Soft PowerNichole Perkins Redesigns the Politics of Desire

Nichole Perkins, author of Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be (Photo credit: Sylvie Rosokoff)

How should a Black girl be? From an early age, girls are told that obeying patriarchy’s rules will increase their worth. We’re thus socialized to believe that we’re in competition with other girls and ourselves. Sometimes it feels like there’s no way to demolish the system, especially when our oppressors come from outside and within. But if you’re lucky, you occasionally come across a writer who has an uncanny ability to wield vulnerability in both admirable and revelatory ways. Using an engaging blend of humor, unvarnished honesty, and genuine sincerity, Nichole Perkins is one of those writers who finds divinity in the turbulent waves of self-discovery. Her debut memoir, Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be, isn’t an ode to trauma or an exercise in self-mythology. Whether she’s talking about the hypocrisy of Christianity, recasting Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog’s romance as an abusive relationship, the highs and lows of mental health, or Prince’s untouchable gift, the Nashville native smartly illustrates how pop culture can help us learn the value of self-enlightenment.

Perkins, who currently hosts the podcast This Is Good For You and previously cohosted the Thirst Aid Kit podcast with Bim Adewunmi, is no stranger to being unapologetically open on the internet. Her Twitter feed is a grab bag of varied interests: book and music recommendations, retweeted memes, unabashed odes to hot men, and thoughts on sex, pleasure, and relationships. The intersection of pleasure and desire was also a guiding theme on Thirst Aid Kit, which used the tagline, “Lust is a feeling. Thirst is the performance of that feeling.” The notable Season 1 finale, “Chris Evans (feat. Chris Evans),” indulged in giggly adoration of Evans’s Captain America-induced swag while simultaneously unpacking the harmful ideals of perfection. Across various mediums, her examinations of pop culture touch upon race, gender, size, class, physical ability, and sexuality, and she explores these issues and more in her memoir.

Perkins’s memoir uses the concept of desirability as a throughline, considering the construct of attractiveness to be the result of both political and personal decisions. In the essay “White Boys,” she describes the particular challenges that come with dating white men and the nagging self-doubt brought on by societal standards. She self-sabotages a relationship with a white man named Jeremy because she doesn’t believe he’s actually attracted to her, writing, “I could never trust his affection because I couldn’t see myself as worthy of it.” Her insightful essays examine her younger self with empathy and understanding, but she also doesn’t downplay or attempt to erase past mistakes. Perkins’s strength lies in her first-person narrative voice, which undermines the literary world’s recent dismissal of personal essays as both an enduring genre and a cultural touchstone. Some claim that the age of the first-person essay has passed because it’s no longer considered brave or groundbreaking for writers, particularly women, to reveal the innermost parts of themselves to a faceless audience of strangers.

As Jia Tolentino wrote in 2017 for the New Yorker, “There’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.” According to Tolentino, the decline is partly due to ad-based publishing models endlessly pivoting, but it’s also because the genre became a high-risk venture for women writers that rarely guaranteed a high return. “Personal essays cry out for identification and connection; what their authors often got was distancing and shame,” she writes. Despite this, I have always been drawn to narrative voices who aren’t afraid to get ugly to keep themselves recognizably human. And while the first-person confessional may have fallen out of favor, I still find myself drawn to books and authors who use their perspective to question the validity of self-truths and societal expectations. 

Perkins pushes the genre forward, asking questions such as: Who is considered desirable, and why? What does it mean to be desirable if beauty standards are the products of white supremacy? Like beauty standards, Perkins’s memoir shows that pop culture isn’t born in a vacuum. Our identities are never truly free from external influences and are often crystallized in opposition to societal and cultural demands. For Black women, living in a world that denies our full spectrum of emotions means that our vulnerability is something to be protected, not feared. As Perkins so vividly illustrates, there’s transformative wisdom to be found in softness.

Desirability is a running theme throughout your book. A lot of the essays explore the intersection of pop culture, feminine beauty standards, and heterosexual desirability. Now that we’re living in this age of social media and “Instagram face,” how has online culture contributed to the changing perception of desirability?

Social media contributed a lot. I hate to say that because I feel like I’m going back to my teenage years. But I’ve noticed that beauty has become this thing where we’re all supposed to look the same. Everyone has to have the same kind of “Instagram face”—very full lips, overly full lips, or overly drawn lips, the nose and the cheekbones have to be just so, and the eyes have to be tilted at a certain angle. People want to look like each other as opposed to trying to figure out how to stand out in the crowd. That bothers me a lot because beauty is what happens when you stand out, when you don’t look like everybody else.

It just seems odd, but it’s distributed in such a way that people don’t know how they look anymore without filters. The filters started out being these really cute, funny things where you could throw on some dog ears. [Then] the filter became No, this is how I want to look all the time. It becomes this weird delusion because you can’t look like a filter in real life. Social media has changed a lot of what we consider desirable. I know I’ve made conscious decisions to focus on things that aren’t necessarily physical.

Speaking of being mindful about self-care and image, has the pandemic changed the way you manage your self-care?

I’ve definitely changed the way I manage self-care. Since the pandemic [began], I’ve wanted more quiet time. I used to have music constantly playing or the television going. I definitely still rely on TV a lot, [watching] a lot of comfort TV shows—the stuff I grew up with—because the outside world is so unpredictable right now. [When] I’m watching Frasier, Living Single, and other old shows I like, I know what’s going to happen. I’ve already watched it. I know this is gonna be funny. I know the issue is going to be resolved and everyone’s going to be okay. So I’ve been drowning myself in those things more and drowning myself in romance novels more. I’m never without a romance novel in the first place, but I’ve [been] reading them even more. I’ve also changed [in other ways]. I tend to wear sexy clothes now as part of my loungewear, instead of sweats, to feel more in touch with myself. I’ve been wearing catsuits and lacy rompers, and I’ve been buying more lingerie for myself.

How can women, especially Black women, practice self-care that is more in line with Audre Lorde’s original definition?

We’re seeing [Black women publicly practicing self-care] with the stories coming out of the Olympics. Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka said No, I’m not going to risk my life for your entertainment. We’re also seeing it in the ways we’re talking about work—remote vs. being in the office vs. some sort of hybrid. It’s going to snowball and more and more Black women are going to be like, “I can say no and the world will not stop. I can say no, and I’ll keep living. I can say no, and the people who have a problem with it are not the people I need in my life.” There’s a lot of pushback on the strong Black woman mythology, that whole idea of you took it before [so] you can keep taking it. That’s going to stop. That’s what we’re doing now.

Your essay “Softness” talks about outdated and racist ideas of femininity. You mention how our white supremacist patriarchy constantly paints Serena Williams as the stereotypical, angry Black woman, which then brings to mind Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. In what ways do their experiences mirror one another? How have Williams and Biles both embraced this idea of softness to defy stereotypes?

I talked about Serena [Williams] in that chapter because she’s such a girly girl. Her wedding was kind of Disney princess, and we see her at home. She’s playing with her daughter; they’re both in these princessy puffy dresses. Naomi [Osaka] doesn’t get called masculine, but there are some racist undertones to the accusations of “She doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about talking to people” or “It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking,” which [harken] back to these racist stereotypes that Asian people are inscrutable, and you can’t tell what they’re thinking. When you think about what Naomi’s talking about with her social anxiety and feeling overwhelmed, it’s clear that she’s just trying to do her job and get through the moment. She’s also trying to stay focused on the things that [come with being] an athlete. So I see a lot of parallels between [Osaka and Williams] and the way that they’re stereotyped.

There’s that cartoon image after the match with Serena and Naomi where Serena got really upset. Someone drew [Serena] stomping on her racket. And Naomi was in the background looking like a white girl. She was very fair-skinned with blond hair instead of her actual ombré. She was painted as this very small, delicate creature in comparison. So we get a lot of people’s racist and stereotypical projections of them. I can’t really speak to Naomi trying to portray softness, but I see Serena doing that and trying to show that she’s more than a tennis player. Simone Biles is also trying to show that she’s more than a gymnast. I see them all trying to say: I deserve care. I hope that more women, especially Black women, latch on to that. We all deserve care and tenderness in the way that we treat ourselves. Hopefully, that means if someone sees me treating myself tenderly, they’ll also treat me tenderly.

Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be by Nichole Perkins (Photo credit: Grand Central Publishing)

Your book’s first essay, “Fast,” discusses how white girls are allowed to hold on to their innocence, while Black girls are sexualized at a very young age. You write, “The images of white girls and love came easily, but everywhere I turned Black girls were warned.” Considering the rise of the #MeToo movement, has it made an impact on how we treat Black girls vs. white girls and the concept of innocence?

People still have a hard time recognizing that Black women need to be protected. We’re still seeing that with Megan Thee Stallion and the guy who allegedly shot her. It’s really hard for people to see Black women and Black girls as deserving of protection. And going back to the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein, I remember when Lupita Nyong’o came out about her experience with him. It got a little bit of attention, but then it was just gone in the wake of all these other women—mostly white women—talking about their experiences with him. He responded once to Ashley Judd’s accusations and went quiet on all the rest, but when Lupita made her allegations he was like, “No, that never happened.” It felt really odd to see him respond so vehemently to Lupita and it made me think that people don’t think that Black women can be hurt, taken advantage of, or mistreated.

In “Keyboard Courage,” you discuss internet culture and finding a sense of community on the Okayplayer message boards. How does your experience as a Gen-Xer using the internet differ from Gen Z and younger millennials?

Millennials and Gen Z have less embarrassment and shame about being on the internet. When I was coming up, it was still taboo to say, “I met somebody online.” It was still really weird and uncomfortable. Younger generations are just like, Oh yeah I do everything online, though I do see more of the younger generation rejecting social media, which I find interesting. Some of that is because their parents are also putting them on the internet without their permission. And then they get older and they realize, I don’t want you to put this embarrassing stuff about me online. They’re being more discreet. The younger generations are also very quick to pick up new things and they’re more willing to try them out and see what they can do with them, and reject them quickly if they don’t do well.

What would you say to someone who says that online friendships or online communities aren’t real?

I wouldn’t belittle online friendships. It’s a little easier for me to communicate via written word because I’m taking the time to formulate my thoughts. I can find the word I’m missing without feeling pressured to speak quickly and say something I don’t want to say. [During] a face-to-face interaction, people want you to be very quick and snappy with your responses, which is fine, but if you’re online, you’re able to take your time and have a more thoughtful conversation. But there’s that chance that you can misread something because you’re not sure of the tone, and there’s often no way to express the full emotional impact of your words online.

While the first-person confessional may have fallen out of favor, Nichole Perkins pushes the genre forward.

Diving into craft, many writers have quirky writing routines. For example, Haruki Murakami likes to wake up at 4 a.m., write for about five to six hours, and then run a 10K. Do you have a set routine when you’re writing? Or did you have a specific routine while working on your book?

I’m most productive between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. I’m not an early riser. I’ll wake up pretty early, but then I get out of bed by 8 a.m. I’ll write in my personal journal, and then around two, that’s when I feel like I can start doing some work. During the pandemic, my routine got all jacked up. I became more of a night owl and I was working at night, which I really don’t like to do. I was having insomnia and feeling really stressed about everything, but I don’t have any special routine. I do like to have two or three drinks at my desk like hot green tea. I don’t drink coffee so the green tea and a Coca-Cola are basically my caffeine.

I usually listen to classical music when I’m writing. Or I just find a random playlist on Spotify and put it on. I can’t listen to lyrics. I’ll get distracted, thinking about when I heard that song or if it’s a special song to me. I know a lot of writers write to movie scores, but I can’t do that because I start thinking about the movie. I need something that’s soothing but not something I’m familiar with.

I’ll also use the playlists as timers. If I know that I want to sit at my desk for two hours or so, then I’ll find a playlist that’s about that long, and when it stops, that’s when I know that I should stop. I also do that with cooking. I might throw something in the CrockPot or the oven. I know that when I start to smell it or it starts to smell a certain way, then I need to stop and take a break. I adopted a cat in April of last year at the start of lockdown. She makes sure that I take breaks. That’s about it. I usually just sit down and write.

When I pushed through really difficult spots, I started to have a glass of wine, which I tried to avoid for a long time because I don’t like drinking by myself, and I didn’t want to be a writer with their alcohol. But there were times that I was very stressed about writing. I was physically scared to sit down at the desk and I didn’t know what I was going to say. Or because I was scared that it wasn’t going to sound good, I would drink a glass of white wine to save my nerves. I don’t do it all the time, I don’t do it each time, but only when I feel physical anxiety about writing. Usually physical anxiety isn’t just about the fear of not being able to get my words out but also deadlines.

Were there any topics or experiences you ultimately decided to cut from the final manuscript?

I wanted to talk about what Spock and Uhura from Star Trek meant to me. I gravitated toward Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. She was a beautiful Black woman on screen. We got to see a competent woman doing her job, and it was very rare to see that. And with Spock, I wanted to talk about my attraction to stoic men. But I stepped away from that because I felt like I was already talking about too many men in the book. Maybe I’ll save that for an essay for a different time.

I hinted at them, but I didn’t talk about two relationships that were emotionally abusive. I didn’t have that term at the time when I was [dating those men], but I made a purposeful choice not to [write] about those relationships. I mentioned them in passing in relation to other stories, but I didn’t want to give them oxygen, and I didn’t want to go back to that very painful part of my life. I didn’t want to lay bare every terrible part of my life because I didn’t want my pain to be entertaining. Those are really difficult parts of my life that I’m not ready to share. I’m a pretty vulnerable person as is and I overshare a lot on Twitter and on my podcast, so I thought, this is just going to be for me. Maybe in another five years, I’ll talk about those things. I also didn’t want to see myself as a victim anymore. I don’t want to see myself that way. I didn’t want to paint myself as always being a victim all the time, and I wanted to acknowledge that I made conscious decisions to do bad things. I had to come to terms with those decisions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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Vanessa Willoughby, a light-skinned Black woman with long, black, curly hair, looks at the camera
by Vanessa Willoughby
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Vanessa Willoughby is a writer and editor. Her bylines include but are not limited to the New York Times, Allure, BookPage, Hello Giggles, The Toast, and Bitch. She hopes to one day publish a book.