There’s a genre of images that I’ve become really fond of over the last few months: photos of iconic Black femmes, beaming in the glory of each other’s presence. Photos like the ones of Grace Jones and Tina Turner below, taken in May 1981.
Grace is all dolled up in a one-shouldered slinky dress and leather hat, cheekbones chiseled to perfection. Tina, having just finished a performance at The Ritz in New York City, is in her comfy after-show sweater and lounge pants, the ends of her hair a little damp. Wrapped in each other’s arms, smiling with the mutual affection and understanding of formidable women, they both look so different and yet so equally powerful.
There’s a magic to these kinds of images, images of powerful women in community. They suggest, with radiant glamour, that in sisterhood/siblinghood we can be more powerful and thus empower others. And when I speak of power here I don’t mean fame or material success or seats at proverbial white tables. I’m thinking of a kind of innate power, a spiritual power. Power that has less to do with being “the best” than it does with simply being — authentically, wholly, yourself.
I like these photos because they challenge the idea of comparison, the idea that there can or even should be “only one.”
I’m really bored by comparison these days. There is too much at stake. I know I say this a lot but I’ll keep saying it because it is the most urgent truth about being alive: we all quite literally are going to die one day. And so I’m not interested in being powerful if it means lording that over anyone, or feeling superior to anyone, or being suspicious, fearful, or threatened by women in whom I see some of myself.
I also don’t have time for relationships wherein I must prove that my intentions are pure and my support is real. I have compassion for those who see other people only as enemies, obstacles, or stepping stones to the next best thing. But at some point, in order to grow, you need to start seeing other people for exactly what they are and not what your insecurities and assumptions turn them into.
Years ago I had a friend, a Black woman writer in a genre entirely different from mine, tell me that they often felt in competition with me. “If there is any tension in our friendship,” they said, “it stems from that.” They told me this during a week when I was scrambling to figure out how I was going to pay my rent, a week when I was unceremoniously rejected for an editorial job at a prestigious publication with whom I had been interviewing for three months. And all I could think was,
“What is it that we are in competition for, exactly?”
Jealousy is about entitlement, and not the righteous kind of entitlement, but the kind that turns peoples lives into abstractions rather than actual lived experiences, and transforms other peoples blessings into personal insults. Jealousy is human, and natural, but to dwell in that space too long is to flatten the textured complexities of failure and success, scarcity and abundance.
Someone once famously said that competition between women can be a good thing, but I don’t want to be a Black woman creative who, as writer Jason England says, “measure[s] success by what white people value.” And that’s the thing, so much of what drives a lot of jealousy and comparison these days is fueled by white supremacist and capitalist ideals — coveting what someone else has, or berating yourself for having accomplished “less” than a peer closes doors that should always be open. Creating a new vision of success outside of those parameters, a success of the collective, is a way to create spaciousness where there wasn’t any.
I am not perfect in my quest to focus on my own journey and no one else’s. I don’t know everything. I don’t know how to completely eradicate the tinny voice in the back of my mind that’s constantly whispering “more,” even though I know “more” will never be enough. I don’t know how to be proud of my accomplishments without feeling delusional. I don’t know how to ask for help or support without having to contend with a debilitating fear of rejection or indifference. I don’t know how not to stop worrying that I am not doing enough, or not good enough.
But something I do know: Jealousy is admiration compromised by ego. And so, letting go of your ego, or at the very least facing it, acknowledging it, is key if you want to live a life free of comparison. Replacing feelings of comparison or envy with genuine admiration and inspiration is so much more satisfying anyway. It activates rather than depletes. It builds true connection. It’s powerful.
I recently moved to New York. It’s a move I think I subconsciously put on the back-burner for a while as a way to protect myself from what I’ve always seen as an often toxic, catty media world where friendships feel performative, strategic, or hollow. In retrospect, I think my fear wasn’t just encountering these violences but engaging in them, as well. But I’ve been craving personal and professional community — real community — for a long time now. I think I’ve blocked myself from opportunities to build community for fear of navigating insincere or messy relationships.
But I’m feeling so much more open now. I’m feeling so much less afraid. And I’m realizing a huge reason for that is the love, support, and affirmation of my friends, especially the Black and brown femmes in my life. What would the world look like if we all rooted for each other more? Not everyone is going to be your friend. Not everybody has to be. But I believe that on some level we are all in this thing together, and if that’s going to be the case, we need to be more tender with each other.
That’s what I love about the photos I’ve been collecting for my archive - beneath all the glamour, the legendary-ness of these women, there is a tenderness that is palpable and raw. These women are powerful, yes, and it’s their tenderness for each other - not fame, accolades, achievements, but tenderness - that makes it so.