Someone stole my body from me. The whole thing, all of my pieces. I think I’m locked up somewhere dark now.
I know, because when I look down at myself, I don’t see me. I see all of the things I should be instead of being myself.
I’ve been stealthily, expertly, completely replaced.
I noticed it the other day, smoothing cream over my legs. Well, these legs, anyway. The ones that attach there, at the base of the torso. I was rubbing the moisturizer into them and I had this image of my head of other women smoothing other, probably more expensive, moisturizer into probably more expensive legs. Better legs. Legs that are longer and lither and tanner and sleeker. Legs that get described in books, lovingly, sometimes almost flippantly, like, of course. Of course, if she’s here, important enough to get a mention; she has these long, fabulous legs.
“I love your short legs,” said my husband, randomly, and I was insulted. “Short” was an insulting word for a second, and then I realized that he was being sweet, and he was serious, somehow, and he had, after all, started off with the word “love.” But “love” and “short” and “legs” do not work together in my mind, because I’ve memorized instinctively all the right proportions and measurements (even though I suck at numbers) and I know what is worth loving.
But I don’t know what is worth loving. Because I am worth loving.
I feel like I have an expert eye for beauty. It’s because I’m an artist, I’ve told myself. I have always painted. But really, it’s because I’m a girl.
In the mirror, over my face, hang hundreds of other, more successful faces. They have hung there for a long time now. Many years. I have this memory of being a kid, and holding a silver hand mirror that looked like an antique but really it wasn’t and just staring at my own beautiful face from different angles. I adjusted the light. I pouted, I smiled, I widened my eyes and played with my hair, and wow, I was splendid. I was perfection. I was fantastically complete. I was almost mythically original. I was in love with myself. Just the way you’re not supposed to be. It’s so conceited.
Is it conceited, when you’re a little girl? How quickly is it important that you learn how wrong you were, to think you were so right?
Being in love with myself was the best. I miss it sometimes, even now. I want it for my unborn daughter.
She is a wild one, I think, as she kicks hard inside my belly. She is a strong one. And I realize that I am most afraid that she will forget that wildness one day. That she will accept and want more than anything to be acceptable. My wish for her, my desperate desire, is that she will be able to laugh loudly and roll her eyes and crush judgment under her boot and say, “F*@k this noise. I’m awesome.”
I am learning, slowly, slowly, to say that. But I’m still whispering, and I’m still uncertain, and I’m still nervous that someone will call me out on it, and go, “You don’t count! You’re just bitter because you’re not sexy enough!”
That is what they say to so many women, who speak up. As though beauty is a pacifier, and some of us are born with it in our mouths and we’re too happy to ever spit it out and learn how to eat real food.
And then they say about women who are doing big things, “She doesn’t look good.” And they think it’s funny. I hear them saying this, and I shrink a little, afraid that if I ever do anything big, they will say the same narrowing, slicing, dissecting things about me and it will make me somehow smaller. I will be reduced to my parts, like the cow in my freezer, which I think of in terms of which cuts are most desirable, easiest to cook.
It’s ridiculous, amazing, how afraid I am that someone will just shout out, “You are ugly!”
As though that, alone, is enough to crush me into nothingness. As though that, as a summary, is the most succinctly cruel thing someone can say.
You are ugly= you are meaningless
It would be easier, always, to be more beautiful, I think. But how badass would it be to be ugly and powerful and not give a shit? Are we there yet? Can a woman do that yet?
I take a step, and I am pulling all these trailing, featherlight carcasses. These faint overlays of other women, imaginary, perfected women. Like plastic bag litter in oily water, filmy, clinging. Their limbs coat my limbs, drift back, wrap around me. Their hair is tangled in my hair. Their breasts, translucent, hover over mine, fuller, showing my breasts the failure of their lines, emphasizing the emptiness in the air where there should be flesh and fullness.
I know, intimately, everything that my body has gotten wrong. The sloppiness where I spill over, outside of the trim, clean lines that beauty stays neatly inside, like an obedient child with a steady hand who is preternaturally expert with the crayons. Even pregnant, which I have never been until now, I already know how to evaluate my new shortcomings. The belly should be higher, rounder, smaller. I am growing large so quickly, unstoppable, out of control. My ankles thicken defensively. Even my pregnant body has been sneakily coopted, labeled, taken away from me. The version that is handed blankly back has all the usual notes scribbled across its surface. “Not quite right,” “Bulky,” “Could be better executed—we’re looking for something a little bit more…fluid.” “Missing a certain natural beauty.”
I am missing a certain natural beauty, even though this is what I naturally am.
I am missing myself.
When did the theft occur? The investigation falters almost immediately—it was done gradually, bit by bit, over many years, starting very young. So quiet, so persistent, impossible to accurately track, no one exactly to blame.
I reach up, rub my neck, sitting for a long time in the audience at a concert. I feel a certain softness that isn’t right. It doesn’t feel like the right kind of neck. Not that I have touched so many women’s necks. How would I know? But I do, somehow. It should be longer, more taut, thinner, more graceful. It should be, it should be, it should be.
I should be…
I am touching myself through the world’s fingers. I feel this body like a foreign territory. My brain has been swapped for a critic’s brain, so that I can’t stop evaluating, measuring, sizing myself up.
But at the same time, I remember my face in that heavy silver handmirror. The one that came in a silly set, with a brush too decorative to ever use on my opinionated hair. But the mirror was a portal, and my face was the magical place on the other side. I loved my own green eyes. I loved the way I aligned. The whole thing was so beautifully mine.
And I think that face—the warmth of the memory—is a clue. It’s a breadcrumb on the long trail back to where I’m hidden in the murky dark. To the place where my stolen body waits.
I haven’t lost it completely after all.
I focus, swatting away the other faces that settle, suffocating, over my features. Underneath all these layers, all these miniscule rules that all add up to not ever being good enough, my green eyes look back at me as though across an enormous distance—are they pleading?
I am coming! I sometimes want to tell them. I am coming to save you!
I am coming to save me, on these thickened ankles, belly first, carrying the weight of my daughter. So that she will someday have a mother who knows how to fight. Who can crush doubt under her boot and look up and wink and just go, “F*@k this noise.”
For more see Eat the Damn Cake, where I blog regularly about body image and other stuff