Written by: Alessia Petrolito
Since I can remember, I’ve been my parents’ favorite subject, a girl, their first black child; the one you’re eager to frame in time whenever she lets you. With digital cameras, adolescence, and a doubtful fashion sense, that has changed. Being photographed slightly bothered me. I could see just my flaws. Looking back, I had failed to grasp what it meant to be a woman when you have a different body and no mirror to reflect into. Yet, most of the pictures you’ll look at show my happy grin. When you look at them, look at them closely, or you’ll never understand.
Gatteo a Mare, city by the Adriatic Sea, Emilia Romagna.
Ferita. She felt hurt, by stares, hanged at her father’s arm. Her father called those people out: “It’s my daughter!” He shouted. He lived by a rule: shake it off. There, Lei couldn’t move on and found no reason to keep the smile. She held it all in and dived into reading even more.
Santena, an Italian town nearby Turin, Piedmont.
Romantica. Lei was about thirteen, it was her time for romance; she loved Diabolik, the Italian Comic featuring the genius thief with grey-iced-eyes, and Harmony (Harlequin). Sundays she spent all her pocket money at the flea market to get all the ones she could find. She liked to live either in the past or in her books. She envisioned the Spaniards and the Arabs building Sicilian gardens and fantasized about the romance consumed in the shades of their trees.
At night, she squeezed her eyes and read about gold, jewelry thefts, and unrequited love under the blanket with a burning flashlight in her hand until her mother called her out. No one in her Harmony(s) had her complexion. But the handsome Greek and Italian characters she was reading about were tanned as the one she knew.
Infantile. Young and old liked to remind her: childish isn’t for Lei to be. She was sulky and weird, her voice tune went from mute to shrill. Like for her father, music was a second language, a way to express feelings. She listened to Yuyu’s Mon petit garçon, to Valeria Rossi’s Tre parole (Three words, which of course were sun, heart, and love), and was at war with herself for liking the three most famous Italian teenage singers altogether: Elisa, Laura Pausini and Giorgia.
Locked in the room she previously shared with her sister, she used to sing at the top of her lungs a playlist of all her favorites: Disney's soundtracks from the Il re leone (Lion King), La sirenetta (The little mermaid), Aladin, Mulan, Tarzan and Hercules, and Mina and Celentano’s most famous songs: Acqua e sale (Water and Salt) and Brivido felino (Feline Shiver).
Lei loved singing and had performed various times for her class’s theatre club final. She dreamed about becoming famous but was too shy to realize that dream. She looked at herself in the mirror, hoping that time would have turned her into Halle Berry or Whitney Houston.
Santena, an Italian town nearby Turin, Piedmont.
Scuola. Teachers chanted Lei’s skin couldn’t hold her, that she had the world in her hand; but something was, she could have studied everything even Latin, but she preferred the Arts. She was so decisive; her parents didn’t interfere, and she never looked back. She was a bookworm, the N.E.R.D. friend, the only black girl in her classes, and most of the time, one of the fewest in the entire school. She studied to be prepared, not much more; she wasn’t too worried about failing, more about being a disappointment, that she wasn’t going to be enough or good enough.
Since elementary she had a crush on each of her classmates in turn; one would have sufficed. She wanted to be noticed like the protagonists of her books, but she knew she wasn’t exactly beautiful nor rich enough by any means to get to a prince. She was slightly disproportionate for standards. Comparing her height, legs and feet were too long, her back too short, she got puffy cheeks and shocking glasses.
Lei dreamed to date Erik, the boy from her favorite anime Rossana (Kodocha) and Jared Padalecki, the actor in Una mamma per amica (Gilmore Girls); tall, brown hair, clear eyes: that was her type. She also had a crush on Eddie Murphy. She secretly maintained correspondence with someone who reminded her of Murphy, an old sweetheart from who she got her first kiss way before those that were flying between them at sixteen. She had gotten it so early that the memory glued to her brain.
When Lei started to get honked by cars at the bus stop, she didn’t mind; nonetheless, at first, she didn’t know it was because of her skin tone. After all, she wasn’t the only student waiting underneath the canopy. The second of many times, she had thought to recognize the car and had even waved her hand. And then, one day, an elder sat next to her on the bus and let his hands on her knee for far too long; she thought he misplaced it involuntarily, kept moving her thigh, switching positions, and yet be followed.
Discoteca. Her best friends got their license and started clubbing and Lei went along hoping to meet a prince in the mist. It might have been too dark and packed because she kept missing him; all she got were leered stares by older men. Her peers weren’t looking at her at all. She was too shy to hold the dance floor; she made her own moves; they were blurry, too stifling to be natural, sensual, her feet were heavy as concrete, but she wanted to dance like Step Up and Save the Last Dance. She listened to Black Eyed Peace, Sean Paul, Rihanna, and Pussycat Dolls’ music.
Lei hated her breasts; her hair wouldn’t stay permed for more than a week with washing, and her butt wouldn’t correctly fit her jeans. Usually, her style commanded her to be comfy more than stylish: so, at school, at home, with friends, she always wore jeans and sweaters; but for big occasions like Halloween and Mardi Gras, she put on skirts and heels and masked between sexy-witch and sexy-devil. No one bought it. She was a teen, feared to be perceived as a woman, seductive, confident, and available; she didn’t want to be chased, only seen. Most party attendees seemed to sniff out the trick; she was looking for love while hiding out of fear. Her attempts didn’t last; she resumed her feelings for her sweetheart and dived into a telephonic relationship of SMS and MSN buzzes. He made her smile, wish and desire. Lei longed to see him; she belonged to him, to their story. His gaze didn’t scare her like others did.
Villastellone, an Italian town nearby Turin, Piedmont.
Cotta. Love came in the end and hit harder than a truck; he looked like a prince, tall, handsome, with blue eyes. It happened like in her books, a friend of a friend and then boom! An afternoon game, a bet, one kiss and they were hooked. Lei couldn’t believe it, his eyes enchanted hers, it was too good to be true, she got butterflies in her stomach, she had a beau! The excitement turned to fear and then paranoia. Lei woke up afraid, worried it wouldn’t be true. She couldn’t understand why - Why did he look at her? She tried to ask and that sent his interest burning to the ground. But why? Why her?
She had felt chosen for the first time in her life and couldn’t help but to sabotage it. Of all their love-chats, one thing she got stuck in her mind: “I thought you were different because you’re black.”
Nera, Lei? Was she? Black? Where? Lei asked herself multiple times. That was it, she was going to escape men's desires and objectification traps.
Lasciata. Dumped, again, a trimester, and it was over. Lei felt adrift, unstable, unchosen; something must be wrong with her. Was she crazy? For months, couldn’t feel anything, just numbness except for her ache: crashing remaining heart shards. She burnt every gift.
She lost friends and abandoned even herself. Deprived of energy, she fell behind and almost didn’t graduate from high school; she ruined her score, started therapy, felt so stupid and unloved. The more she stayed, the more he distanced; she tried to maintain a friendship, couldn’t take it. University started and going to class, she used to see him at the station every day; holding on to memories and his smirk, she even tried to get the early train just to say hi.
A semester from the start, she retired from her courses and caged in her bedroom.
Pittura. The consistency of the pigmentation always struck her. She longed for the moment in which, standing in front of the canvas, she imagined foreground and background, emerging from the infinity of the white space; objects, people and animals were coming to life through the blending of tones and hues, lights and shadows, solids, and voids.
So then, since studying cinema didn’t work out, she went back to drawing and painting. She wanted to specialize in oil painting and found a painter offering lessons in Turin. The firsts were about learning the difference between the various oil textures, their characters, and disciplined uses, then they refreshed the basics with shading exercises. She was a natural, a quick learner, picked up techniques just by looking. Pleased by the results, he saw her talent and grew pleasure in teaching his styles. He was a portraitist; his subjects were primarily women, and he had them pose and photographed.
Artistic nude wasn’t a novelty to her; she went to an Art High school and took many drawing classes but had never used more than chalks and pencils before. He fed her interest in skins and carnations.
His models were rosy blondes, brunets, redheads. Their carnation went from pale to tanned on a scale from cold to warm. Lei was ok with it; she was used to it. The thoughts that things could have been different barely touched her mind.
One day he simply asked her: “Would you care to pose for me?”
Lei blushed! She couldn’t bear the thought.
There weren’t many nude models, especially dark-skinned models in Turin and he remarked that many artists were eager to paint different tones of skin; this could have even become a profitable job. She shook her head out of shyness.
What would she do if her parents found out?! It was profane, so unthinkable that when she told her best friends, and one of them agreed to do it – for a second, she felt amazed, just a blink and then felt happy for her and for being the one to gift the city with another model with diaphanous skin. She witnessed the session and helped her to get dressed afterwards. The painter complimented her, her body and complexion, for so long that Lei turned jealous. She needed that kind of attention. So, Lei did it, she posed for him wearing just a turban and necklace, and she felt objectified but beautiful.