Confession: for over 25 years I’ve hated my body. Or, what I mean is, I’ve wanted my body to be different. Or, what I mean is, even while proclaiming feminism from the hilltops, I can’t remember the last time I didn’t fret over food or let the word “fat” manspread all over the subway car of my skull or the last time I caught my own reflection in a mirror or thick-paned window and resisted the urge to perform a quick look-test. I can’t remember the last time I passed that test.
I’m not anorexic or even abnormally obsessed. I’m an American woman, and, therefore, a woman at war in and for her body.
I’m always thinking about bodies–coveting them, judging them, assessing them, admiring them, worrying about them–but lately I’ve been thinking about them more. For one thing, writers I love are decrying the the decimation of the black body. Just today, Claudia Rankine wrote in the New York Times Magazine about the magnificent Serena Williams:
“Imagine that you have to contend with critiques of your body that perpetuate racist notions that black women are hypermasculine and unattractive. Imagine being asked to comment at a news conference before a tournament because the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, has described you and your sister as ‘‘brothers’’ who are ‘‘scary’’ to look at. Imagine.”
And as Ta Nehesi Coates argues, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body,” a tradition so naturalized we rarely see the destruction except at its most pronounced. Trayvon. Sandra. Serena. I know these writers speak the truth, but as I’m not black, I must try to imagine, what does it mean to live inside a vulnerable body, a body that by simple virtue of its being might be a dangerous container?
We can’t, of course, imagine our way into a type of oppression we don’t experience. We can, however, imagine our way close to it, and we must. I don’t know, except in an intellectual way, what it is to live in a black woman’s body in this nation and I don’t see the police cruisers that roll through the neighborhood streets that map a black man’s psyche. What I do understand–and what can bring me into at least an outer circle of understanding–is the experience of living in a compromised body, a body that won’t do or be what the world expects it to be, and a body that cannot fence out every gaze or break through every assumption. What I do understand is that the world might deny certain people the shelter of their own skeleton and skin.
In a dangerous world, to love one’s body in the face of its threatened destruction is a radical act. When I was struggling with infertility, I began to believe that my body was broken, that it lacked value since it could not make me what–the world tells us in various ways–a woman is meant to be. Much in the way a black body might impede one’s ability to live inside a dignified, safe body in a society that assigns more value to whiteness, a body that cannot produce children might impede my body from basic dignity in a society that defines motherhood as a condition of real womanhood. Infertility is nowhere near as widespread or brutal as racism, and blackness is not a medical condition–I don’t mean to imply that–but the various ways our bodies get coded have real implications for our lives. Likewise, the female body in general, because it has for so long been assigned value only by what it offers to men, might leave me feeling…well…homeless.
But what really sent me down the body rabbit hole this week was the verdict in the Owen Labrie rape case. The St. Paul’s boarding school student was accused of raping a minor female student. She gave the longest testimony. In addition to her testimony, several of Labrie’s friends–boys–testified that he bragged about sex with her, and they read text messages aloud to the court in which Labrie used the language of conquest and violence to detail his encounter with the accuser. Over her voice and theirs, the jury cited lack of evidence and acquitted him of the most serious charges. After I read the verdict in the paper, I went to my Saturday morning yoga class, a class I try never to miss. My teacher said to us, “The body changes the mind, the mind changes behavior, and behavior changes outcomes. We have to start in the body.”
I’ve been thinking about that nameless girl. About how badly I want her to love her body, and about the lifelong battle such loving will likely cost her. Once, my husband said to me, “Instead of thinking of your body as infertile, and, therefore, disabled, why don’t you think about what it did–how it was strong enough to handle all those shots, all those drugs, all those surgeries?” Why don’t I think about how it peeled itself off the floor and put its fists up like even our endangered bodies do, claiming and carrying the heavy mantle, how it achieved the unlikely and unthinkable?
I want to say to that brave girl who used her voice in court, a voice which must rise up through the body’s valleys and deep gorges, “Look what your body did. It survived. It spoke too. What an amazing body it must be. Imagine.”
Wendell Berry wrote, “There is no unsacred place. Only sacred places, and desecrated places.”
I’m 38 years old and I’m tired of the desecration. Of other bodies. Of my own. I’m tired of participating–wittingly or unwittingly–in that desecration when I was invited at birth inside the sacred.
All day long I pass windows and mirrors, and my own body stares back at me. And the body of live oak trees, and old bungalows, and dogs, and redbirds, and strangers. What I see there has to be enough.