Ashley C. Ford on How Poverty Makes It Hard to Figure Out What You Like
The Indiana-based author tells us about her journey to discovering her preferences — like, an egg-y breakfast, Korean rom-coms, and a dangerously sexy fragrance.
This week, we’re featuring the wonderful Ashley C. Ford, the bestselling author of Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir and the writer of many essays for publications including Elle, New York Magazine, and Cup of Jo. First up, she talks about learning what she likes… Love, Joannaxo
For a long time, I thought it was a superpower to not have preferences. When you grow up in poverty, there’s nothing in your mind that says, Even though I can’t get these things, I’m still worthy of them. The protective approach you develop is to NOT want anything. My family congratulated me for that: “Oh, Ashley, she’s so good, she’ll never make a fuss, she’ll be grateful for anything.” I thought that made me a good person.
I grew up like that, and then my life changed in such a way that I was able to have access to more things. But I felt like a fool because people would ask, “Would you prefer this or this?” and my brain would immediately short circuit. That neural pathway was something I actively tried to avoid. What do I want? Don’t ask me that. Just tell me what I can get.
When I was 30, my now-husband and I went to Italy. It was my first time out of the country, and this was my dream trip. My husband had a list of things he wanted to do, and I realized that I had never considered what I wanted to see or do because I was scared of not getting it. And that was not great — that made me really sad instead of making me feel free.
When we got home, I pushed myself to figure out my preferences. I had to sit still and ask myself, When I want something, how do I know? What does my body actually feel like? That feeling of desire came with a lot of anxiety because I thought it would hurt to want things and not be able to get them. When I was a kid, there were so many things we couldn’t afford, so I would tell myself, It’s not important, I’m different, I don’t need those things the way other people do. I was in a practice of self denial and it was bad.
So, I started with food and told myself, I’m not going to eat things I don’t like anymore just because I don’t want to be difficult. Then it moved to clothes. For so long, I had stuck to the clearance rack. And I had to recognize, girl, I get that you save money, but you have never woken up and known what you wanted to wear, ever ever ever. So, what if you allow yourself to buy some things that fit your body and that make you feel beautiful? This price tag may be more than you’re used to spending, but you’re not broke anymore, and you don’t have to punish yourself.
“Any feeling of desire came with a lot of anxiety, because I thought it would hurt to want things and not be able to get them.”
Next, I thought about little things. Like, I got a few stuffed animals — not in a weird way, like you wouldn’t be scared if you come into my room! But now I travel with a stuffed animal because I had always wanted a lovey or blanket. Even my dog respects my stuffed animals — he doesn’t mess with them.
Meanwhile, however, I felt guilty all the time. Like, I got into taking baths with bath bombs, and I was thinking, maybe I’m doing too much, or I could be sending this money to this place or this person but I’m not because I bought some Drunk Elephant. But then my husband began doing this thing during his weekly errands. Before heading out, he’d tell me, “I’m getting something for you today, and you can decide or I will decide.” The first couple times, he would go to Lush or Sephora and he would find something he thought I would like, but in that third week, I was like, “I know what I want, I want this Fenty lip gloss called Hot Chocolate.”
I knew because I’d started a list in my journal of “THINGS I LIKE,” so I could remember them. I looked at that list and I was like, oh yeah, I like pretty stationery, and I like pens and watercolor brushes, and I like journals with embroidered covers. I’m smiling right now. I was like, oh my god, not only do I like something as specific as a journal, I like journals with embroidered covers, they light me up in this little way. I just turned 37 years old, and I knew girls in middle school who knew exactly what they wanted, all day every day, and now at 37, I know I like embroidered journals and, for me, that is such a victory. It’s bittersweet because I’m proud of myself, and I thought this work was important enough to engage in and I actually engaged in it, but on the other hand, I really wish Ashley at 20 could have been here, but it would have been too much.
More important than being able to buy myself things, I also learned to state my preferences in relationships. I needed to tell my husband that I craved more time alone. He’s an extrovert and I’m not. I explained to him, “I want to hang out with you more than anybody else, I just don't want to hang out with ANYBODY this much.” And that doesn’t make me mean or a bad person.
The fact that I can do this now brings me so much joy. You have never seen someone in their late 30s so excited to know which seat they want on a plane! (Aisle!) Or walk into a restaurant and not panic at a big menu, since they already know what kinds of things they like to eat. It makes me SO HAPPY to be like, yeah, I like THAT. I don’t have to live my life anymore reacting to whatever circumstances I’m in. Being able to consider what I want actually helps me see that I have more options and that I probably always had more options than I’d assumed — fewer options that I have now, for sure, but maybe more than I’d thought — options that I wouldn’t allow myself to see for fear that they wouldn’t be mine.
Ashley, THANK YOU. Here, she shares 11 favorite things…
Book: I loved The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Also, a French translation called My Husband by Maud Ventura about a very cold woman who is actively obsessed with her husband. I know it sounds like a little, omg, who wants to read some weird French translation, but baby, I read it in a day. I loved how it ended and want everyone to read it so we can all talk about it.
Travel outfit: Lucy and Yak sweatsuits are so comfy on a plane. I have a few of them that I always wear when traveling. People always comment on them. I didn’t think about the fact that I’d look like a cartoon in the airport!
TV series: I’m really into Korean rom-coms — like Business Proposal and Extraordinary Attorney Woo. I’d been reading Korean literature for several years, and for me, it was just hit after hit. Then the Netflix algorithm started feeding me K movies. One day, I was sick, and man, oh man, I was OBSESSED, like kicking my feet and giggling during the romantic scenes.
Midwest faves: We’re members of a great independent theater in Indy called Kan-Kan. I like sitting five rows back, dead center, and I get a buttered popcorn, Raisinets and an ice cold Coke. My husband is also the manager at Loudmouth Books — a queer, Black and woman-owned independent bookstore filled with banned books and marginalized authors.