Naya Ford’s personal growth journey began with intensive self-reflection and unlearning. “Living in a very toxic household for a very long time, I knew I did not want to be like the people of my environment, like my parents or the friends that I had during that time period of my life. I knew that’s not what I wanted and that’s not who I wanted to be. I always had a really clear understanding of why they were the way they were because of things that they’ve gone through. I never knew how it related to personal growth, but I think it always piqued my interest. I was always a big reader. I was a complete nerd and I would just go in and buy a bunch of books. I started to learn in depth about how much childhood or certain traits can be developed because of things that you’ve experienced. So I just got so interested in the human mind and why we do what we do and how we can change that to have healthier interaction with one another.” She now uses those lessons to support and guide others, posting videos of advice to her 130,000 TikTok followers. “I absolutely love it. I’ve always liked being creative. I’m combining the things that are extremely important to me, but at the same time, I actually enjoy doing it. I’m a very big advocate for laughing at my pain. I make jokes about everything. I find the humor in like dark stuff and it just makes life easier to deal with. You have to laugh at things. You know what I mean? So I love sharing that and translating that because I didn’t even realize how many other people had similar experiences to me.”
One of her primary areas of focus is dating. She never shies away from doling out the hard truth, especially when it comes to red flags. “There are general red flags that apply to everyone, and then some that are very specific to the individual. We all have specific needs that are different. Something that would trigger one person might not trigger or bother the other. Another big one for a partner is communication. if they are afraid of communication, if they avoid certain topics, if they, if there’s that uncertainty, if you don’t know where you stand,. Who are we to each other? What are your intentions? If that is very unclear, that’s a huge red flag. Also lack of initiative. When they’re too laid back and nonchalant. The ‘let’s just go with the flow’ types. Relationships in general take effort and they will always take effort no matter how long you’re with the person. If someone already doesn’t show initiative for the little things, then how are you gonna last for the long haul?” In today’s instant gratification culture, genuine connections are being lost. “A lot of people are into just the pleasure aspect of things. With anything there’s good and bad – with a job that you have, with relationships, with friendships, there’s always good and bad. I feel like we’re in this place where we’re just searching for constant pleasure and that constant dopamine hit and that’s just not the reality of things. We’re losing important virtues that are essential, like patience. That is not a thing. Everything’s becoming easier, faster, shinier, or better. The patience that you would’ve grown in those areas isn’t translating over to the important things like relationships.”
So how can you walk away from an unhealthy relationship with your self worth intact? The key is not to base your entire identity on the relationship itself. “It’s hard because when you connect with people, you begin to merge. There are studies where they show that when you’re around the person for a certain amount of time, y’all bodies begin to sync. Y’all react the same. One is stressed out, the other is going to be more stressed out. One’s happy, the other’s happy. So it’s hard to maintain identity. But I think that there is a certain level of healthy dependency between two people. I don’t think there’s a way to like walk away from a relationship and just think, ‘Well, that was awesome.’ There’s always gonna be that Velcro kind of feel where you’re detaching from this person. I say the only way to maintain that self worth is boundaries, essentially. There’s a healthy level of dependency, but then I think there’s also a way of doing too much, like when you make them your whole world. For instance, we all hear about that person where as soon as they get into a relationship, they cut off all their friends and they stop doing anything and their sole focus is on this partner. When they break up, they’re going to be crushed because your whole self was attached to this one person. In a healthy relationship, when you have that secure foundation to come back to, you’re actually more likely to be free and experiment because you know that you can come back to the same person.” Although the pain will still be there, if you have a cohesive sense of self to fall back on, your world won’t shatter. “Still having your hobbies, still having your separate time, still having your own friends, having other things like that are still there while you’re dating this person is the only way that I can imagine that your self worth is not changed. You will still be hurt after the breakup. It’s still gonna hurt really bad. Because you care, you love people. But I think the self-worth aspect for that not to be affected is…hopefully, in a perfect world, it’s going to be there before you go into a relationship and you’ll keep maintaining your individuality while you’re in the relationship. So that way, whether the relationship is there or not, it’s just an addition versus your life.”
Setting boundaries is invaluable for healthy, functional social dynamics. To start, always listen to your interior self. “Your emotions are your first indicators of when a boundary needs to be put in place. Think about an interaction you’re having with somebody. You’re talking to a friend, a family member, and they say something like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna need to borrow a hundred dollars. They do this almost every week. And you say ‘yeah,’ but you feel this irritation. They never pay you back at that. So you know they’re saying, ‘Can I take a hundred dollars?’ And you feel irritation. And then you say ‘yeah,’ but you talk to your friend, like, ‘Yo, this one over here stay asking me for money like I’m a bank!’ That’s an indication right there that a boundary needs to be put in. If you feel the need to not acknowledge what’s going on and you have to talk about it to someone else, that means a boundary or something needs to be communicated. I feel like if there’s a certain level of anxiety in your life that means there’s some area that needs communication. Our minds can lie to ourselves, but bodies cannot. So our bodies will react and tell us, ‘That made me angry. I am resentful. I am scared. I am anxious. I am this. I am that.’ So it’s just taking a moment and processing those emotions and asking yourself, ‘How did that interaction just make me feel?’ It’s not always connected to boundaries, but just evaluating.’ This might feel easier said than done, but it doesn’t always have to be a seismic shift in your relationships. “Having that conversation is gonna feel awkward no matter what. But if they blow up there’s a problem there. Boundary conversations don’t have to be these big life changing moments. It’s just that most people never experience placing boundaries and when they do it, they think the whole world is stopping. Really, it can be a sentence. It can be a, ‘no,’ it can be a, ‘I can’t today, but I can tomorrow.’ It doesn’t have to be a sit down moment of having tea and hashing things out. That’s not always the case, but we tend to make it way bigger than it needs to be. If the person’s not willing to have those conversations, they were never really in it to begin with.”
The lesser discussed but equally important aspect of dating is green flags, or signs that someone has high compatibility or the makings of a good partner. Naya personally enjoys the excitement of spontaneity. She also deeply values faith and a deference to something higher than oneself. “Most times, you have the same moral code or same values. Putting things in our own hands gets corrupt really easily. I like to know that they’re gonna reference a higher power for a level of wisdom that they know they don’t have. It’s a sense of surrender in a way. It’s a big green flag for me because it’s important to me and something that’s a part of my life.” Another crucial factor is seeing how they react to moments of conflict or high stress.”We could be as healthy as we want, but arguments are unavoidable. It’s gonna happen one day. How do we handle that? How do we come back together? How do you react? Can I see that this relationship is your end goal versus just ‘seeing where it goes?’ When you really want a relationship, you have the goal of making it work no matter what. If that translates over into, when we communicate together, we’re able to have arguments where we can’t be our prettiest, most healthy selves all the time, that’s a huge green flag.”
Naya is a proud Christian who also identifies as bisexual. The assumed conflict between these two aspects of her identity prevented her from cultivating a close relationship with God for many years. “[The belief that my sexuality went against God] has always been one of the hardest things to process because for a while I didn’t start developing my relationship with God. I always knew about God, I always believed in God, but was He a daily part of my life? No. And a big reason was because of the fact that I was bisexual and, you know, you always hear the same thing. God doesn’t like that. He doesn’t love that. He hates that. So then how am I supposed to have a relationship with him if he hates me? And then somehow I had a mentor who started to bring God up and talking to me about tithing. I started listening to sermons and I started realizing just how much I need God in my life and how much I felt like he’s been trying to talk to me my whole life and protecting me my whole life that I didn’t have the spiritual ears yet to hear or, or even to recognize it.” She doesn’t understand the perceived mutual exclusivity between religiosity and being LGBT. “Even to this day, I always find it difficult. It’s hard for me to believe that God hates it. That’s my personal opinion. That could be my own humanly perception that I don’t know, at the end of the day, I don’t know. And I don’t claim to know. But there are some things that I do know. I do know that God is love. I do know that Jesus died, for our sins or Jesus died for us to be the bridge to God.” To her, such prejudices are less the perspective of a loving God and more a reflection of the bigotry of his followers.”I’ve heard stories about people who are in the LGBT community that hate themselves, that pray for it to change, that have gone to conversion camps where they’ve been tortured to change and they still cannot change their sexuality. I just feel as though it wasn’t meant to change. I think a lot of Christians forget that Jesus went against a lot of what the religious leaders thought was right and true. I do feel like religion in human hands can be corrupted. The term homosexuality wasn’t used in the Bible for the longest time. There’s so many translations to the Bibles and there’s so many different Bibles that I think, ‘How do I know this just wasn’t some old white man that put this in this book?’ It’s not that I don’t believe it’s God’s will, but I don’t trust humans. It’s just really hard for me to process that that’s the case. I’m not gonna let something like that prevent me from my relationship with God. And I don’t want other people to feel like they don’t have access to God and that God doesn’t love them because of sexuality that plays no role in their heart.”
To LGBT people of faith struggling to reconcile their religion with their sexuality, Naya wants to remind them that God adores and accepts them unconditionally and to remember that they deserve a community that does the same. “I would say to still have faith, still have a relationship with God, but again, in your heart, that’s who you are. That’s who you are. And God loves you just like that. And God wants a relationship with you just like that. You have to separate what people down here are saying from what He is saying, because you know, I’ve seen comments like, ‘Yeah, you could be LGBT and love God, but will you go to heaven?’ I remember I saw that comment and I got upset. And I was thinking no, I have a little faith list in my phone of all the things that God has done for me throughout the years so I never forget. There is concrete proof of what God has done for me and that God is speaking to me and trying to work through me. That is fact versus what the heck they’re saying, based on their feelings versus a one on one relationship I got with God. If God is speaking to you, you are connecting with God. No one could take that away from you. It is the hardest thing ever because it’s a battle. But number one, you shouldn’t wanna be a part of a church that’s like that. If your church is making you feel that way, you gotta find a different church. You gotta go. That’s not the church. I would never attend a church that’s doing and saying all of that. You have to separate what people are saying from what God is saying to you. It’s just you and Him, it’s you and Him.”
In addition to being a queer woman of faith, Naya has also witnessed firsthand all of the undue burdens and expectations placed upon Black women. “I don’t know at all. These are just my opinions from what I’ve experienced in Queens. It might have just started with the fact that a lot of Black men weren’t there. So Black women had to step up and play both roles where they had to be a single mom that was also a father. They had to be the breadwinner. They weren’t able to be feminine. So I feel like a part of it is that a lot of people see Black women as aggressive and they don’t see them as delicate and feminine because of past things, past roles we’ve had to play. I feel like because of that, it has become normalized – Black women being those two things.” Expecting or demanding Black women’s labor for nothing in return has become romanticized. “Now it’s almost expected now or glamorized. Taking care of Black men is glamorized. Black women just have to hold the weight of everything. Being masculine and feminine, being the breadwinner and then being the nurturer. You’re healed already, but you’re also a healer to others. To other people ,we’re meant to wear so many hats. I think it’s just a combination of colorism within the Black community and racism outside our actual community. That itself is a whole other pill to swallow, but I think it’s just become so normalized because of all the history that has happened in the past. There was even a point in time where we as Black women glamorized it ourselves. We wore it like a badge of honor, like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to heal you babe. I’m gonna heal my Black king. No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not fun. Black men have their own responsibilities that they are supposed to bring to their relationship, to their families, to their communities. There’s a reason why there’s such a thing as a partnership within any relationship; there’s supposed to be a balance. One person was never meant to do it all.” In response, many Black women are determined to be just as nurtured. “Black women are tired and finally saying, ‘No, I wanna do the bare minimum. I want the bare minimum. I want to be soft. I want to be delicate. I don’t wanna be the breadwinner. I wanna have my own bread, but I don’t wanna be the breadwinner for the family and the house. No.’ We’re challenging Black men to show us what they can really offer. Cause why would I open my arms? Women are multipliers. You give us one thing, we are gonna grow it. You give us a house, we’re gonna make it a home. You give a seed, we make babies. We grow and we make everything around us beautiful. Why would I open my door to you? Why would I do that for you? What can you bring me? Can you even bring me something to grow? Can you even provide that seed? Now we’re starting to become more unafraid to say what we want.”
Internalizing these toxic expectations has left its mark over the years and she is actively working on letting go of such mindsets.”I have noticed that it makes it very difficult for me to receive. I feel like the only way I’m deserving of something is if I fight for it, if I struggled and clawed and did all that, that means it is okay for it to be mine. It is extremely, extremely hard for me to receive a lot of compassion and forgiveness and things emotional, physical, tangible, intangible. When it was my birthday I was freaking out because people were being so sweet and one of my love languages is gift giving. My heart was flooding and I felt so undeserving of it to the point where it’ll make me feel uncomfortable.I almost feel more comfortable fighting for someone’s love. When I was younger, that was normal. Whereas now I’m noticing that that’s not how it’s supposed to be. Right now, I am unlearning a lot of traits. I think it even translates to how I treat myself. I don’t really give myself room for flaws or not being organized. I feel like I have to be on top of it all the time. There’s never a time where I’m always on top of it and it makes me come down on myself really, really hard. It’s difficult for me to ask for what I want because I feel like a burden. I’m still not the most comfortable with taking up space and saying, ‘Hey, this is what I need. These are my needs. I need this. I notice even when I talk to people, I’ll reframe it in a way where I’m putting their needs first, still, it just makes me feel very uncomfortable to be centering it around myself, even though I know I know what my needs are, but it it’s hard for me to communicate that. I hate hustling. I hate the idea of hustling and grinding. I used to find that cute. It’s not cute to me no more. I want a peaceful, soft life. I have my own money, but I shouldn’t have to touch my own money. I just wanna sit and look pretty and do what I wanna do. I wanna cook. I wanna, I wanna paint. I wanna be creative. I want to be in my feminine energy more, you know? So now I know that and I’m trying to become more comfortable in saying that, but it still is very uncomfortable.”
Perhaps the most powerful thing that Black women can do is dare to be themselves. If more Black women were allowed the opportunity to be soft, Naya believes their potential would be truly limitless. “I see them flourishing even more because I feel like for women, that is our natural state most of the time. When women are in their natural state, I feel like they are more loving. They are kinder. Everything is gonna translate into everything. We touch every person we interact with. When we are able to be our most authentic selves, it just shows everywhere. A lot of times you see women that are hyper independent to the point where we say, ‘I don’t need you. You do nothing for me.’ I’ve been there. That doesn’t feel good. It’s kind of a very closed hearted way of living. But when you are in your feminine energy and you are secure, you have someone that is making you feel secure, you are letting yourself be more feminine. You are going to be more openhearted. You are going to be more present. You are going to be more loving. You’re gonna be happier. You’re not gonna try to conform to societal standards anymore. Those pressures do not really exist, but we make them exist. So the moment we let those invisible shackles just fall off, we’re just gonna be freer.” She aspires to incorporate more softness into her life, though she readily admits that it’s definitely a work in progress. “Giving myself grace is the goal because I kind of come down on myself with a metal hammer. When I’m not perfect, it is difficult allowing myself to be flawed and not be this masculine, on-top-of-everything kind of person. Ooh, l want to learn about my body and how our hormones are constantly up and down throughout the month and going with that. Some weeks I’m introverted, so I’m gonna stay in the house. Some days I feel more creative and I want to interact. I’m gonna do that. Giving myself room to just be is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.I truly think it’s gonna be a lifelong journey. I don’t think it’s something that I’ll get through in a year and be able to make a mini vlog about. But I think that’s a life goal just to give myself room and to not cling so tight to people that are not for me and never meant to be for me. I can make those connections and it might hurt a little bit, but if you can’t do it, I’m not gonna try. Pain is acknowledging those red flags for what they are versus painting them green. Clearly, red flags are usually there within a month. It’s just a matter of, are you gonna acknowledge them for what they are right now? Or are you gonna say, ‘Maybe I’m wrong?’ I’m good at that. Moving forward, I’m taking you for what you are. What you’re showing me right here right now, I’m not gonna look any deeper than that. And I think that will drastically change the way that I live.” But with the right amount of patience, she has no doubt that she will blossom into the beautifully complex person she deserves to be.
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Revitalizing Dating, Faith, and Aspirational Black Womanhood with Naya Ford. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Naya Ford.