29 October 2009

On Beauty and Writing the Body's Story:
I'ma Be Me!

This morning on The Today Show, comedian Wanda Sykes promoted her new late-night talk show scheduled to air next week on Fox, along with her HBO special "I'ma Be Me," with a joke about how the body erodes as it ages: "I used to carry an extra pair of panties in my purse in case I got lucky. Now it's in case I sneeze!."

Beauty--or the pursuit of it--is always before us: on TV and billboards, in magazines, embedded in how we relate to each other and to ourselves. If we aren't as comfortable in our skin as Sykes claims to be--the reason she gave for the "I'ma Be Me" title--we're going to have some trouble adjusting as we age.

If you've met me, you know I'm a big woman. I've been working on my weight for nearly two years (if you don't count all of my life before that), following the guidelines of a nutritionist in a diabetes clinic. I've lost around 60-70 pounds, and I still have a long way to go.

But a big part of why I started trying was for the first time in my life my cholesterol inched into the high zone and my fasting-glucose registered pre-diabetic. I see an endocrinologist for other issues, and she told me if I did nothing I could expect to become diabetic in about a year.

In spite of my slow weight-loss rate, all the components that make up my cholesterol score now register smack-dab in the middle of normal, as does my fasting-glucose, which in the time I've followed the nutrition guidelines has dropped a full 30 points.

If I keep this up, I may never be what our culture calls thin, but I probably won't be diabetic. And that's okay by me. My doctor is thrilled. She's about five-feet tall and 100 pounds soaking wet, and her response to my complaint about losing so slowly was that the slower it comes off, the more I have made it part of my life, and so the less likely I'll be to gain it back. "That's the right way," she added.

I laughed at Sykes' joke this morning. But I felt a little sorry for my body when I did. After all, it's been through a lot, and it's carried it all pretty well considering. When we hide our pain and hurt over events in our life, our body carries it.

The pain doesn't disappear. When we don't express it, it goes somewhere, believe me, and that somewhere is into our thighs and hips and bellies and hearts and breasts and joints and feet. The body holds on to all our bad memories, as well as our joys, and it goes on and on anyway, carrying us through this life.

Of course it wears down because we push too much onto it. All those times we didn't say what we thought, all those times we let someone push us around, all those times we witnessed a violation of life and said nothing. All those silences speak volumes into the cells of our bodies.

If you think I'm making too much of this, listen to this: I know someone who studies voice. Her teacher often touches or presses on certain parts of her body when they're doing vocal exercises. This is not an invasive process but has to do with making the singer aware of her body and putting it to better use in the production of beautiful sound.

She said that sometimes these touches cause memories to well up. Often they are unpleasant memories. Sometimes tears accompany them. This is the body wanting to speak. This is the body wanting to tell us who is there, in all its facets.

This is the body wanting to make something beautiful out of pain. But first the pain has to come up.

I taught a workshop one time on writing about the body. Participants helped each other draw life-size outlines of their bodies on huge sheets of paper we'd cut from a roll and taped to a wall. We read poems and brief stories about the body, then wrote about our own bodies directly onto our outlines.

All-in-all, the logistics made the workshop difficult. We needed more space to roll out our tracings, and people were shy about their bodies. That's understandable. It's not a workshop I'd do again unless by request, but I'm glad I did it once because I see now how the body each of us wears is a unique story. And it is a dear, dear friend who needs our love and focus.

I'm tired of seeing news items about already thin models being made to look emaciated by "beauty" magazines. I'm tired of hearing Fox News rant about whether or not Michelle Obama has the thighs for shorts. I'm tired of strangers staring at me disapprovingly, as if to make me into the fat shadow of their starving soul.

Michelle Obama is beautiful! Heck, I am beautiful! Have you noticed?-- I look like my poem! (see post below)

In addition to the photo of that poem, I've illustrated this post with a 1631 etching by Rembrandt called "Woman on a Mound." It is referenced in Zadie Smith's work of fiction On Beauty, which is a modern-day retelling of E. M. Forster's novel, Howard's End. In Smith's book, a fresh-faced college freshman from South Bend, IN, named Katie ponders this etching, and though she is a minor character, her insight is anything but:
Katie has read some famous commentaries on this etching. Everybody finds it technically good but visually disgusting. Many famous men are repulsed. A simple naked woman is apparently much more nauseating than Samson having his eye put out or Ganymede pissing everywhere. Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock, to Katie, at first--like a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. But then Katie began to notice all the exterior, human information, not explicitly in the frame but implied by what we see there. Katie is moved by the crenulated marks of absent stockings on her legs, the muscles in her arms suggestive of manual labour. That loose belly that has known many babies, that still fresh face that has lured men in the past and may yet lure more. Katie--a stringbean, physically--can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt were saying to her, and to all women: 'For you are of the earth, as my nude is, and you will come to this point too, and be blessed if you feel as little shame, as much joy, as she!' This is what a woman is: unadorned, after children and work and age, and experience--these are the marks of living.
I want you to know the supreme joy of letting your body speak in what you write. Ask it what it thinks. Listen for its replies. And tell. Don't be ashamed. Tell and ask and ask and ask and tell some more. You will never run out of things to write. Your body, as always, will carry you through.

What About the Body?

against time!  always there!
belly breast brain
breath blood bone
together   beautiful
skin ablaze with
travel  trips  time
together  time  broken  brilliant!
big  bare  blind  blushed
behaved  bellowed  beat  birthed
born   always there!   beautiful!
asked and answered   ask beauty!
breast  bone  bosom  back
ached  armed  asked
always there!  ask time
burn  boil  bleed  build
beauty yes!  always there!
ask  tell  there! there!
ask  ask  ask

PROMPT: Magnetic word tiles selected on the basis of what appealed to me that day. (I have LOTS!) I chose lots of "B" words to go with "body."