Even A Worm Will Turn: Devaney Sparrow Uncensored
CW: Eating Disorder, Sexual Assault
“I’m so scared to be seen. To be witnessed. It feels pathetic and cowardly, like a child hiding between her mother’s legs,” reads a TikTok from Devaney Sparrow, 25, an Aries, sitting in the bathtub. They wrap their arms around their knees, eyes wandering, their dark curls damp and elongated, as a sorrowful dirge plays above the text. “It hurts more when I let people see me in my entirety and they don’t want me anymore,” they write. “Can’t you hear me? Can’t you see the human in me?”
Sparrow’s comments are supportive. “Seen. Felt. Same,” muses one user. “You put this into words I’ve never spoken out loud. I see you,” says another. “I want you :(,” another user flirts. Cold winter rain falls outside of my window. As I fall asleep, still on TikTok, I wonder where the earthworms will sleep in a city devoid of soil.
John Heywood is an English poet known for his plays and poems. In a collection of proverbs published in 1546, he writes “Treade a worme on the tayle, and it must turne agayne." Nearly half a millennium later, Heywood’s proverb has evolved into a common English phrase: “Even a worm will turn” – meaning that there is a limit to the brutality one can enact, even on the most docile of creatures.
Eventually, even the meekest and most quiet of spirits, the ones born from the softness of dirt and mud, will turn and channel rage.
“Rage is my best friend,” Devaney Sparrow tells me, a glint flashing in their eyes. “I create the most when I'm angry. Starting to be vulnerable on TikTok? That was because I was fucking angry.”
I meet Devaney Sparrow, an actor, writer, and TikTok creator with over 80k followers, on a Saturday afternoon, one of the first warm days of an especially chilly New York winter. We meet at Blue Bottle Coffee, an artisanal pour-over joint nestled on Canal Street, a cafe that favors a luxury hotel lobby. They walk in wearing a long black fur coat and blue jeans. Their presence fills the space. By the time I walk across the cafe to meet them, a man has already begun interrogating them about their hair routine.
"I want my hair to grow that long,” he muses, starry-eyed. I get the instinct he has no intention of growing his hair out. “Gel? Oil? It’s so hard to know what works.”
“It’s different for everyone, it’s really about what works for you,” Devaney responds – smiling, diplomatic. The man pulls his eyes away from Devaney long enough to shake my hand. His palms are damp with sweat. Having run out of questions to ask, the man disappears into the din of busy coffee shop.
Devaney orders a matcha latte with whole milk – a habit they picked up in Europe, they explain – and tells me about their barista stint in Bushwick as we wait for the drink. “They were almost going to fire me because I stopped charging people for coffee,” they recall, still smiling. “If an elderly black or brown person walks in at 7 A.M., confused by this gentrified cafe in their neighborhood, I’m not charging them a dollar for alternative milk.”
Exuding a bone-deep sense of confidence and sharp gaze framed by bleached brows, Devaney seems fully at ease the moment they sit down. They have a woodsy, grounded quality to them, the energy of someone who spent their childhood surrounded by trees. A jade ring flashes on their ring finger. Bustling cafe-goers slow down as they pass our table, transfixed. A cupid sitting on a moon hangs from a gold chain around their neck. Devaney attracts the early afternoon crowd like an earthworm to fresh fruit.
“In New York City, I'm beautiful,” Devaney admits. “In Vancouver, Washington, I was not.”
Vancouver, the fourth-largest city in Washington State, boasts farmers' markets, gold-tinted hiking trails, and a wildlife refuge. Founded in 1825, Vancouver is also 77% white. When I read this statistic I remember a phrase my manager, a black woman, used to describe being the only black person in a room full of white people – “a blueberry in milk.”
“To [my white classmates] I was poor, I was fat and I was manly and I was very black.” Although Sparrow acknowledges their privilege as a conventionally attractive, light-skinned, and biracial person, their personal experience of exclusion in a predominately white space left them with deep wounds. “I had arm hair. I had a mustache. My boyfriend helped spread a rumor in sixth grade that I was a man.”
In a city that is less than 3% black, I try to picture a young Devaney pushing through the sixth-grade lunch room in Vancouver. I only succeed in picturing the blue tile of my own middle school building. As Devaney reaches for their matcha latte, I remember inviting my neighbor and classmate over in fifth grade. When she saw the chicken my mom had prepared for our dog’s dinner, she asked me, hazel eyes bulging in the metallic reflection of the pet food bowls, if we ate that chicken, too. Unsure of how to respond given that I was ten years old at the time, I imagined myself as an inchworm, sliding my body over my chihuahua’s lukewarm dog food.
One year after the man rumor, one of Devaney’s classmates taunted them for having cankles, a notable chapter in a series of bullying and alienation.
“I went home and googled cankles and I was like, ‘All right, I'm never eating again.’ I fell absolute prey to early social media,” Sparrow admits. “It destroyed me. I was absolutely on thinspo Tumblr. Even when I tried to divulge it, I found myself on it.”
Devaney’s discovery of “thinspo” or “thinspiration,” a brand of social media posts glamorizing eating disorders and motivating users, usually young women, to lose unhealthy amounts of weight, led to the development of an eating disorder, which they are now in recovery for, and deeply-rooted sentiments of internalized anti-blackness.
There is a beast that settles in one’s stomach when they grow up as a blueberry in milk, a predatory presence that is hungry for everything black women are and can become. It’ll take everything from someone if they let it, but the appetite is usually the first to go. Black teenagers are 50% more likely than their white counterparts to show signs of bulimia, but their symptoms are much less likely to be noticed or viewed as problematic by doctors. While data suggests that eating disorders are more prevalent amongst white women than black women, I wonder if this takes into consideration the lack of attention black women receive. Worms can eat their entire weight in food in a single day. I wonder if young girls could, too, if only they were allowed.
“For a long time, I wanted to be soft. I wanted to be delicate and dainty and fragile and breakable, and I wanted to be white,” Sparrow says. “Femininity to me was whiteness, were ballerinas, ballet core, that type of vibe. And while that's an aspect of femininity, sure, [that’s] not [all there is]. Like the hair that grows on my arms, my body, is feminine as fuck. But growing up in an all-white area, you are so malleable. You're beaten down to a pulp…a cell of yourself and then you're rebuilding into what you think is a woman.” Sparrow pauses and looks down. I gaze at them as they pick their head up and try to recollect their thoughts.
“Um, I forgot what I was saying.”
“Rage,” I offer, having asked them a question about anger. “Rage,” they repeat.
We fall silent for a moment.
As I circle the phrase “beaten down to a pulp” in my notebook, I recall a particularly painful group performance from a contemporary dance class I took in seventh grade. I had to stand on my tiptoes for the finale, which involved lifting the smallest of our group, a blonde blue-eyed girl, into the air. When I saw the photo from the performance on posters around my town of under 20,000 people – me holding her left leg, her arms spread like she was making a snow angel in the air – I lost my appetite.
“It doesn't start with food, it starts with comparison, it starts with control, then that leads to food,” Sparrow states, acknowledging social media as a primary vessel for this destructive self-comparison. After a transformative women’s studies class with an instructor that called out students for the intersection between fatphobia and anti-blackness, Sparrow felt spurred to recreate the digital spaces they inhabited in a first step towards healing.
“I only followed and reblogged black women… I would say affirmations before I knew what they were. Every time I would reblog a picture, I would say out loud, ‘You're so beautiful’ to the picture. It was very intentional. I was like, ‘I can't keep hating myself,’” Sparrow says. “Pride filled where hatred was, and then there was not really any room for hatred anymore after a while.”
Over a decade later, now an NYC-based actor and TikTok creator, Devaney’s early history with social media is not lost on them. Curating an uplifting “For You” page and pressing “not interested” on triggering content does not fully erase feelings of inadequacy, even amidst an overwhelmingly supportive and kind audience.
“I always feel it. I feel like we can always try to run from that hole, that grip, but if you are not constantly running from it, if you just rest for a second, it grabs you, you know? It's always about constantly being vigilant, protective of the younger you,” says Sparrow. “When I'm triggered or insecure… I feel like one of my trauma responses is to regress into a childlike version of me. That's who I have to be cognizant of. You have to be really, really ruthless when it comes to protecting yourselves, the younger version of you, because nobody [did].”
Sparrow’s protectiveness extends to the content they share and how they interact with their followers, careful not to promote body-checking or play into the slippery slope of diet or fitness culture. After a user asked for Sparrow’s workout routine on a dancing video they made to a Meagan Thee Stallion song, they began to feel the weight of increased visibility, the responsibility to catch members of their audience before falling into the hole they once lied in.
“While I don't know why [my followers] follow me all the time, they still do. And so I'm very protective of them from themselves…because I know the rabbit holes I've fallen down clicking on this person [or] stalking their social media to see if they posted a workout routine,” says Sparrow. “Any crumb of information that I could use as a weapon against myself.”
Over a decade after their tumultuous adolescence, Sparrow is able to admit to their beauty without pretense or doubt. But beauty, however visible, has never prevented suffering. Desirability does not save the body from objectification and being viewed does not equate to being seen.
After their aunt paid them $50 to make a TikTok account, Sparrow amassed a TikTok audience through so-called “thirst traps,” light-hearted and flirtatious videos meant to entice viewers. Sparrow enjoys making thirst traps when they’re “in the mood”– who doesn’t? – but soon felt pressure to succumb to their audience’s desires, squeeze into a box, and stay there, coquettish and doll-like. The features that were insulted by their childhood peers – kinky curls, strong nose, curvy frame – are now exalted on the digital stage, liked, commented on, and lusted over. Once an object of disdain, now an object of desire, Sparrow’s transition from a whitewashed school to TikTok popularity did not give them flesh, bone, and spirit to many of those that perceive them. The desires of Sparrow’s digital audience have carried into their lived experience.
Pride filled where hatred was, and then there was not really any room for hatred anymore after a while.
“One time I was out dancing in Bushwick, this femme came up to me… I was with my friends and I was just sitting at that point because… I wanted to go home. Then she was like, ‘Oh, do you wanna dance?’ Sparrow agreed as they make their way to the dance floor.
“We're dancing and it's fine… And then she put her hands around my throat. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ And I just grabbed it and took it off… and then she put it back on,” they recall, laughing to themselves, a laugh I recognize, a laugh that isn’t really a laugh at all. “Then I found out later after our interaction that she followed me on TikTok. She was a black femme, which made it more hurtful.”
Earthworms in particular have a long list of known predators including crows, robins, salamanders, frogs, ground beetles, foxes, garter snakes and red-winged blackbirds – some worms even have an appetite for their own kind. When in danger, worms protect themselves by burrowing in the soil or secreting a foul odor to scare off predators. However, “Because it has no defenses like teeth or claws, and because it moves slowly, the earthworm is a fairly easy target,” (sciencing.com). But how do those perceived as “easy prey” cope where there is nowhere to hide, when they are visible both in-person and online?
Sparrow, shaken and deeply uncomfortable, laughed it off and posted a thirst-trap-coded TikTok in response to the incident before taking it down. “I almost objectified my trauma from that night,” Sparrow reflects. Their response to the Bushwick incident is emblematic of the “fawn” response. A symptom of complex PTSD, fawning is a “trauma response where a person develops people-pleasing behaviors to avoid conflict and to establish a sense of safety… to ‘appease’ their abusers.” The lamb, accustomed to being prey, becomes docile and pliable in hopes of being spared. In the end, though, blood always sheds.
“This is a generational curse. Me and my mom talk about… our fawn response, our martyrdom,” Sparrow says. “In sexual situations…I would make myself so small just to get it over with. I found I didn't know how to be angry right away.” Sparrow pauses between words, choosing their next phrase carefully. “I just found myself, over and over again, making myself easy for people to prey on, which then made it difficult to talk about because then you make yourself feel like it's you sending mixed signals, but then you realize [you’re] not. Because I grabbed her hand off of me.”
Sparrow pauses, allowing what they didn’t say to settle between us like smoke – Because I grabbed her hand off of me and she still didn’t stop. I get the sense they are telling me many stories at once, stories that stretch above and belowground, far past Bushwick’s borders. The cafe seems to fall silent as Devaney withdraws into themselves, taking shelter in some other world.
“It's like when an animal plays dead hoping the predator doesn't eat them,” they say with an air of finality. The din in the cafe resumes.
Much of Sparrow’s current TikTok content has moved away from popular trends and palatable thirst traps. On their account, which has amassed 3 million likes in total, Sparrow reveals themselves without makeup, gazing straight into the camera with their original poetry about relationships, queerness, identity, and love. Sparrow’s content is evocative and dares the viewer to engage with it, to reach into themselves, and discover new organs, something blood-soaked and honest.
One of their most personal videos was about a recent breakup. Posted in December 2022, the video has a text overlay that reads “POV: they broke up w you 2 weeks after your dad got diagnosed w cancer bc they said they can’t be in a relationship rn.” Soon after the video was posted, Sparrow received a message from another TikTok user, who they affectionately refer to as their sister-wife, saying “I heard a completely different story. I dated them right after you – we should talk”.
“And girl, we talked,” Sparrow dishes, leaning in. “We talked for hours. That same night [we] found out he dated us at the exact same time…same playlist dedicated to us. He scripted things he would say verbatim. We were going over our texts together. He's been doing this a long time to black femmes,” Sparrow says. “He'll probably keep doing it.”
Sparrow acknowledges that this breakup, however painful, was a catalyst to becoming unfiltered on their personal account, shifting from creating surface-level videos boosted by TikTok’s algorithm to content that represented them in a deeper way.
“I took that as a sign from the universe to start posting my fucking shit…that was the first video I really posted that was ever about someone in a ‘Fuck you’ kind of way. I've never really done that before. If I had never posted that, I wouldn't have known the whole situation,” Sparrow says.
Sparrow’s public display of the range of human emotions – anger, heartbreak, despair – was a way for them to reclaim a voice that was taken from them during their first abusive relationship as well.
“I found myself protecting [my ex] for a long time after social media or on social media after our relationship. And then it didn't do me any favors,” they say. “[They would] tell a narrative of me being the big, bad black woman, cheating on them, just lies. People would just believe them because this is a white man telling them something they almost couldn't wait to hear about a black femme that people like.”
Earthworms have the unique ability to regenerate – some species can regrow entire heads or tails. Even after trauma, worms are not merely resilient, they are regenerative, determined to survive, and claw through the mud. Despite the backlash Sparrow received from their former abuser, support from a close-knit group of friends encouraged them to redefine their relationship with digital vulnerability and grow a new tail of their own.
“I was waiting for an opportunity and invitation to be vulnerable. The only people who get invitations are white creators. It's never gonna happen for most people, but especially being a queer black femme, being non-binary, being trans, it's just not gonna happen,” Sparrow notes. “You have to go in there aggressively and carve out your space. And if people like it, they like it, if people don't, fuck them, you know?”
The space Sparrow has carved out for their vulnerability is expansive, a thriving ecosystem of poetry and honesty. Sparrow’s intersectional identities of being black, non-binary, trans, queer, and neurodivergent are notable influences on which stories they choose to bring to their audience.
“When it comes to vulnerability on social media, when it comes to my neurodivergence, I'm quite protective of myself because of gatekeep culture,” Sparrow, who has been diagnosed with autism and ADHD, states. “People don't understand what autism and ADHD always look like, especially on black people, because we're not allowed to be neurodivergent or emotional a lot of times in our childhood. So our stims look different. Our meltdowns look different…When it comes to my emotions, I'm unhinged, I'm feral. I know that you can have whatever opinions on me, on my little text overlays that you want. When it comes to my neurodivergence, my blackness, and queerness, I don't want people's opinions on that.”
As a black femme, Sparrow toes a thin line between being vulnerable on public platforms and opening themselves up to unsolicited scrutiny and critique, often from white users who don’t understand how blackness intersects with the queer or neurodivergent experience. Sparrow is multi-faceted and nuanced in every sense of the word, rejecting the pressure to adhere strongly to labels or engage in digital discourse. For them, embracing queerness means rejecting white supremacy in all of its manifestations – even within queer spaces.
“When white people are queer, they're rebelling against a system …When [black and brown people] are queer, when we're non-binary, when we're trans, it's like we've literally been stolen. And it's like we are on a run for our lives,” Sparrow says. “We're not just rebelling, we're escaping. We're like running for our lives. That's what it feels like when black and brown people are queer because we've been queer. Gender was created by white people. The whole point of being queer is that we don't always constantly have to have this discourse. We're just queer. It can be fluid.”
The fluidity of gender is abundant in nature. Worms, for instance, have both male and female reproductive organs and some species reproduce asexually. When two worms love each other very much, they are known to perform the roles of both the male and the female in the reproductive process. Worms have survived and reproduced in this way for over 500 million years. Creators like Sparrow, who uses they/them or any pronouns, are keeping an ancient, natural tradition alive by making their gender fluidity visible.
“They/them [pronouns] for me is for lack of better words,” they explain. “You can't really encapsulate the ocean or the trees, moon or the sky or the sun into human English words. They're just a way to make it fathomable to us so we can talk about things.”
Genderlessness expands into Sparrow’s views of divinity and forces larger than themselves, from the insects wriggling in the dirt to God themselves – which, in Devaney’s view, are synonymous.
“You can't really gender something that's genderless like God. We give God pronouns because God is just the sun shining on your face. God is just light, sound, heat,” they say, gesturing to their skin. “God is everything. God is my dog pissing on the fucking tree outside. My God is the tree my dog is pissing on. You know what I mean? I'm God, you're God. Because we're all the same thing. We're all the same matter.”
Sparrow gestures to the falling light in the cafe. I watch patrons hunch over their flaky croissants, self-conscious of crumbs, wander around in search of an empty seat, and zone in on their laptops. I recognize myself, Devaney, Devaney’s dog, the dead earthworm I saw after a thunderstorm back home, and my cold oat milk latte in all of them. A sudden sense of anger rises within me when I realize how much I share with everyone in the room and how little we act on it – how we will go on with our days believing we are special, knowing we are not.
Anger, too, is divine, and this feeling continues to motivate Sparrow’s journey toward complete vulnerability and identifying the divine within themselves. Developing their acting skills allowed them to explore their rage in a constructive way.
I was waiting for an opportunity and invitation to be vulnerable. The only people who get invitations are white creators. Especially being a queer black femme, being non-binary, being trans, it's just not gonna happen. You have to go in there aggressively and carve out your space.
“I started my acting class and I realized what rage felt like and I'm like, ‘Oh, this is rage in my body.’ I'm just detouring it somewhere else [and it] ends up as tears or whatever. Ends up as self-harm. Ends up as restricting my eating. Because I'm fucking mad,” Sparrow says.
Anger metabolizes differently in everybody, but Sparrow and I discuss the distinct rage experienced by black femmes. Intergenerational, more ancient than most life on Earth, black women are often ignorant of or dissuaded from processing and experiencing black feminine rage.
“I love any woman's rage. A white woman's rage is like rebelling inside of a system that they benefit from, which they do. It feels like screaming at your husband that you've allowed to cheat on you for such a long time, which is great,” Sparrow says. “But a black woman's rage is like lightning. It’s elemental. It's like God sending a flood. It's not human. Not in a dehumanizing way, in a celestial way. It's like we are the creators and if you push us to bring it down, we're going to bring everything down.”
When the worm turns, the world falls. But even the blinding light of rage is constructive and gives way to healing. Sparrow acknowledges how embracing radical vulnerability online has been rewarding in their emotional journey.
“It feels really cathartic, especially when you realize how unspecial your emotions are. It's liberating to like post it and to be like, ‘I don't really give a fuck if you resonate with this or not.’ And then people end up resonating anyway. It's like, ‘Oh, this is cool,’” Sparrow says.
While Sparrow’s presence on social media is deeply personal, they view their content as a larger act of resistance in the face of white supremacy, capitalism, and heteronormativity.
“I don't know if there is such thing as an isolated act of resistance. I think everything is witnessed by something. The wind going through a leaf in a tree is witnessed by something, which is witnessed by something, which is witnessed by something. Even if I got one view on a video, that’s somebody witnessing. The butterfly effect is crazy. The domino effect of life is crazy,” Sparrow reflects. “I don't think there's such a thing as anything isolated in the grand scheme of things.”
The largest worm on earth doesn’t exceed five feet. Regarded by most of modern society with disregard or disgust, these limbless creatures play an important role in the environment. Their diets consist of dead animals and organic matter which directly fuels their ecosystem. They loosen, repair and breathe oxygen into the dirt so new life and food can grow. Hidden from the world, crawling on their bellies across the Earth, they are the invisible lifeblood. They, like Devaney Sparrow, like all people, are simultaneously small and divine.
On our way outside of the cafe, I snap some photos of Sparrow waiting for their to-go order of coffee – another matcha. The camera flash goes off. I am embarrassed and I say so.
“That’s what these white creators do,” Sparrow laughs, forever unperturbed. “If you’re nervous about it, don’t pretend like everyone’s naked. Just act how you would if you were really pissed off.” They glance towards the door and I let the flash go off again, inspired to take up space.
On our walk out of the cafe and around the city, Devaney is complimented by strangers and stops to compliment black women more times than I have the room to write about. Their black boots land firmly on the ground with each step. Devaney Sparrow is a flash in a pan – full of heat, light, and energy, which is to be expected for a person with four Aries placements. We walk miles from Canal Street to their serving gig in the West Village, and they don’t look down once.
“I think people are exhausted,” Sparrow reflects. “I think people are exhausted with ballet core, Bella Hadid core, this core, that core. What's your niche? What's your box?... especially femmes, especially women.”
A black woman's rage is like lightning. It’s elemental. It's like God sending a flood. It's not human. Not in a dehumanizing way, in a celestial way. It's like we are the creators and if you push us to bring it down, we're going to bring everything down.
Throughout their experience with social media, Sparrow actively counteracts the hyper-specific categorizations pushed on users by social media algorithms on sites like Instagram and TikTok. They are dedicated to being fully, entirely themselves, sharing their deepest wounds and unfiltered thoughts for the world to see.
“The one thing I did know the entire time was that I wanted to be as authentic as possible,” Sparrow says. “I just want to be witnessed. I want to be a tiny, tiny, tiny factor of people being less numb and getting to know themselves.”
Sparrow represents a version of the Internet that defies aesthetics and is coreless at its core. They are not a figurehead or the face of a movement and they have no desire to be. They are a self-proclaimed bible of contradictions, an extension of divine energy, a tiny part of a generation that is relearning how to be human without categorization. They are a flash in a pan, simmering rage, intentional resistance, and radical vulnerability. They are a peek into a future that is grimy and honest. They are the worm that devours and the dirt that covers it. They are the witness and the one who witnesses. They are the face of their ancestors and the love of their parents, Donna and Antonio. They are, in their words, “a woman in a way you can’t fathom.” They are their own mother, sister, and daughter. Larger than themselves, they cannot be born nor can they be erased.
But like all ancient things that have willfully clawed their way out of the black Earth, they sure can turn.
Edited by: Yumna Elhdari
Photos by: Ava Emilione