I celebrated my 20th birthday this past week, and it only felt right to sit out on my childhood home’s porch and listen to SZA’s “20 Something” off of her debut studio album, “Ctrl.”
The simple sounds of an acoustic guitar and SZA’s dream-like lead and background vocals took me off my porch and into my past. The last three years of my life played in my mind like scenes from a movie, with “Ctrl” as its soundtrack, and the final scene was the moment I was in right now.
At 17 years old, I was not confident in the slightest. I had always struggled with how I felt in my body and, more importantly, how others saw me.
I started my first diet at that time, searching for solace in a growling stomach at night, a size eight jean or a double-take from a football player in the halls. I craved results, pushing myself to absurd lengths to lose weight, trying to poke and prod myself into a fit, appealing and uniformly “beautiful” girl. I could handle hunger if I was getting validation.
“Drew Barrymore” was a song I’d cry myself to sleep listening to. I could feel every word SZA sang swimming through my starving, unloved body laying in my bed. The drama and drive of the song and SZA’s struggles with self-worth and constant need for reassurance from others, specifically men, is something I was dealing with on a daily basis.
I let some undeserving partners into my life back then, simply because I did not know how to feel beautiful on my own.
SZA sings, “I’m sorry I’m not more attractive, I’m sorry I’m not more lady like” and asks “Is it warm enough for you inside me?” My self-conscious, apologetic cries shared her sadness, and I never felt good enough for anyone. I could never feel sure about anything, even the exes of my past in their remarks of love — did they ever really think I was beautiful?
I sure didn’t.
Seventeen became 18, but my self-doubt and insecurities remained prominent. I dated one boy who was clearly using me for sex. There was no love there — hell there was hardly respect — but I convinced myself I was in love because it was easier to feel that than it was to feel lonely or undesirable.
Ironically, “Love Galore” was our favorite late-night song to listen to together. Despite the tune’s sultry, alluring beat made for love-making, the lyrics are anything but romantic. SZA sings, “Should’ve never let you hit it, I split it with you. I regret it, you gots a fetish … You gots a problem, now it’s a problem.”
My ex had an obvious drinking problem I tolerated for too long because my own insecurities and doubts kept me from walking away — as “long as we got love.”
With help from my friends’ advice and enough pillowcase sessions with “Ctrl,” I realized I was better than this — better than being with someone who did not deserve my time. SZA’s honest lyrics and emotional vulnerability helped me through the breakup and many failed attempts at love and partnership to come.
But, what I thank her and her album for the most is allowing me to find someone who could love me through it all — myself.
“Broken Clocks” was my anthem from there on out. I was “never goin’ back” to the times of self-doubt, starvation and shameful thoughts about myself.
The cool, smooth percussion and enchanting runs throughout the song were music to my ears, bringing me to a euphoric place where my negative thoughts simply could not exist. SZA sings of accepting her ghosts and struggles and finding a way to live in the moment and celebrate better days than yesterday. It felt therapeutic to listen to — I could not help but feel more relaxed and in tune with my life and my joy while she sang to me.
I jumped into college with full force and high hopes at finding self-love and acceptance. I met some of the most supportive men and women I could ask for, each loving me in a way that made me want to love myself. I grew genuine and radiant confidence, and I had found a way to accept my flaws for what they were.
Nineteen was a year of true and honest love for the life I had built myself at Temple University.
I found a partner whose love makes me feel more alive and beautiful than I’ve ever felt. I discovered what it’s like to have a healthy relationship with a man while maintaining a healthy relationship with myself. He’s been one of my biggest supporters in my journey to self-acceptance, reminding me of the things that make me someone I can be proud of.
I’ve finally become a woman capable of accepting herself.
On that porch, I let the album play through in its entirety as I reflected — the work has been there with me in my transition from an insecure 17 year old who let men control her feelings to the self-satisfied, independent woman I have become today. My thoughts were not complete without the music because SZA had helped me through so much.
It would be untrue to say I feel confident in myself 100 percent of the time — no one does. But like SZA said, “I just take it day by day.” When I start to feel like my 17-year-old self — unworthy and not good enough — I put in my headphones and put on “Ctrl” to remind myself that I’m not alone in these thoughts.
I find strength in SZA’s truth. I am worthy. I am enough. I’ve grown.
That’s me, Miss “20 Something.”