Like many immigrant daughters, I’m of a lineage of women who didn’t put themselves first.
Don’t go out looking careless and disheveled like your American friends
Even in relationships where I feel more comfortable being authentic, I catch myself searching for a rubric. A few years ago, one of my best friends asked me to give a speech at his wedding. I found myself at the under-construction mall during a climate strike, embarrassed, retweeting an infographic about forest fires and pyrocumulus clouds, taking a floor-length blue dress to the tailor. I was performing a woman my mother imagined, performing an elegance I thought the role of best-friend-gives-a-speech demanded.
It’s not that I was pretending to be someone else. It’s not even that I didn’t like the dress. It’s that I am so often oriented toward others, so filled with the noise of other people’s perception because I’ve splintered myself into so many parts, that I’m not even sure I know what it is that I would choose. On one hand, it’s just a dress. On the other, performing who we think we should be, or what we think others want us to be, is exhausting.
Like many immigrant daughters, I’m of a lineage of women who didn’t put themselves first. I don’t have the lived experience of unbridled authenticity and honesty in my personal life, nor do I have many models of it. Writing often feels antithetical to the charge as an immigrant daughter to be a secret keeper, to never bring shame to the family, to obey.
In my early twenties, I performed in a dance-based project in homage to the work of photographer Francesca Woodman. Her haunting photographs, at once dark and playful, thrilled and provoked me. Most often, the subject is Francesca herself—many of the photos are nude self-portraits with an unapologetic emotional range. A woman as her own muse. I’d grown up being photographed by my father, often taking staged photos with my parents to send to family in Poland. I was well-versed in how to smile for a camera, less practiced in permitting myself a range of expression when observed.
The Woodman photograph I most often return to is called “Self-Deceit #1.” In it, Francesca is naked on all fours, curving her torso around a desolate granite corner, looking into a square mirror placed against the wall. She’s looking down, averting her own eyes in the mirror. Her work makes me reflect both on being seen and my own gaze. Where do I avert it and, in doing so, deceive myself? Where do I give myself the space to see and be seen on my own terms?
Performance and the page are where I practice enacting the autonomy I aspire toward. Where I attempt to reconstitute my self-perception. Raised in a strict working-class Catholic household, I never imagined being part of a performance like our dance-based Woodman homage. There I was, toward the end of the show, spotlit on a dim stage, distorting my face into grotesque shapes as fellow dancers papier-mâché’d my naked body in front of a live audience. They pasted strips of paper onto my bare stomach, chest, legs. I felt visited by Francesca’s ghost. She was giving me permission to invite in ugliness, complexity, and play. I didn’t obsess over what people would think or how I looked—I focused on how the movement felt. I felt alive. But offstage, I haven’t stopped seeking approval.
I didn’t obsess over what people would think or how I looked—I focused on how the movement felt.
Growing up, I let my name, the sound of which I’ve always loved in Polish, be mispronounced. For the sake of not inconveniencing anyone during the first eighteen years of my life, I let people call me Patricia. The brassy sound never felt right, but it was a way to assimilate, an attempt to secure belonging—further shielded by whiteness, which ensured my parents wouldn’t be assumed to be undocumented.
In college, in a new state, I began introducing myself with the correct pronunciation of my name (Pah-trits-yah). Among the various moments that brought on the shift, one stands out: Standing outside at a party, a new friend who also had a non-American name asked me how to really pronounce mine. She told me it was beautiful and practiced saying it. Reveling in the sound of my own name taught me about a kind of beauty I didn’t need to seek out, labor over, or buy.
But I confess, I still deceive myself, and I can’t get enough of beauty—scenic lookouts, hot women on Instagram, the muscle and curvature of petals. It’s seductive on the receiving end, exacting in its performance. To perform the kind of womanness I was disciplined into requires money and time, which at once attracts and eludes me. Am I actually interested in becoming more beautiful? What does that even mean?
Recently I had to get rid of a bouquet of gorgeous white lilies with carmin anthers that made me ill. I felt nauseous and dizzy every time I approached them, but couldn’t bring myself to throw them out. After photographing them excessively in my apartment’s late-afternoon glow, I finally dropped them off at a friend’s place, sick to my stomach.
My mother and I wear the same size. When I fly to my childhood home twice a year, she insists that I don’t need to bring much because I can borrow her clothes. I alternate between feeling held and controlled by this. I am held by her care and by the comfort of the option to arrive with little. I bring my own clothes but inevitably go to her closet and try on a few of her carefully chosen, hard-earned items. When I wear them, she gives me compliments and an approving look. Sometimes she says, You can keep it.
In recent years, in sharing her pride in me for all my accomplishments and education more often as I’ve grown older, she’s expressed her own desire to have time to read and learn more. I tell her I want this for her. I’m reminded that her overbearing concerns about my appearance come in part from an impulse to protect me from the relentless judgment of a society still steeped in misogyny and heteronormativity. Appearance was her way of seeking and securing ease and worthiness in this country, where she hasn’t had the opportunities I’ve had, where she arrived not knowing the language, where my parents were undocumented for twenty-two years.
One Christmas visiting a few years ago, my mama, while doing her nails on one of her too-few days off, added, to her usual chiding about how I need to slow down and take better care of myself, that tending to appearances is also about nurturing a connection to oneself. She was often worried about how busy I kept, how exhausted I seemed, and whether I took any time for me. She wasn’t wrong—I was struggling through chronic health issues that I was trying to ignore. In my attempts to reject materialism and vanity, to reckon with the limits of self-care in a world full of urgent disparities, to center my students, to contribute to struggles for prison justice and abolition, I was also rejecting slowing down enough to experience inhabiting my own body and take care of my health.
These days, I’m practicing slowing down. Sometimes the body forces us to. I’m in the process of trying to ease up on the good-daughter performance, among other self-denials, and give myself permission to be more unapologetically myself. Slowing down lately looks like dancing in my kitchen, or getting outside near water or trees, or reading a poem aloud in a bath of salts and petals. I’m practicing surrendering to the sensory and to my appetite for more beauty in my life. Beauty, for me, increasingly has to do with a quality of attention.
I was once bewildered and disturbed by the cost and time-consuming nature of the rituals that might make one more beautiful. I’m still bewildered, still skeptical of any insistence on self-care that doesn’t account for community care, still reckoning with the performances demanded of me. But aging has made me more aware of my body’s longings—for rest, for ease. Time has made me more understanding of my mother. Amid ongoing questions about beauty and belonging, in the necessary distances that give me the freedom to find out what it means to be more fully myself, I find myself feeling closer to her. I’m working on feeling closer to myself too.
Patrycja Humienik, daughter of Polish immigrants, is a writer and editor based in Seattle, WA. Her poetry is featured/forthcoming in Waxwing, Ninth Letter, TriQuarterly, Southeast Review, Passages North, Poetry Northwest, among others. She serves as Events Director for The Seventh Wave and has developed writing workshops for the Henry Art Gallery, Write Doe Bay, Puksta Civic Engagement Foundation, in prisons, and elsewhere. She is working on her first book of poems, Anchor Baby. Find Patrycja on twitter @jej_sen.