During the last week of June, I can be found lecturing about poetry and performance at Slam Camp, an academic poetry camp for high school students. Although my official title at camp is Curriculum Director, by the end of the week the students tend to call me Mama or Mama Bear or Slam Mama.
In my classroom, I have a strict policy against self-belittling. When sharing their work, no student is allowed to start with a preface like “OK, this poem sucks, but…” or “I’m sorry, I’m not a good writer.” Also, as poetry can be incredibly personal, they know they are allowed to cry freely without shame or embarrassment.
I say, “Never apologize for your art or your human.”
I think about these campers often throughout the year and remain connected with them through social media. One night recently, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I stopped suddenly – jarred by the sight of a retweet shared by one of my former students. It said, “I hate myself so easily.” It had been retweeted almost a thousand times.
My heart dropped. Impulsively, I tweeted my student:
Looking at my tweet, my response might seem a little aggressive or perhaps too silly for such a heavy statement of self-loathing. But if my student can so easily—in a literal click of a button—cosign her lack of worth, I want my response to be given with equal impulsivity. I want self-love to be the default—for it to happen simply and quickly—and when it doesn’t, I want to help reset the bar.
This is so important, so deeply personal for me, because working with these students has been a huge factor in my own healing and mental health. Simply put, I can’t hate myself while simultaneously telling my students they are worthy of happiness. I can no longer hate my body as I tell a group of young women that their bodies are exactly the way they are meant to be—perfectly flawed, powerful, capable of making joy and art and love.
I do this because it’s the truth and because it’s what they need to hear.
I tell them this because it’s what I needed to hear.
See, it’s not that I don’t understand my student on Twitter. I do—too much in fact. My own history is riddled with self-abuse, whether manifested through self-harm, unhealthy relationships, or self-loathing brought on by bouts of deep depression. For years, hating myself was the default. I did well and easily at that.
When I look back on this time, I often wonder how it became so easy. Disapproving of myself felt like my most-natural state. But why? What in the media, my home, or at school taught me it was OK to abandon myself like this? Why weren’t there louder voices on the sidelines campaigning for my own self-acceptance? When were we taught to lessen ourselves instead of love ourselves?
And why, as bystanders, do we stay silent in the face of another’s self-loathing? I don’t want to sit idly by and accept it. I did this disservice to myself. I will not do it to you.
To all my students, I want to say this: Listen to your mama.
Today is the day you can stop withholding love from yourself. The drought can end now. The famine will no longer linger. I know it’s hard to believe some days, but it is possible to be at home in your body. It’s possible to grow and foster tenderness in a landscape that has known only wreckage. Every mistake you’ve ever made is already over and has only led you closer to your truest self. Today, you are forgiven. Today, you will be gentle with yourself. You are on a journey and the only map is that heart—that staggering beautiful mess of a heart—that reminds you every day that life is awkward and complicated but incredibly worth living. You deserve to love and be loved and to never starve yourself of this love again.
Never apologize for this—for your art or your human.
Sierra DeMulder is an internationally touring spoken word poet. She is a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, a thrice-published author, and one of the founders of Button Poetry. This past September, DeMulder partnered with poet Tonya Ingram to write a piece for To Write Love on Her Arms in honor of National Suicide Prevention Week. Her most recent book, “Today Means Amen“, is forthcoming this February. Andrews McMeel Publishing has generously agreed to donate $1 per book purchased between now and February 2nd to TWLOHA.