How Janet Jackson Saved Me
I often joke with people about how Janet Jackson’s Love Will Never Do video broke my heart, but at one time, I was dead serious. It’s not her fault, though. I was about two or three years into what would become 30 plus years of body image insecurity and eating disorders. Seeing her go from a curly-haired Janet in all baggy blazers to straight-haired Janet in a midriff tank top sent me in a state of shock. Everything I had emulated about her since I first saw her on Fame was because I saw myself in her. Now she was super sexy and smiley, and I had just started my period and began to grow hips. I was mad at the world, Janet validated my looks, and now she was changing for the better, while I felt I was changing for the worst. I felt betrayed and harbored resentment (while I still idolizing her) until I got grown and sexy myself; until I knew what it was to be a woman. I still stream Janet’s albums while writing, but it wasn’t until more recently that I realized how therapeutic she was for me at one of the most challenging times of my life.
My entire middle school career, my grandmother was dying. She had been battling ovarian cancer. I didn’t know this. I had yet to understand that my world would soon be crashing down. I just knew the woman who had cared for me for almost a decade was literally fading away. Not only was I struggling with the visual that would evoke a trauma response for years to come, but I was also already missing her energy. My Ga-Ga was my best friend, biggest cheerleader, and the person who hugged, kissed, and told me she loves me every day of my life. She believed in me. Now she was in and out of the hospital. I was no longer interested in the activities I enjoyed, partly because of puberty and mostly because I was functionally depressed. When I wasn’t secretly alternating between restricting calories and scarfing Little Debbie Snack cakes, Janet Jackson became my reprieve. Her Control and Rhythm Nation 1814 cassette tapes were on repeat in my boom box and my Walkman; I recorded her videos on VHS, so I could master the dance routines, particularly Pleasure Principle. If I only had my own warehouse to dance in as she had, life would be grand. The level of commitment required to wait for all of them to rewind over and over again was astronomical. But Janet was worth it; her swift, sharp movements and endearing face had me lost in movement for hours. Her voice was soothing.
For a year and a half, I stayed in my room, watching myself in the mirror, exacting my hand movements to hers in the Miss You much video. I would temporarily forget that Ga-Ga was just across the hallway, bedridden. When I felt like, “Why me?” State of the World and Rhythm Nation reinforced my gratitude for what I did have. Escapade, Alright, and When I Think of You bought me pure joy, no matter my mood (and there were many.) What Have You Done for Me Lately, Let’s Wait a While, and Nasty embedded messages of empowerment and confidence into my subconscious. Janet was the perfect diversion, but she was also a form of therapy, something I wouldn’t seek officially for another 25 years. I believe the universe drew me Janet Jackson for affirmation when my grandmother could no longer provide it. Can’t convince me otherwise.
While I was initially devastated when I saw Janet and lots more of her beautiful brown skin, as I learned to give myself permission to evolve. I shifted the narrative about the Love Will Never Do video. Not only is that still my jam, but instead, when I see Janet sashaying barefoot across the beach, “I‘m like Yassss, Janet!” Today it has all come full circle. I am now spreading messages of empowerment to women and adolescents as a speaker, workshop facilitator, and life coach. Now I am affirming and encouraging others to affirm myself. I am encouraging women to give themselves permission to evolve. As a nod to Janet (along with my go-to karaoke song Nasty), at my public appearances, I complete my uniform with a blazer to remind myself that I’m in Control! Forever grateful to you, Janet.