I am trying to shape a female figure. But every time I try to complete the mud-pie woman with the traditional symmetry (two breasts launched proudly upon recognizable body), the whole thing crumbles to pieces. Finally, getting to my feet to abandon the entire project, I give it one last try. Stick a spare breast on the back of the figure. Add an extra arm to the neck. Dump one more nippled protuberance on top of the head. I stand back and look at my work. Unfinished it is, without doubt; rough-hewn and decidedly experimental, at least this figure holds together – Kim Chernin, Reinventing Eve
Eighteen years ago. A man whose hair is black and grey around the temples sits beside me. It’s smoky, I’m in a bar, I’m drinking whisky. He watches me as I wait for the bartender to come down to my end. I concentrate on the beer bottles lined up in front of a long mirror, the ice being scooped and slid into a glass, my reflection. “You should be a model,” he says, and I like his voice – its cigarette tired, the edges of his words a little worn. I watch my reflection in the mirror, study the beer bottles lined up below my face, think about how interesting it is that I am skeletal, sick, drinking instead of eating, drunk, and about how it feels to hear I should be a model when what I am is a woman with anorexia. I am still a quiet person in the midst of the noise I am making with my physical self, but I am not flattered by his words. I watch the man’s reflection watching me walking away.
Once, while I was a freshman, I walked between the boy I had followed to college and his roommate. They were checking out a girl ahead of us. I watched the girl in front of me. Her ass looked medium in size, well proportioned, not small but not large. The roommate had said he would marry a girl with an ass like that. I wanted to be a girl someone would marry. My ass was laughable. My then boyfriend laughed at my ass. It was what? Too saggy, too spread out, all of its oomph distributed in a way that was wrong. I thought that I was wrong.
When I was 22 and just beginning to recover from anorexia nervosa, I was anxious about an upcoming trip to the beach. I did not want to wear a bathing suit and I did not want to cover myself up. I had been covering up my body since puberty, and I was trying to respect it a little more than I had in the past.
My therapist at the time wrote some directions down on a sheet of lined notebook paper. I took them with me to a beach which sat in front of huge sand dunes that caught peoples’ feet when they tried to traverse it. I read the directions on my wrinkled and sandy paper over and over, looking up and down the shore, looking behind me at the people who were unsticking themselves. Look at the people around you, the men and the women. The children, the older people. Look at the differences, the way no one is exactly the same. There is no such thing as the perfect body. Everyone is unique.
There was a time that living with and in my body filled me with hopelessness – when being a girl and a woman pinned me down with rage. I thought I would never get it right, being female. Now I think it isn’t about getting it right, but about questioning, calling out, and replacing the damaging images and ideas that define what getting it right means. This is work to be done for ourselves, but it is also work to be done for others – on our own and in solidarity.
I recognize the image of the mud woman Chernin describes, created with pieces of the body and words that do not limit. The woman is disordered but not a disorder, larger with her extra parts and more than enough. Not restricted to the norm she is rough-hewn but holds together – one version of what a woman can be, she is a work in progress.