After Divorce at Twenty-Four, Lizzo Taught Me to Love Myself Again
“Juice” had the type of lyrics that forced me out of my solitude, whether I wanted to be out of it or not.
The OfficeHow to Get Away With MurderSomeone Great
Someone GreatWhy men great ‘till they gotta be great?
The way I understood the scene wasn’t passive. It felt almost too familiar. I opened Shazam on my phone without thinking about it, desperate to know what song was the soundtrack to this moment of pain and almost-freedom on screen. When it recognized “Truth Hurts” by Lizzo, I immediately added it to one of my Spotify playlists and paused the movie to play the full song.
As the song went on, part of me was resentful of what Lizzo was able to say. She’d given herself permission to ask men what their problem was—to demand more from them—while I couldn’t bring myself to answer my own husband’s phone calls.
Hers were the words I felt like shouting loud enough for him to hear, states away—and the question I had asked myself over and over again. The question I’d swallowed down as I scrolled through our old text arguments. I thought if I kept singing those lyrics, I’d get an answer. From God. From my roommate and live-in landlord who probably heard me singing. From anyone. But it was a question I couldn’t find the courage to ask him.
Lizzo had boldly demanded answers. She had laid her broken heart out in that studio, waiting for whoever to gather it, hold it, nurse it back. And for a moment, for the first time in weeks, it seemed as though I wasn’t searching for that answer alone.
I got married at twenty-one, straight out of college and on my way to graduate school in New York. He was in the military, stationed in Germany, so the engagement and subsequent wedding happened during one of his week-long visits to the states. Everything was quick. We were engaged and three days later, married—with a plan for a grand wedding to happen after we each graduated from our master’s programs.
Before my mother-in-law and I drove to pick him up from the Indianapolis airport the day he proposed, I put on a wig and pressed some fake nails on. I had no idea he’d propose that day, but I knew I wanted to look good for him. But when he did propose, I decided—after he told me he liked my natural hair better than the straight wig I’d been wearing—that I’d wear a twist-out for the small ceremony instead.
The ceremony was last minute. The only factor we decided on beforehand was the location: his church, an African Methodist Episcopal Church near downtown Indianapolis. We had changed the time twice. Once it began, I didn’t walk down the aisle with music or a bouquet. Just me and my sixty dollar ivory gown, staring at him, the pastor, the only best friend of mine who could make it on such short notice, and his best man: some guy I’d never even met.
He loved my hair on our wedding day, the natural curls that took me and my mom at least two hours. I decided I’d love it, too, even though the length still made me self-conscious, having cut off most of my afro months prior. I missed the comfort and glamour of my wig, but he assured me I was beautiful, and his opinion was the one that mattered.
I wasn’t exactly happy with the way our wedding day panned out, but I believed that I needed to be okay with compromise. Marriage was compromise, I had always been told. Marriage was biting my tongue. My marriage, towards the end, was hiding my unhappiness and hoping my partner couldn’t see right through me.
Before watching Someone Great, I’d only heard Lizzo’s music in passing, and now, it’s practically unavoidable. “Truth Hurts,” a song of redemption and bad bitchness, reached number one on the Billboard charts. Its ranking, if nothing else, told me I wasn’t the only one who needed the song.
My graduation from my grad program was nearing, and instead of moving into an apartment with my husband as I’d planned for the time we’d been apart, I was moving back home to Indiana. During that time, I began to see and hear Lizzo everywhere—in tweets, in local bars, blasting through Forever 21’s speakers. I played her album, Cuz I Love You while I packed, while I walked to the train, while I did anything—with the volume as loud as my phone could go.
The night I packed my things, preparing to head back to my hometown instead of to the city where my husband was, I danced in my oversized tee and pajama shorts. I threw up my arms and kicked my legs. I wanted to dance myself closer to the type of freedom Lizzo seemed to have. But I didn’t feel good. I couldn’t.
I thought my dancing would be joyous when I sang “‘cause I’m on my own soulmate, no I’m never lonely” aloud. I thought it would affirm me, embolden me. But instead, I sat down on the carpet, paused the music, and cried. I didn’t want to dance anymore. And despite the lyrics, I didn’t want to be alone anymore, either.
My campus therapist advised me to surround myself with friends. I had never been to therapy before then, but knew I needed to find a way to breathe without falling apart.
I picked my friend up to go to Applebee’s to catch her up on what had been going on. It was my seventh or eighth or ninth time telling the story. It had been less than a week since the initial fallout, but it was so easy to lose track of time when the life you thought you were living turned out to be false.
I had become unrecognizable to myself in many ways. During the course of our marriage, I was concerned about myself less and less. But I saw him caring for himself more and more.
In “Good as Hell,” Lizzo sings to someone who’s experienced a breakup, telling them to check their nails, toss their hair, and buy drinks from the top shelf. All the things I’d forgotten how to do. I once wore long, bold-colored acrylics, so sharp I’d accidentally scratch myself sometimes. I relished the moment after getting a new hairstyle: always different, always another version of myself—a wig, or braids, or a silk press depending on my mood.
That was before marriage. Before I decided I needed to be a little less in order to give my husband a little more. More of what he wanted, more of what he said I should be.
I got my nails done once while we were married—neon orange acrylics, coffin shape, long enough to scoop up sugar for a coffee. I loved them. Since we were long-distance, I texted him a photo. He complimented me, then told me long, acrylic nails were “ratchet.” When it was time for them to come off, I didn’t bother getting them done again. I didn’t want to wear anything my husband didn’t find beautiful. I wasn’t worried about what looks I loved because my body belonged to both of us now.
During the last year of our marriage, I rarely took photos—clothed or otherwise. I look back at that year in my camera roll and find nothing but group photos or memes. Before marriage, I dressed up often and made it a point to take pictures before going out. I felt good about my looks, my hair, my body. But during the years we were together, I only focused on loving him, on being what he wanted me to be. And since he wanted me to be less “ratchet,” less ornate, I was.
And by the time it all came to an end, I didn’t know what I liked to wear, or watch, or do. I had forgotten what it meant to be with myself, to be myself.
As I told the story of what had happened—how it ended and all of the pieces of myself I’d given up along the way—to my friend, I cried. And then I was angry at myself for crying. I’d become so emotional over the past few weeks. I’d sneak into the bathroom at work so no one would catch me crying at my desk after the devastation would suddenly rush over me. I’d lock myself in my bedroom because any conversation could lead to a breakdown. This was something deeper than sadness. This was rage and disappointment and shock.
After we finished our food, my friend and I drove back to her place with Lizzo’s “Juice” blasting through the speakers of my car. We danced in our seats like we were at a bar on a Friday night. “Juice” made me want to get up. It had the type of melody that made me want to drive with the windows down, the wind blowing my hair out of my face. It had the type of lyrics that forced me out of my solitude, whether I wanted to be out of it or not.
“If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine,”my friend and I sang together as we drove through the night. “I was born like this don’t even have to try. I’m like Chardonnay, get better over time. Heard you say I’m not the baddest, bitch you lied.”
"Juice" had the type of lyrics that forced me out of my solitude, whether I wanted to be out of it or not.
I played it at the loudest volume, the bass mostly overpowering the lyrics in my 2008 Chevy Cobalt. And before I knew it, we were in front of her house. I knew what it must have looked like to sing and have a smile on my face after crying over half-priced appetizers just minutes before.
But that was just the thing about experiencing Lizzo with another fan: I didn’t have to tell her that I needed that moment, needed the music. She could sense it. Lizzo spoke to something we both understood: Heartbreak meant peeling yourself off the ground, even just moments after falling to it, and reminding yourself of who you were in the first place.
When I returned to Indiana after graduation, I didn’t cry as often. I found a black therapist who I saw regularly. I worked part-time for wages much lower than what I was used to, but the money was mine and mine alone. I focused on applying for jobs that would get me back to New York and the life I’d begun to make for myself there.
I started going out and dressing up again. The first time, two of my childhood best friends invited me to a local party. I hadn’t been home in a while, and it had been even longer since I’d gone out with them. I got dressed and did a light beat in my mother’s bathroom. But by the time I should have been getting in the car, I got back in bed instead. They both called me.
“What are you doing in bed? Bro, get up!” It took everything in me not to stay home. But I went and they met me at the front door of the bar, ready to help me dance like we used to.
That summer reminded me that staying out too late and getting too drunk and wearing something much too tight was exciting. It reminded me of the things I loved and the person I was before the marriage had stripped me bare. It reminded me to look in the mirror long enough to see a full, beautiful person. I played Lizzo the entire time.
By that August, the divorce was final. I wasn’t back to who I used to be quite yet, but I was getting there. I cried a little less, parted with my therapist to return to New York City, and bought myself a ticket to Lizzo’s “Cuz I Love You Too” Tour.
I went alone, in the city I once thought I’d one day reside in with my husband. I cried. I sang as loudly as I wanted because no one knew me—no one would remember the lonely, half-sad girl at what was supposed to be a fun concert. I danced like I would have in the small bedroom where I first listened to her music. I let Lizzo make me feel vulnerable and soft with her self-love speeches.
I wish I could say I’m fine now—that the concert was all I needed to feel some type of relief about my divorce. I wish I could say that night was some cathartic, full-circle moment. But the truth is, there’s still a long way to go. The truth is, some days, with Lizzo’s help, it feels like I’m still piecing myself together, song by song.
Arriel Vinson is a Tin House YA Scholar and Hoosier who writes about being young, Black, and in search of freedom. She earned her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in Kweli Journal, The Rumpus, Catapult, and others. Her work has also been nominated for Best New Poets 2020, Best of the Net 2019, and a Pushcart Prize. A Walter Grant recipient, she is also a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow and 2020 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest semifinalist.