“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”
— Helene Cixous, ‘Laugh of the Medusa’
When my sister died at the age of fifty-three — too young, too unexpected — my body marked my grief. I visibly aged, with lines deepening upon my forehead, changes to the texture of my skin, and a ten pound weight gain that sent me into a ‘vanity panic’, the likes of which I had not experienced in years. I want to say I’m over that now, but I’m not. I do try to work through it; to change my way of thinking about my body as something beyond a visible surface or structure. I try to imagine it as something more fluid that melds with, and is part of all of me — my thoughts, intellect, temperament, tastes and such forth — without specific lines of demarcation. My body-as-me is in mourning. The aching in my bones, the lump in my throat, the anxiety — even the clumsiness — are the physical manifestations of my grief. All that I experience, whether it be grief, pleasure, fear or a sudden flash of brilliance, my body experiences. Why on earth would I castigate this part of myself for something as natural and reasonable as aging and weight gain?
We (women) are judged. We feel judged. In turn, we judge ourselves and others. That is the message my sister shared, again and again, through countless telephone calls of self-denigration, always directing the conversation to the weight her body carried. Always making apologies for the appearance of accumulated fat, as if the space she took up in the universe presented a repellent offence to the imagined order of the world’s landscape. Leslie went far beyond feeling ‘dissatisfied’ with her body; she loathed it. Adjectives Leslie used when describing her body:
In her rants (for they were rants) she chided herself for having ‘let herself go’. She blamed her boredom, her isolation, the lack of support from the people in her life. She talked of her hurt feelings, in particular the pain inflicted by our father’s scathing comments and judgement, and the pressures (all our lives) to conform to his (and society’s) idealized version of what a woman should look like. She was right about all of it — the pressures, the boredom –all that was real. She was wrong about herself though. By medical standards Leslie carried too much weight. That, however, did not make her ‘disgusting’, ‘enormous’ ‘ugly’ or whatever negative adjectives she used to describe her physical appearance. Leslie’s body, in all its variations of shape and size throughout the years, was Leslie. Leslie was loved. I loved her. Many people loved Leslie. And Leslie was beautiful. Always. I wish Leslie had lived long enough to accept herself and her beauty. I wish she were still here to love herself fully as herself.
Leslie was wrong about herself, but she couldn’t avoid it. Most of the women I know worry and complain about their bodies and their appearance. The ideals and expectations of what women’s bodies represent, what they mean, how and for what purposes they are valued, detach and alienate women from their bodies and condition us to scrutinize our own and other women’s bodies in the service of an impossible and thoroughly arbitrary standard. If, for instance, the current ideal of female beauty is a genetically blessed, slender, perfectly proportioned seventeen-year-old, possessing the valued skin tones and facial features of the day, then even the rare few who meet that standard are already doomed to failure, regardless of their efforts to maintain it. Bodies change, and to some degree, so do standards. At any given time, conventionally beautiful women are like billionaires (only with less long-term security). Sure, they exist; but not as a statistically significant representation of human bodies. So why buy into such a ludicrously impossible standard that wrenches us away from appreciating and nurturing the bodies that we have and are?
So in the spirit of Cixous, (and no doubt to the horror of Leslie in heaven), I (im)modestly present my presently middle-aged body. Some of its original parts are missing — a couple of tonsils, a molar, a kidney — but it seems reasonably intact. I am blessed with strong and healthy limbs that function efficiently, if not always gracefully. My immune system serves me well, and though as I’ve aged, I find myself less tolerant of wheat and dairy products, I have a healthy appetite and no significant digestive complaints. There is nothing wrong with my body, yet if I stand before a full length mirror (clothed or otherwise) in less than thirty seconds my eyes will start clocking flaws. Hereditary flaws, age flaws, bruises, bulges, bumps and my much maligned stretch marks.
And here’s the thing: It is not so much having these particularities on and of my body, but, rather, that my eyes register them and my brain interprets them as ‘flaws’. In that instant I dupe myself into validating the fabrication of a standard to which my ‘flaws’ are measured; a standard that annuls all bodies of their particularity. Hogwash! If I faithfully wrote my middle-aged body, its story would have little to do with the inertia of standardized beauty, its flaws instead marking segues and ruptures in its (my) half-century’s journey in this life.
A scar on my upper lip marks my first encounter with stitches, and evokes the memory of playing ‘Batman’ with Leslie, tearing through the living room in the first house I remember living in, and splitting my lip on the coffee table. It also reminds me of my father telling the story, again and again, of watching the emergency room doctor stitching me up, and how my eyes crossed as I tried to watch the process. I love the scar because it is the conduit to a memory I treasure. So too, the freckles on my shoulders — the result of a second degree sunburn acquired on a hiking trip with my father, sister and my sons. My flesh is a travelogue of mundane scars marking clumsy accidents and a surgical one that tells of surviving cancer. These stretch marks that I’ve vainly tried for so long to hide, reduce and wish away, merely record that my belly had once stretched to full capacity to accommodate my first son. Laugh lines, worry lines, loosened flesh — the body of evidence that I have lived, loved, lost, learned and experienced. My flesh never abandoned or betrayed me. It has faithfully transcribed my fifty-two years with an accuracy that words cannot. Indeed without this body I could not write or speak any words at all. I simply would not be.
So, while I wont be stripping naked and charging down the High Street to proclaim and celebrate the wonder and beauty of my body — I will give it a ‘thumbs up’ for sticking by me and being of me. And, finally, in honour of Leslie, who left too soon to make peace with her own body, I endeavor to retrain my eyes to register stories instead of flaws in all bodies, not just my own.