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These days, self-love has become something of a catch-all term. Brands claim they can capture and sell it to you in the form of a shower gel. Mainstream women’s media — once so feverishly focused on winning the sexual favor of suitors — has turned its arduous gaze inward. The new messaging seems to be this: without entirely accepting yourself, you will not have meaningful relationships, fully enjoy sex or achieve your goals. You simply must love yourself, no matter how much you deviate from society’s ideals. A tall order, and a rather prescriptive one at that.
Ericka Hart, educator, writer, and activist, has questions. Are we failing when we don’t always love what we see? Is “self-love” offered only to people on the margins of conventional beauty as some sort of veiled consolation prize? Should we not instead be focusing dismantling the system that has us all hating ourselves for various reasons to begin with?
These are just a few of the topics Hart aims to tackle in both her personal and professional life. After nearly a decade of teaching sex education in NYC, Hart was diagnosed bilateral breast cancer at the age of 28. Now, she uses her experience as a black, queer cancer survivor, her platform of dedicated followers, and her physical body to disrupt toxic norms and call attention to issues we aren’t talking about yet, but should be. She is — in short — the Salty CoverStar we need today.
Let’s Get Salty.

Salty:  Back in 2016, you gained a lot of fan-support for attending a music festival topless. Why is showing — and celebrating — your topless body so important?

I’m interested in people seeing my body beyond just using it for diversity and inclusion initiatives. I go topless because it’s a body that can go topless. The question, “why do you go topless?” is never asked to a masculine presenting body, largely due to societal conditioning that one body can be shirtless while another is supposed to wear a shirt (and a bra) to cover what a created system has deemed inappropriate. I’m not interested.

Salty: In a 2016 interview, you shared that your surgeon told you there where no reference photographs for reconstruction scars on black women. Is increased visibility a part of your decision as well?

I go topless because black people are ignored. Even inside of a medical condition, black femme bodies are ignored. Anybody that has breast tissue can get breast cancer, but the racism in the medical industrial complex would have us believe that there is something inherently, biologically wrong with black bodies. We’re made to think that we are affected disproportionately by this illness, rather than honing in on the institutions that leave us out of life-saving treatments, advocacy, and awareness campaigns.

Salty: Do you have advice for readers (especially WOC and/or the chronically ill) who are battling with confidence or self-love?

The world is wrapped up in binary conversations, the messaging of which is either loving yourself or hating yourself. Remember that you don’t have to think in binaries; woman and man, good or bad, self-love or self-hate, confidence or low esteem. There is gray area in all of this. We are complicated beings whose experiences can’t be diminished to the pursuit of self-love above all else. If that’s the case, then loving yourself becomes something to aspire to inside of a capitalist drive to have “more” or “be better” —  another ethic to consume and buy into, much to the benefit of companies who profit whether you’re in a cycle of self-loathing or aggrandizement.

If you don’t love yourself enough then what? “Just be” is the best advice I can give. Breathe and put on clothes, act like a fool, work through your reading list, and get out of bed — even when there a million reasons not to. We should honor the gray area in self discovery — that’s a radical act. Life is not idealized TV or Instagram.

Salty: Your critique of the concept of self-love is really interesting. Do you think the media’s recent insistence on it has been more harmful than helpful?

Conventionally pretty people are never asked how they deal with body image, it’s just assumed they love their bodies. They are beautiful after all, so why wouldn’t they love themselves like we, the world — legitimately and reasonably inside of white supremacy — do? So then the question is always posed to someone who lives on the margins of conventional beauty.

So now, taking my top off to show my scarred breasts in an attempt make a difference is wrapped up in how I manage to “be comfortable” or “love my body” to the extent that I would have the audacity to show it. What’s bigger to me than loving myself is making a difference. Whatever negative thoughts others have around my body are most certainly anti-black, so it’s my duty to resist that as a function of my survival.

I’m using my body as a tool to shift systems on behalf of black liberation and sexual liberation and freedom from gender oppression.

My mission is so beyond, “do this so you can love yourself.” I don’t have time to delve into a very narrow conversation about my relationship to myself inside an even smaller, superficial, privileged, prescriptive conversation of loving myself. I don’t have time to focus on whether I like my arms, legs, or scarred breasts. People don’t like me period. My whole existence hasn’t been liked, so any conversation about self-love has to start with looking at the ways this country was founded on hating my body. For white folks, it starts with looking at the ways this country put your body on a pedestal above all others. I don’t know if I love myself; I don’t know if it’s love or a resistance.

I’m interested in using my body to resist, and existing as some sort of love cloud for your inspiration is not going to alter how you view black bodies, which is what I’m out to do. I’m interested in altering how you view black bodies, and could care less if you think I love myself or not. Black bodies have been used against our will and best interest for centuries, and I don’t know if black people (or black-cis and trans women) are given the space to talk about that. This is when a cultural insistence on self-love/loving one’s body does more harm than good. It can be another form of erasure of that history.

Salty: In relationships, how can people take a more active role than simply proclaiming their “allydom”?

In an intimate relationship, it’s important to consider the needs, experiences, traumas, desires, everyday challenges to survival, etc. of your partner. Consider whatever impulse you have to discount them and listen, don’t argue, even when you’ve heard their experience of racism 1,000 times. Just listen. But when it comes to doing the dishes, that’s another story.

Follow Ericka Hart here.

Ericka is photographed for Salty by Elizabeth Renstrom, Beauty by Raisa Flowers, Hair by Netty Jordan, Styled by Jarae Holliway

Introduction by Lily Dicostanzo