From the moment you become you, you become, in many ways, synonymous with your body.
Birth announcements list your weight and your length, which in a matter of months becomes your height. You grow to take up more and more space, and for a while, you don’t give much thought to this. Kids, when they are allowed to be kids, marvel in the functionality of their bodies – running, jumping, wiggling, occupying every inch of their skin with no shred of self-consciousness.
For me, I don’t remember exactly when or how the self-awareness set in. But I do remember the first time I escaped from it.
I was 12. I spent an afternoon dipping a brush into different colors of face paint and smearing it on five year old’s soft, forgiving cheeks. I worked meticulously through the never-ending line, not pausing until my bladder was close to bursting. I excused myself to find a bathroom and as I washed my hands, I caught my reflection in their mirror.
There I was. I had been there all along, but I had somehow forgotten that I had a face, that I occupied a fleshy, imperfect body. I had transcended my flesh in those minutes, in the flow of a task I found just challenging enough, surrounded by children who were oblivious to their own bodily perfection. More importantly, I had transcended my brain and it’s incessant and uncannily juvenile refrain – think about how you look right now, think about how everyone else is thinking about how you look right now, think about how everyone is noticing that this feature of yours just isn’t [insert random aspirational attribute] enough, cringe and debase, cringe and debase, cringe and debase.
As a teenager, I spent so much time thinking about the form of my body. I would stand in front of the mirror and inhale, expanding my wide rib cage to it’s full breadth, poking and prodding the uneven bones. I would pinch and twist my flesh, trying to see if there was any nip or tuck that would convince me for a second that my body might actually be mistaken for a “normal” body, whatever that means.
In retrospect, I feel tenderness for this girl I used to be, a tenderness mixed with exasperation and bewilderment that in all that self-flagellation I never bothered to consider the function of my body, to consider that bodies are instruments as well as ornaments.
I can now see the privilege in this. As someone who is able-bodied, whose bones are covered in fair skin, with blue eyes and hair that the sun turns unmistakably blonde, it’s remarkable that I found so much to loathe about what I saw in the mirror. This is the exasperation that came with maturity, with growing a sense of purpose beyond my aesthetics, in realizing that I wanted what I looked like to be the least remarkable thing about me.
The bewilderment came much later. As a girl, I greeted the unmistakable rhythms of my developing body with scorn. I hated the way my breasts got in the way. “Becoming a woman” seemed like a giant inconvenience. Ovulation was a risk; pregnancy was to be avoided in all possible ways. And yet, when the time came when I wanted to conceive, of course, I expected that my body would cooperate.
At first it did. The first positive pregnancy test made everything seem so simple. My body was simply doing what bodies were meant to do. Until it wasn’t.
It’s a strange thing to be told that you are no longer pregnant when there are no outward signs that the pregnancy has failed. It compounds the sense that your body has somehow betrayed you. I sat and tried to wrap my head around the fact that while the microscopic being that had been sprouting inside me was still very much there, it was no longer viable. And yet, my body was still holding on to it. My body had created life, nurtured it briefly, and was now stubbornly refusing to relinquish it, as if it, too, was too attached to what might have been.
And so often there are no answers to the inevitable question that forms on your lips. Why? Without cause, of course it’s natural to turn against yourself, to apply magical thinking until the blame rests on a choice you made, on something you did, on your flawed body – flawed in function this time rather than form. Flawed in a way you never knew to expect, flawed in a way that causes shame to course through your veins.
There is now societal awareness around the way that young girls are coached into self-loathing. There are body positive campaigns, companies getting a boost to their bottom line when they feature models in all sorts of beautiful hues, shapes, and sizes. This is a necessary backlash. I hope to raise my daughter to always value her function over her form.
The only problem with this is that it doesn’t address the second flawed, unspoken assumption of being a woman (the first being of course that beauty is a currency with agreed upon exchange rates) – that women – and their bodies – are designed to have babies, to carry them, birth them, to raise them. There is danger here too, for where does this leave the woman desperate, but unable, to conceive, or the grown, married woman who has no desire to? In both cases, it would be easy for each to erroneously conclude that they – and their bodies – are in some way defective, in some way abnormal, in some way deserving of shame.
After I had miscarried twice, I took some solace in stories of women who had been in my shoes and gone on to have children, either biologically or through adoption. These wish-fulfillment narratives weren’t easy to find, but they existed. They helped me see that maybe, someday I would find a way to make peace with my body in the future.
But secretly, I craved finding a different kind of story. The story of women who wanted, who tried, but who for whatever reason couldn’t make it happen. I wanted to know that these women existed and had found ways to make themselves whole again. I wanted to know that even if my body never managed to figure out how to carry a child, I would find a way to carry on, to be okay. I wanted to know that a body flawed in function was still a body worthy of love, from myself and from others.
I never found these stories, but I don’t believe it is because these women don’t exist. I think it’s because collectively, we haven’t yet responded to this second assumption of womanhood the same way we’ve recently begun to criticize the assumption that a woman must look a certain way to be beautiful. We all need to articulate that our bodies, flawed at times in function, are still good bodies. That mother can be a verb as much as a noun. We need to share our stories of struggle, of loss without lowering our voices. We need to embrace one another when language fails and just hold on.