Confessions of a Recovering Girlboss and Gold Star Chaser
Rethinking overwork and seeking academic validation to combat invisibility
I don’t have writer’s block. Not really.
I’m not writing as much as I would like to, as I’m finally experiencing the plight I’d heard so many professors bemoan. With a full teaching load—I’m at a 3/3 at my university—you have time to prep for class and teach. That’s it.
But I’ve always been a person that’s needed extra stimulation outside of my primary project/task. You could chalk that up to a lot of different things, including some mental health issues, but my constant need to produce is, in part, a byproduct of capitalism. When you throw gender and race into the mix, Black women are more often lauded for their work horse tendencies, our value attached to the relentless conditions under which we continue to perform at the expense of our wellness.
Zora Neale Hurston didn’t say “Black women are the mules of the world” (paraphrased) for no reason.
I’ve been thinking, thinking, thinking about this. I’ve been thinking about it as Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses beauty and blondness: when Black women don’t have access to the social currency and power of European standards and traditions of beauty—because of fatphobia, colorism, texturism, (dis)ability—we find other ways to showcase our value. She once said in a TikTok, “I don’t need to be but so pretty, I’m smart,” and I’ve not been able to get it out. It lives in my brain, comes out at night when I’m trying to sleep and haunts me like a temperamental spirit.
I have never needed to pretty because I was among the smartest in the room.
It explains the tailspin I went into in college when I was lost in the shuffle, no longer among the smartest, but a solidly above average student as were most of the students at the University of Virginia. Not pretty, and now not even smart enough to merit attention.
So I double timed.
By the end of college I had worked myself raggedy just trying to prove my value, make myself noticeable.
And in my last weeks at UVA, I was acknowledged by the 21 Society as an unsung, positive force on Grounds. The top of the letter that I found slipped under my bedroom door was topped with a quote from Audre Lorde, the oft quoted “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” After four years of feeling so invisible I wasn’t even sure I’d been there myself, I memorialized how buoyant that letter made me feel by tattooing the quote on my wrists.
It was almost as if one recognition of the work I had done erased the damage feeling worthless for four years had on me.
Instead of trying to unpack this need overwork to prove my worth, I sought validation through academic achievements in graduate school and girl bossed too close to the sun.
So now I’m approaching thirty and spending more time finding my value in being. In self-love that is more than just telling yourself: “I love you.” It’s as bell hooks says, “loving our [Black] bodies does not mean simply liking the way we look. It means that we care for the well-being of those bodies by eating properly, exercising…” (Salvation 89). I would leave out the next bit where hooks talks about addiction, but I would add getting proper health care. You only get one body. You have to value it, care for it.
For me, this has meant stopping to investigate when I’m doing things because I want to feel valued or whether I get value from it. Whether it feeds my heart and soul, or if it appeals to how I want people to view me, see me. It’s also worth saying, it’s not about perception—it’s about being perceived at all. I don't care about the interpretation, sometimes I just want to be visible, legible.
But girl bossing got me caught up in a capitalist machine and subscribing to #BlackGirlMagic as we often use it had me constantly chasing achievement.
I want to get back to #BlackGirlMagic the way CaShawn Thompson intended it: a celebration of Black girls and girlhood just being. I want my magic, my value, to be in my love, my creativity, my compassion, my empathy. My love of trying new things and telling a wondrous story. My ability to turn almost anything into art and the strength of my character.
When I find comfort in settling into myself, and just being…I think I’ll find a new set of stories to tell.
Things to read based on this blog post:
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
All About Love: New Visions, bell hooks
Salvation: Black People and Love, bell hooks
“In the Name of Beauty,” Thick: And Other Essays, Tressie McMillan Cottom
“For CaShawn Thompson, Black Girl Magic Was Always the Truth,” Feminista Jones