I’m Fine

*based off of/inspired by Olivia Gatwood’s “An Alternate Universe in Which I am Unfazed by the Men Who Do Not Love Me”


I ask him if we are friends, sober, in the morning, and I keep asking questions until I am sure of the way he sees me in his head. I never romance myself into believing things are different than they are. I tell a boy “good luck” and mean it when he texts me that he has met the love of his life. I am wise enough to tell him that he doesn’t really love me, he just thinks he does, and I sleep in my own bed that night. I let him go. I let him go. I let him go. I never think of him again. I do not hold the elevator for the man who didn’t hold the door for me. Without a word, I trip the man that pushed past me on the escalator. I say that she is cool and beautiful, and maybe in another life, I would probably be friends with her. I am not jealous and I never lie to myself. Casual is cool, casual is fun, casual will keep me safe. I tell him secrets about myself because it is a warm summer night and not because I want to bind him to me. I never text first. I don’t even save their number. I am able to tell my father that I love him without expecting him to be able to say it in a way I understand. I introduce him too soon to my parents because he should be more afraid. I do not worry if this lipstick suits me, if they think I am beautiful, if they think I am worth anything. I do not worry that I am too fat to be so loud, too fat to have the kind of opinions I do. I do not worry about the parts of me that are unpalatable – I’m not safe for consumption anyways. I am fine and I am free. 


Self Improvement vs Self Acceptance

In your 20s, the drive to improve yourself seems to reach a fever pitch. You’re young, you’re hungry, you’ve been taught that this decade is the *most* important one. And in the age of instagrammable wellness, lifestyle virtue signalling, the classism and consumerism that drives it all, “getting your shit together” has become more of a rat race than anything else.

For most of us, social media has allowed us to put our lives on display in an unprecedented way. I can let all 793 of my instagram followers know what my room looks like, how great my hair looks on any given day, what social cause I care about, the particular brand of workout leggings I’ve been #obsessed with. The only thing stopping us from sharing the minutiae of our existence with the world is our own common sense (which sometimes fails). Let’s just say there’s a good reason I deleted my entire Twitter account.

Because of our self-constructed virtual fishbowl, we spend a lot of time constructing a life that looks good. Especially in our early 20s as we venture out into the world and try out new identities. Our social media is more than just a curated slice of our lives, it’s an extension of our public image. It’s our personal brand. Even if we’re not selling anything, we’re selling ourselves. We post our gym selfies, candid laughing pictures with our friends, cocktail glass boomerangs, etc. as a shout into the digital void: “HEY ISN’T MY LIFE GREAT!”

But we’re not satisfied. It’s more than just our social media. We’re stuck in a loop that the next job, the next apartment, that new romantic partner, losing those last 10 pounds, will be what makes our lives happy and perfect. We self-medicate with with self-improvement packaged for the millennial generation: “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, “You are a Badass: How to stop doubting your greatness” etc. I have read both of those books and honestly, they don’t have anything new to say. We buy fiddle leaf fig plants and rose quartz crystals and try to meditate into a better version of ourselves.

This is not to demonize self improvement. I think your 20s are a great time to take a cold, hard look at yourself and take concrete steps to becoming the person you want to be. For example: I am a terrible listener, a tad self-centered, an oversharer, lack discipline and consistently sabotage my romantic relationships! But my diary contains an action plan for how to combat these less than awesome qualities, and I’m on the lookout for a new therapist. But there’s a difference between the difficult and necessary work of an emotional and spiritual glow-up and the easily packaged, available for purchase vision of a person that quite frankly, you’re never going to be. Meanwhile, you still have a ton of baggage, deep insecurities, and the corporations that speak to those unhealed emotional wounds are turning a tidy profit.

I mean, come on. Did you really think I was going to talk about an issue plaguing my generation and not blame it on capitalism?

So much of the idealized version of ourselves that we’re trying to project into the world is based on capitalistic norms around success, merit, and self-worth. Capitalism teaches us that we are worthy when we’re productive and “grown up” when we’re able to spend big. Spending big on products that subtly signal certain values and a certain class. I feel like we’ve gotten to the point where self-improvement is its own cottage industry. 

But accepting who you are and working on yourself in meaningful ways costs a lot less money. Even if you’re the only person that gets anything out of it. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to actually tangible incorporate this into my life. A couple of thoughts/free, unqualified possibly terrible advice: 

    • Stop having faith that something material could change your life: I’m especially guilty of this when it comes to home goods and clothing. Yes, that pair of black ankle boots is calling my name, BUT I will not be a radically changed person if I buy them. Just slightly more poor and more fashionable. 


  • Get honest about your ugly bits: I’m not talking about the tummy roll that makes an appearance when you sit down. Or stand up. Actually, it’s just a permanent fixture of your appearance now. In fact, it would do all of us some good if we thought less about how our bodies look. I mean those uncomfortable truths about yourself that very, very few people will ever to say your face? Yeah. It’s icky. Now deal with it. Write it down in your dream journal or whatever. 
  • Sometimes you have to prioritize self acceptance over self improvement: Not to get all woo woo with you but I truly believe that genuine, healthy self improvement has to come from a place of self-love. And the first step to loving yourself is accepting yourself. Even the aforementioned icky bits. Accept that this is who you are in this moment in time. There’s lots to be proud of and maybe there are a couple of things you’d like to work on. And that’s okay! Worth is intrinsic and not dependent on how many perceived flaws we have. 
  • Lizzo: That’s it. That’s the advice.  


Go forth and love yourself folks. And I don’t know who needs to hear this, but stop texting him. He’s not coming with you on the glow-up. 


Desire is my only law. 

Under it’s rule, I want everything. 

It’s only gluttony if you feel shame, only a sin if you’re sorry. 

I eat small joys and soak myself in unrepentant pleasure, 

open to my doors to a perpetual spring breeze, 

slide hungry fingers against seams, breaking locks and god knows. 

Have you ever felt touch this abandoned?

Reaching, wild, and sharp. 

I am all lips and teeth, eyes bigger than my stomach.

Here, between, inside 

you will find everything, but not guilt. 


I would ask your forgiveness, 

But for this holy hunger, 

I am unrepentant. 

My horoscope said: “Revenge is a fantasy”

There is a stone for whetting 

here in the open palm of my belly.

I am always knife sharp hungry. 

Peel myself from the navel, 

with teeth for hands and surgical precision. 

I undress myself, not the way that he likes, 

but honestly.

The pulp of me 

gets stuck in your teeth, 

mango seed stringy and sour gin bitter. 

I am not a meal that would fill anyone up, 

but here always is the whetting stone, 

wicked and sunken and waiting. 


Q: Have you ever been in love? A: I don’t know

I realize that’s a strange answer. Love is black and white, you are either in it or you are not. But love, at least of the romantic kind, has never been given to me wholly, without reservation. Each time, there was a footnote, a caveat, an unfortunate use of “however.” 

The first time – I felt devoured. Overcome and overwhelmed and sure down to my bones. But there was so many lies and I was so young. It took me a year to wade through the detritus of that “I love you” drunkenly bestowed from a thousand miles away. I never said it back but I felt it in my blood. It was the wrong time. It was over. I would never see him again. I hoped until I realized he didn’t. 

The second time – I fought against it. I set boundaries and limits and rules, all the while being tugged irrevocably towards the ocean floor. Like a bird going south for the winter, I waited until the air had a bite. It was a false lure, the perfect bait for a wounded disbeliever, a cynical romantic who always wanted to be proven wrong. I surrendered and realized you had already won, gone home, and celebrated not victory but everything else. I was alone on the battlefield, maybe I always had been. I let myself say it back and it was a hot, bright moment, the kind that is later hazed by pain and not letting yourself part of remembering. I let myself say it back and you folded your words back into your mouth. I let mine stay, daggers thrown into a wall, red paint on a white bed, an exposed wound. 

If this is love – then love is never being loved back fully. Never in a way that satisfies you, that will mean anything in 10 years. Never in a way you can tell your mother about and not feel like you’re lying. If this is love then love is always being hungry. It is talking about it in circles – he loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not trailing daisy petals into your dreams. It is shame at your trust. Bitterness at how much you gave them. Not looking back fondly. It is needing to go to therapy afterwards because you fell so far into yourself you need a hand to pull you out. You weep every night for a week just to feel desire again. 

You never tell your friends completely how you feel. You never tell anyone, but you write about it for months afterwards until it feels less like a litany and more like a lesson. This is not a sad story. This is not the story of a girl wronged or a heart broken or a woman scorned or yet another disappointment. 

Even if she ends up alone, this story will be a happy one. Not because she loves herself (she does) or because she is loved in a different way (she is), but because she will always know the truth. That love does not need to be returned to be true, that she will always deserve more but may not get it, that it is not the crux of her life, the rising action of her story, that she is more than what they didn’t give, that people are more than how they hurt you. That love is knowing and surrender, that she is whole enough to get there, and brave enough to try. 

“Have you ever been in love?”

“I always am.”


Salsa, self esteem, and feeling stupid

In 2016, I decided to pursue a life dedicated to being the fanfiction version of myself. Essentially, the most authentic, bravest, self-possessed version of Sydelle Leanne Barreto humanly possible. A large part of this involves doing things that make me want to stress vomit (in a good way). This has included: getting a tattoo, traveling for 10 days in Europe alone, making new friends, wearing things I thought I couldn’t “pull off”, ending toxic friendships, etc. So far, it’s worked out pretty great! 

My latest endeavor was unexpected. My roommate and I were supposed to grab dinner and then check out this art exhibit. It turned out after the exhibit she and another one of my roommates had designs on a salsa night at a bar downtown. 

I wouldn’t classify myself as a bad dancer, but the closest I had gotten to dancing salsa was moving my hips more vigorously than usual when Gasolina came on during a night out. Overall, I would give myself an A+ for enthusiasm and maybe a solid C for skill. 

But that first night of salsa was one of those experiences where you feel like there’s another dimension to being alive that no one told you about. My roommate kindly showed me the basics, but I was too afraid to dance with anyone. So I leaned against the wall, and watched. A live band provided the music, fronted by an elaborately made-up middle aged woman with brassy red hair. The room was packed and hot. The air was a curiously intimate aroma of sweat and jasmine – the smell of your friend looping her arm around you at the end of a night out. The women seemed to spin effortlessly, small tight circles, they stepped out of and back into the beat without missing a step. There were a handful of couples who had obviously arrived together, but for the most part it was strangers clasping hands anew with each song. The energy was palpable, rhythmic like a heart, with a keen edge of sensuality. It was the grown-up, more fluid version of what you felt dancing with your friends at the club. This feeling had steps, moves, turns and dips. It knew what it was doing.

Unlike me, who even now, with several salsa nights and a couple of classes tucked underneath my belt, still have to count in my head and concentrate so I don’t lose the beat. My initial response was to feel frustrated, uncomfortable with my incompetency (I’m a Libra rising so being clueless is really not a cute look for me). And then there is the second feeling, the more important one in my opinion. It’s learning for learning’s sake. Not to further my career or get a good grade or improve my day to day life. It’s to learn something new, move my body in an unfamiliar way. Let myself fail. Laugh at myself. There’s the childlike wonder of doing something new for the first time, of feeling like a stranger in the land of people-who-can-do-this-thing-well. 

The other challenge of salsa is that failing at it doesn’t happen alone. It happens with a partner. And if you’re a woman, it most likely happens with a partner who is leading you. Being the person that I am, it is very, very difficult for me to let a man tell me what to do with my body. Especially since he is leading me through physical cues – he steps forward, I step back – rather than instructions. I can follow instructions from a man. I’ve made several of Bon Appetit’s Andy Baraghani’s recipes. But there’s something about being maneuvered on a dance floor that makes my limbs lock up. There’s definitely 1000 ways to read into this, but I’ll give that distinct pleasure to my therapist. Simply put – it’s a trust exercise I’m not doing so well in. 

Salsa is more than a way out of my comfort zone, it’s a way into trust. Trusting a stranger to guide me, trusting them to know better than me, trusting them not to step on my feet. There’s an art to it – not thinking about their next move or trying to subtly subvert their “lead privilege”, but rather taking your brain out of the equation and letting yourself be led, by the music, by a stranger. At least for the next few songs. 

My salsa class is for absolute beginners and takes place on Monday evenings. My salsa teacher is a diminutive and flamboyant Latinx man who pronounces club like “cloob”. His name is Mario and I love him. Most of the students are still in what they wore to the office today, and there’s an unusual amount of Indian people in the class. Actually, there’s an unusual amount of Indian people even when I go out salsa dancing. Is there some secret community of desis who love salsa I just didn’t know about? 

Anyways, this is not the first dance class I’ve ever taken. In elementary school I tried out ballet, and then after a year, switched to jazz. 

Memories of those dance classes are crystal clear. From the lollipops in the dance clothing store to the feel of the opaque white ballet tights to the series of flamboyant male jazz teachers who never stayed more than a few months before moving to NYC and pursuing their dreams of being a Broadway extra.

The other thing I remember well? How much I hated it.

I remember one day my mom had to rush me to jazz class. I didn’t have time for a snack so she had given me one of those Chewy granola bars, which I sat happily munching on in the changing room before class. One of the other girls came up to me, a scrawny red-head, her thick hair in a perfectly coiffed bun. “Do you even know how many calories are in that?” she asked. Me, being a normal seven year old, did not know what calories even were, let alone how many of them were in my food.

All of the girls in my jazz class also did ballet, and they all looked like they did ballet. They were slim and graceful and elegant. I was chubby and clumsy and not really all that well coordinated. They usually paired up with each other, and I was left to buddy up with our resident horse girl or the one boy in the class, the latter of whom everyone feared and loved in equal amounts.

Part of warm ups would involve floor stretches, and I would notice how concave their stomachs got when we laid down. Mine was just flat. I would watch myself in the full length mirrors that are a fixture in any dance studio and hate the way that the body I felt so intensely uncomfortable in moved. I would spend the class fixating on the way I looked compared to my leotard-ed classmates, instead of learning the steps or simply enjoying myself.

And again 10 years later, I’m in a dance studio, worrying about how my body looks, thinking maybe I should skip next week’s class just to avoid feeling big and ungainly and wrong. But unlike when I was 7, I have the vocabulary and wisdom to know where these feelings are coming from and to tell them that they’re wrong. 

Like a lot of things in life, all that matters is that you try your best and have fun. I wish I could tell 8 year old Sydelle that she won’t get that much better at dancing, but whether it’s a grimy college bar or a salsa night or her bedroom on a Tuesday night, she will be having so much fun she forgets to worry about how she looks. 

Or how many calories are in that granola bar.