“When the Reflection Stares Back”

Photo credit: Neosha Gardner

When her reflection stared back at her, proud and plus-sized often went horribly in these pageants. Ronda knew her place at such events; had long-since grown accustomed to the cookie-cutter shapes that she’d been forced into, and savored every second of rebelling.

She was eight when the neighborhood boys groped her pudgy stomach. Twelve when their hands cupped the fullness of her breasts. Nineteen when she learned that her size, her shape, had always been a fetish, curated for everyone but herself. For every man but herself.

The bruises were still there. Her body, sore, tired from being jammed into hourglass molds and curve-hugging, no-curve-having outfits.

Most nights had stretched on with the taste of her tears. Each salty, pesky, unwanted tear. Individual nuisances that smudged her eyeliner. She had licked her lips long enough to know the flavor of shame, to bend that shame into sunshine, to unveil the night into sunrise.

She knew her place in society, sure, but society had not afforded her the luxury of compromise. She had taken it instead.

“Hey, you’re up in five,” spoke one of the attendants, before sauntering off toward the end of the hall.

Ronda spared a peek at the woman who’d alerted her, watching as she gingerly waddled away with her clipboard in hand. She swallowed her ‘thanks’ and returned to face the mirror.

Having inherited her mother’s dark, sun-kissed hue, Ronda had settled for a touch of purple to brighten her large, round eyes. Freckles traced the span of her cheeks and nose. Sun-kissed, too. Her thick, unruly afro remained tamed, for the most part, under her grandmother’s headscarf, a charm more than a bracelet. It wrapped around her head, strangled her wooly mane, but it pulled the look together.

It was the final round of the pageant. Her white, female competitors would assign themselves an ethnicity and capitalize as much as they could. Some, in the span of a simple walk down the runway. Others would pause in their speech, run their hands over the fabric and dip their fingertips between their bosom, drawing attention from the stolen culture and to the milk-white, milk-giving ornaments they had.

Paying homage to her grandmother demanded Ronda to dive into her African roots.

And paying homage to her grandmother meant winning this pageant.


In her youth, when she had peaked nine years old, Ronda had run home, bawling, sobbing, about her time with the boys. How they’d made her feel bad. How she’d done nothing to warrant such abuse. And her grandmother sat, smiling, nodding, and ruffled her thick mane.

‘That it?’ her thick African accent whispered, mischief on her tongue, ‘They grab your stomach, just grab them by balls. Your mother did it then. You do it now. Retaliate in your absence; let them wish fo’ your attention.’

Ronda remembered wondering who would miss her, a girl who hadn’t more brains or bronze than any other girl out there, and managed to dry her tears, plop down on the porch steps and assert herself in the hushed humming of her grandmother. Though she never stopped thinking back on that day, Ronda shook the thought from her mind. She lifted her eyes to the mirror and adjusted her deep, cerulean headscarf. Standing, she twirled her chubby figure in the tight-fitting wrapper, her stomach plodding from her waist like a bellied-out moon. Full. Round. She turned to face her reflection, eyes naturally drifting to the anomaly.

Shoulders on full display, the dashiki she’d picked out caressed the bulge of her curves, like waves brushing feverishly against the seashore. They are tempted, sure, but they know better than to tread in dangerous waters, to claim full possession of all that is not theirs. It, too, is bright cerulean with mud-brown and vine-green innards laced over her fullness.

Her grandmother would’ve been proud.


There you go again. Being vain. The voice was laced with venom, dripping with a hint of casual snark. It ain’t cute, boo.

Her eyes snapped shut. That voice, like sandpaper, grated against her thoughts. Ronda gripped the edge of the vanity and inhaled quiet breaths.

1 …

2 …

Ah, yes. The /breathing exercise/. Just another way to make those big-ass cheeks of yours inflate and deflate. A beat. A laugh. Don’t let me stop you.

Inhaling another breath, Ronda reopened her eyes and stared back at the culprit.

A woman who had known her all her twenty-one years on the planet, had spoon-fed her lies and candy and whatever else when her weight could pass as ‘baby fat’, had been the first one to grab the flab of stomach and growl her distaste.


Ronda stared at herself.

Brown eyes glowering against obsidian slits, her nostrils flaring to the ever-grinning reflection.

Ronda fumbled with her cosmetics. “I don’t need this right n–”

‘Course you don’t. No one ever needs a wake-up call.


We’ve done this before, Ronny, so lemme cut to the chase. She stuck out her perfectly-manicured hand, their perfectly manicured hand, and toyed with the flesh beneath Ronda’s cheek. A slight quake of fat, misplaced flesh.

Let’s get you on a diet, yeah? You could land a boyfriend, escape the impending diabetes… Be healthy, you know?

Ronda stopped her search for her lipstick.

Her world seemed to crumble around her. The dressing room’s silence amplified into something chilling. Jeers. Imagined jeers. Imagined, painful jeers. Her ears rang clear with the sounds of her own imagination playing tricks on her. Again. And again.

And, this time, Ronda thought of the cruel idea of groping her love handles and thighs with the force of a thousand men nagging at her thoughts, wondering if she’d always been this weak, hoping she wasn’t always this weak.

1 …

You can’t keep your eyes closed this whole time, Ronda.

1 …

2 …

3 …

Darkness, though welcomed, consumed her vision.

She reached across the vanity desk for the cosmetics bag and plucked out her mascara, gently lapping the brush across her lashes. It was an art, attaining beauty, that is, and it demanded a lot. Silence. Noise. Darkness. Light.


More pain.

Fumbling around meant there was life in her being, meant that these stubby, round fingers of hers could do just as much as the thin, standard ones of her peers. She was living. Living her best life. Wasn’t that the best course of action?

To be silent in her resilience?

Ronda elicited a soft hum, a small tune, and belted out a throat-grating, high pitched affirmation of her beauty. She thought it funny how beauty had always been measured on a degree of ‘fuckability’, an endless abyss of emotional pain, and ‘how much until…?’, her undying supply of physical and spiritual distress.

Perhaps, it had been a black thing. Was a black thing. Is, and always will be, a black thing. The price for her blackness, her beauty, the same as the tears and blood and sweat shed by her ancestors. Yet, in this manner, she’d consented to this, and knew full-well how much was at stake for her wanting to be wanted in her absence.

Was she wanted in her absence?

Are you?

Eliciting a final hum, Ronda reopened her eyes and stared at the made-up face in the mirror, at the woman who had come undone countless times before, who managed to overcome her own pity party and take charge every single time.

Ronda stared at her.

She heard the approaching attendant ready to whisk her into the world of women, blackness and other things that made God a little prouder of His creations, before realizing her story – the one being told today – was almost over.

Her hands found the snugness of her round, oversized hips, snaked up her breasts and cupped their fullness. She felt a smile tug at her lips as she adjusted her headscarf.

“Our ancestors endured too much… far too much… for our biggest battle to be with our reflection.”

Ronda knew her place at such events. Had long-since grown accustomed to the cycle of self-loathing, self-caring and repeat…and savored being the very definition of resilience: Being Black, fat and proud.

It was show time.

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Malayka Small

Fresh out of high school, Malayka Small is a Jamaican native with a knack for black history, modern-day activism and writing. Though she revels in her "anonymity", she is always down to discuss (debate). To keep in touch with Malayka, email her at malaykasmallwrites@gmail.com or follow her on Instagram: @mswrites_