel you.
I sent a WhatsApp message on manifestation and perception to two girlfriends in 2019, a disjointed dispatch from my car as I wound through the streets of Accra. “I feel like I haven’t downloaded properly,” was what I said. Now, I might better describe what I meant in relation to the birth of Hoa — a character from N. K. Jemisin’s Stone Earth trilogy that is birthed (kind of) in our view. You can read the book, so I won’t describe everything here, but imagine an ancient being of near unimaginable power being (re)-formed in the centre of a jewel encased in rock. Sometimes I picture their fingers forming first, stone flesh forming up into wrists, then arms, and then a torso. Sometimes I see a humanoid form being sculpted to finer and finer detail by unseen pressures.
Putting aside the conceit of this comparison, imagine the stone crack of birth before the process is complete. To be born with a latent knowledge of yourself, but the discomfort, sometimes imperceptible, sometimes agonising, of not being all you are. Worse, for people to misalign you with the incomplete being they see. Tragically, that being is you — though it isn’t. Would you not spend your life looking for that which is you? Can there be failure in research?
Alignment is a process that can take years, and in 2020 I travelled from Accra to Stockholm to receive a tattoo I had never seen before from an artist I had learnt of four years prior. Because movements of the universe can be cliché, Touka Voodoo’s work was revealed to me on the body of a friend as she stepped into the sea. My bikini-clad friend removed her dress and from the base of her neck, down her spine, and encompassing her bum, was a gorgeous, swirling design calling to mind Indo-Persian art. Alignment is a process that can take years, but recognition can be instant. “I will receive a tattoo from this person,” I gushed. “I have to.” My friend had gotten her tattoo in a London studio in the 2000s. In 2020, I met the small, calm, heavily inked trans person who would help manifest me. There were four years between my learning of Touka and meeting them, but I like to think we were journeying to each other for many more. Who’s to say where alignment begins?
In Ghana, to refer or respond to something as “correct” can be as much a statement of affirmation — a recognition of rightness — as a statement of fact. That I travelled to Sweden to have a design etched into my skin was extremely correct. That I almost hyperventilated at the end of day one of three, alone in my Airbnb, was also correct. That for weeks after I returned, I shed caked skin infused with ink was correct. It is, to me, entirely correct that manifestation to myself should be a transformative, exacting process. There can be no failure in research.
Friends tag me in Instagram posts and tell me about different African tattoos and body modification traditions now. At an artisan’s market, a guy asked me whether I was from Gambia, and two Ethiopian women marvelled at the familiarity of my tattoo design. In Igbo and Benin culture, I have since learnt, women were tattooed across their chest and back (as I am) in preparation for childbirth, ahead of marriage, for medicinal purposes. All are beautiful to me. I feel in the search for myself I’ve swum into a flow of spirit and being that connects the cultures and the ancestors, and connects them across the expanse of time.
I am in awe at the magnitude of my single process of manifestation. Likewise, I am learning how my self is part of an abundance I still can’t quite describe. Yet, I must, as well, find a way to feel at home in myself. To manifest and ground in myself may be the only way I will know peace and power.
Photos are a siren call, and I try not to say yes to photographs and photographers that centre my tattoos too much. They are mine, and they emerged from under the skin. They are mine. They emerged from under my skin.
Yaa Konadu is a British-Ghanaian writer, creative, and business owner living in Accra. Growing up across cultures and continents, she is insatiably curious about identity, identity making, and selfhood. As winner of the inaugural Kofi Addo Writivism Prize for Creative Non-fiction, her writing was published in the anthology, Sundown and Other Stories.