I’ve been forced to consider my body lately, more than usual and with an uncomfortable level of scrutiny.
You see, I’ve been shopping online.
Online shopping is hard enough for someone who wears a standard misses’ size. For a woman with my height, wide shoulders, and broad ribcage, shopping is even more challenging, requiring scrupulous measuring and second-guessing, and all too often leading to a heap of self-criticism.
But now it’s even harder. Since my back injury, I’ve put on weight, which takes me from the top end of the misses’ sizes into the hinterlands of plus size. I dread this, in part because manufacturers often cut 16+ sizes for buxom figures, not strapping figures. On me, the sleeves are too short, the shoulders and back cling, and the boobs and waist gape.
I also dread it because so many plus-size dress styles suggest that we should cover our shame: billowing feet of cheap fabric, high necks, ballooning sleeves, ankle-length hems. So what if I’ve gone up a size? I still don’t want to dress like Sergeant Sarah Brown going to the opera.
Let me be clear: I do not dread the plus sizes because the size range indicates that I’m “fat.” I got over that worry some time ago.*
For many years, I managed a boutique. Every day, I saw women — all kinds of women: slim and willowy, tall and powerful, gracefully statuesque, plump and lovely, reed-thin, muscular and athletic — come in, try on outfits, and look critically at themselves in the mirror. It was rarely easy for them, and often agonizing.
I saw beautiful women of all shapes and sizes insult themselves in the most vicious language. A woman with a luscious round bosom talked about “these monsters” that ruined the line of a too-tight bodice. A strapping athlete bemoaned her powerful thighs and biceps, which refused to be ignored in a fitted sheath. Slim women complained that they didn’t fill out billowy dresses, and curvaceously plump women moaned that they were “too fat” for evening wear.
I saw women cry when they needed to move up (or down) a dress size. I saw women dance when something fit off the rack.
We had a roster of regular customers, and I got to know their styles and favorite colors, their shopping patterns, and — most crucially — their emotional triggers.
One rule I lived by: the fault is always with the garment, not with the woman. If the skirt clings unkindly to your bum, if the blouse pops at the button, if the dress tugs and pulls, it’s the skirt, the blouse, or the dress that’s the wrong shape. The customer is the right shape. This appeared to be a revolutionary idea to many of our customers.
In all those years, there was only one woman who routinely stepped out of the dressing room, looked at her reflection, and said “Wow! I look gorgeous!”
That woman was me. Yes, I called myself gorgeous. More than that, I did it routinely.
I’d seen too many beautiful women insult themselves, despise themselves for imagined failings, and utterly fail to see their own beauty. I swore to help them see it, and to keep myself safe from similar blindness.
I know that the whole notion of physical beauty is fraught with pitfalls. Physical beauty ought not to be a prerequisite for self-esteem, nor for eliciting esteem from others. Physical beauty ought to be is optional for women, as it is for men.
But I see my physical beauty. I claim my physical beauty. Just because it often falls outside the narrow norms defined by our culture doesn’t mean it’s invisible.
My determination not to vilify my own body was cemented by my first partner’s illness and death from AIDS, and my father’s decline from emphysema and a constellation of smoking-related maladies. I watched both of them waste away, their bodies increasingly frail and skeletonized, and I fully internalized the truth: your body is a machine to carry you through this world. If it stays reasonably strong and performs daily tasks with little complaint, you are one of the rare lucky people with a perfect body. Enjoy it. Celebrate it.
I don’t know if any of you needed to read this, but I needed to write it. After all my shopping and measuring and criticizing and fretting, I had a lapse of faith. I needed to say all this, to get this out of my head and into text, to make it concrete.
the Woman of Willendorf
It seems appropriate that this reflection roughly coincides with a celebration of the Woman of Willendorf, the profoundly rounded figurine you see above. It She was discovered in August of 1908: it’s her 100th anniversary, though of course her private history began perhaps 25,000 years ago.
In 1908, she was dubbed “the Venus of Willendorf,” a winking misnomer that seduces the viewer into making comparisons between the Willendorf figure and the classical Venus of antiquity and the Renaissance. The classical Venus was both erotic and demure, making a (necessarily failed) attempt to cover herself, thus perfectly displaying her attributes to the male gaze.
By contrast, the Woman of Willendorf gloriously displays her sexual characteristics: lavish breasts, belly, and buttocks swell to meet the hand and eye. More than that, her prominent navel and labia proclaim that it is not mere erotic beauty on display here, but fertility. She is not a sex object; she is female sexuality itself.
Her very fatness is a fantasy. Consider how unlikely a figure she would be in her presumed culture of origin: in our current understanding of gatherer-hunter subsistence modes, such lushness of frame would be a practical impossibility for most women. Her lavish rolls and swells suggest ample resources at her disposal, prominent among them food and leisure.
Though I conjecture that she is an object of fantasy, and perhaps a fertility symbol, the art historian in me admits the simple truth. We know little about the Willendorf figurine: her origin, her cultural purpose, her maker.
I do know she’s lovely. Those curves, the oval form punctuated with carved swells and valleys, the sense of luscious mass packed into that small shape — it all makes my hands ache to hold her, to feel the grainy texture of her shape in my cupped palm.
I am beautiful.
And so are you. Yes, you.
If you can’t see it, look closer.
*Update, Mon, Sept 1st:
I must admit, evidently I’m not entirely over it, given how I sobbed in fury and embarrassment after yet another failed attempt to order one pretty dress, any pretty dress. But at least I dig in my heels and resist the conventionally approved feelings of inadequacy and shame.
Yeah, sometimes I’m fat. There are moment when that feels awful, like a moral indictment, not a mere statement of fat fact. But, because I claim my right to be beautiful outside that narrow margin, there are days when I’m fat and I rock it, baby.