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I don’t believe there is a woman on Earth who is at peace with her body.
And if there is, it is only as a result of a battle waged, a journey taken, and possibly some very good drugs.
A woman’s body is a door, a wall, an inlet, an outlet, a mask, a vulnerable breathing thing that stores and records our wounds, our joys, and the layering of inimitable minutes that slowly, quickly rumble forward to form the totality of a life. It is mortal and doomed and will one day (soon, in the grand scheme of things) evaporate, and then what will become of us?
Our bodies are known and unknown, public and private, our own, owned, rich, real, and a tool for us to move and love, but to others, a toy either cherished or cast off, an island of comfort, an affront, a reminder of all that is wanted, feared, possible, and impossible.
Lately, I find myself having out-of-body experiences in the sense that I can see my physical self as distinctly separate from the other parts of me—a kind of bus I drive around in with windows that are more or less bug-spattered, a tank that is more or less full, and an interior which may or may not be littered with detritus (loose change, bobby pins, rogue Altoids, and the like).
Depending on the day, there could be other passengers aboard too, riding rudely in the back, a result of what we nowadays call my “lack of boundaries.” These passengers range from “inappropriate sexual innuendo guy” to my mom after she’s made a passing remark about how ridiculous I’ll look at 80 if I continue to dye my hair. But whoever they are, they are loud and distract me from the road.
At almost 50, I find this lifelong rumination on my body changing. Just this morning, I woke up after a trying day of travel (canceled flights, missed connections) to a black eye. Not a slightly discolored eyelid, but a full kohl black bruise, inexplicably curving across my entire occipital orbit, juicy as an overripe blackberry.
As I inspected it, my first thought was, My body is such a stranger to me. Does it have a secret life? Did it go out without me and get into a street fight or a car accident, or, more oddly, did it do this to itself, perhaps in the throes of a violent nightmare? My second thought was, Those wouldn’t have been my first thoughts even a few years ago. Then, I would’ve worried first about how to cover it all up, how to explain it, how to make this ugly physical mystery invisible to the world.
We spend a lot of time doing this—making our bodies acceptable to the world. Some of us are more dedicated than others, but most are obliged to do such things as wear pants in public, cover up our natural odors, keep our sweaty hands in our pockets, and make sure there is no trace of the animal we really are, raging just beneath our skin.
Why do we do this? Why is it so important to contain and muffle our natural form, to paint it, to trim it, to cover and uncover it, and even, in some cases, to nip and tuck it, especially as it begins to lean in to its least forgivable crime: aging.
The weaknesses of the body reveal us in ways that make us vulnerable or less acceptable or desirable to the pack, which, of course, is our lifeline. To be excluded from the pack is to be excluded from life itself, to be left on the cold, bare plains of our Arctic ancestors scrabbling for a place to rest and a scrap to eat.
Despite these efforts, there is still the messy fact of flesh and blood—its needs, its desires, and its obligations. All of these things come together most outlandishly for women, at least for this woman, before, during, and after pregnancy. (I guess that covers every single moment of a child-bearing woman’s life.)
Years of maddening debate: Shall I give over my body to the creation and sustenance of another being, who if not born would be none the wiser and thus could not be disappointed in me if I chose to un-choose? Should I sacrifice my entire self-identity to undertake an endeavor that I am lukewarm about to begin with—because who really needs a baby anyway, and am I just being victimized by my own biology?
Consciously or unconsciously, sick of not having answers, I get myself nice and pregnant, and feel like a woman-shaped gong that has been whacked by a steel hammer as I stare down at the urine-soaked plastic stick that says “yes.”
I am a monster, trapped in a prison of my own making, as close to losing my tenuous grip on sanity as I have ever been. The expansion of my cells—like one of those tiny sponge toys you put in water to make it grow large enough to fill the glass—engulfs me in shame. People covertly stare at me (I think) and battle with emotions they themselves cannot identify.
I am lonely; I am scared. I decide to paint the nursery black.
One long, 12-hour scream while my husband reads the newspaper. Then, my arms are full of a stranger and my breasts are full of milk. (This milk, I’ll discover, is weirdly copious—enough for 10 babies—and streams down my body in the shower, a thin sugar frosting.)
I am all body—a charging station and management system for all the other bodies in the house. My husband needs me to open myself to sex, to pour himself into me. My son sucks me dry. I wipe and clean, whisking away smells, keeping the eternal needs and functions of my family closed and private. Even the dogs need me to handle their sh*t, their food, their fur, their drool.
Everything is flesh, everything visceral. I am chained to the earth and beholden to everyone. (Have I scared you young women contemplating child-rearing?)
In a year or so, this ends. My milk dries up, and I go back to being me, though admittedly, I am a bit torn around the edges. Back to my boring old obsessions about appearance, weight, and youth, though now, at least, I do have some worthy distraction.
I realize my perception of my body changes dramatically given the circumstances, and I wonder if this is normal. There seems to be no consistent sense of what I look like or how I appear to others. The world is a carnival mirror, reflecting me back as anything and everything: grotesque, coarse, wrinkled, huge, and wavering as a desert oasis.
Sometimes, for a second, out of the corner of my eye or in the blurred image of a photograph, I am even beautiful. Oh, those moments are such a restful relief.
I can be beautiful, I think. Even me.
But why do I care? What is it that I’ve been taught about beauty? That without it I am without value? That I must possess it to be viable, to be worthy?
The first currency of womanhood is beauty, yes, I was taught this. It is more important than anything else I will ever have to offer. There is a tape that is running in my head at all times, either so softly I can hardly notice it or so loudly I can’t hear anything else. Maybe you have one too.
Mine’s refrain is, “fat, ugly, fat, ugly, fat.” This tape is there to keep me scared straight. If I stop listening to it, I’ll stop caring about fatness and ugliness, and then what do you think will happen?
Now, I am becoming the Invisible Aging Woman, and I have some ironic hope that this incarnation will indeed be some kind of superhero version of me. Because I sense there is an untapped power that was stripped of me long ago, that I can only claim if I throw my old shell on the fire of humility. The crone waits, inhabiting a plane far above this frantic pandering to roses (just barely) still in bloom.
I realize I haven’t mentioned the joys of the body. I’ll apologize (as women do) for my tactless negativity.
Well. There is the joy of food; I find a good pizza deeply compelling. There is the joy of movement—on my bike, on my feet, on my mat. There are the joys of the senses—cool sheets, tall trees, good books. And, of course, the joy of sleep, when the weights that seem to hang off every limb are untied briefly so that I can float and breathe and dream.
But really, as grateful as I am for this life, the vessel in which I am required to live it has been a great source of pain to me. If I were a better person, I would just stop complaining. I have, after all, been given so much.
But maybe things are not as bleak as I think. Because the fact is, I am still fighting.
Is it a war against myself or against the world? I don’t know. Is it a war worth fighting—a war which in some ways is my most superficial preoccupation? I do know that I can’t seem to get off the battlefield, and that therefore I will eventually win or I will lose.
And what would winning look like? For me, the final realization that my body is only here to support my soul—nothing more, nothing less.
Women are born into the arms of a world that needs their bodies and resents needing their bodies all at the same time. Our flesh has become a political stage, exquisitely vulnerable to violence, conjecture, and punishment—even by other women. We feel this from the first moment of consciousness. We know.
And somehow, despite it all, I think we also know that we deserve, and can have, more than this.
I imagine us all together, standing on a green mountain, dressed in colorful, printed, cotton clothes, or maybe naked, arms raised, safe, in service to our higher selves, but also comfortable in our imperfect, perfect skin and bones.
I hear us whispering this refrain: “Ladies, lay down your swords.”
Not the swords we need to protect ourselves, of course—just those that we hold angled toward our own hearts.
Dedicated to Jamie Khoo, who fights the good fight.