Judge not: Ten for Today


“I love your cute, little ass,” he always says, and every time he does, I guffaw, snort or giggle just a little. Not a tee hee, coy, embarrassed or flattered giggle either. It’s more disbelieving and cynical than that–way more.
 
Both parents at one time or another measured asses in the family. “Poor Pam. She has no ass,” I’ve heard my father say on more than one occasion. “Not like her sisters.” Nope, I’d silently always confirm the criticism because I’ve heard my mother respond to his remark with, “She has my ass, and I got my mother’s flat ass.”
 
I used to joke to people (still do) that I come from a long line of flat asses. I’d see body type illustrations, animated or real life, of the body labels “pear shape” or “spoon” in Cosmo or some other rag. Spoon, definitely spoon. Spoon has a long torso and convex posture–with a flat ass. Yep, spoon.
 
In my youth and young adulthood (the time when they could get away with that kind of crap), people would comment on my height. “Oh, she’s tall,” they’d say to my mom. “Yes, she takes after her 6’4″ father.” And the first time I met my mother in law at her suburban flat in Garches, just outside Paris, the first words she spoke upon seeing me were, “Elle est grande!” (She’s tall). France is short.
 
I’m 5’8″. I look up to meet the eyes of my 5’11” daughter. She’s tall, relative to other American women. I’m tall relative to the French. And all of this parceling of parts into categories to somehow order ourselves, well, I discouraged it raising my own children.
 
I explained to them how labeling others by body shape, color or size objectified people (in terms they could understand, of course). The brainwashing took, and now they berate my father, who habitually points to people’s fat, skinny, ugly, hairy, bow-legged, shapely, old, young, black, white, “oriental” (and more) selves.
 
More than PC, the de-labeling gives people a chance. It’s lazy and disinterested to sum people up by their parts. You can make snap judgments if you know their “type.” “Oh, she’s insecure and doesn’t date because she’s taller than most guys her age,” I’ve heard tell of my own daughter. And I still carry scars from those who–a la Trump–rated my body parts, a profiling which I swallowed as fact.
 
I know better now. The force-fed, culturally-created body ideals against which others (and I) measured myself bullshitted me for too long. My ass may be flat, cute, small, just right to onlookers. Bottom line (yep, I did that), I couldn’t s(h)it without it. Judge that.
 

Credit: spoon-silverware: pixabay

Fat Knees: Ten For Thursday


September 8, 2016
 
I’ve always had a rocky relationship with my knees. Maybe it was my mother who first brought notice to the knee knocking. She once remarked that she had fleshy knees. I have the same knees. The surrounding knee flesh on the inner leg side puffs noticeably, like a mutant swollen skin tag.
 
Luckily, my era saw the maxi and midi skirts, either ankle length or below the knee length skirts and dresses. I recently emptied a closet full of midi skirts I wore professionally with a smart suit jacket, the uniform I wore to my law office. Like the law practice itself, those styles belong to a bygone era.
 
Now the mini and maxi remain, the latter my preference of course. The knees.
 
I recently wore a mini-ish dress, a sleeveless, painted, loosely-body-conforming sunset dress I bought in Hawaii a dozen or so years ago. I took a long look at my knees peering out from just under the hem of the midnight blue portion of the dress (sunset waters), and still did not like my fleshy knees, especially now that they’re accompanied by crepe-y skin sliding down to meet them. Aging ain’t pretty.
 
But it could be. While I know I’m perpetuating the cultural lore of youth beauty worship by disliking my knees, hiding them most of my life, I still wore the dress–with only a little trepidation. The beauty of aging lies in Helen Mirren style fuck-its. The gorgeous feeling of not giving a shit. But maybe that trite image–the rebel 50-something–is culturally produced too.
 
I’d like to take my fat knee to the crotch of cultural dictates, the media and marketing agencies. This fifty-something raises her age-spotted middle finger and says, “Fuck you!”

The Beauty Myth–Think About it.

  
While I’m in favor of encouraging women to feel confident and happy, I worry that today’s body positivity focuses too much on affirming beauty and not enough on deconstructing its necessity. Spreading a message that everyone is beautiful reinforces the underlying assumption that beauty matters.


So writes Lindsay King Miller in Taking Beauty Out of Body Positivity. While she lauds the ever inclusive embracing of all female body types, she believes that reinforcing beauty as a value criterion is detrimental. She discusses what “body positivists,” those trying to change the accepted notions of beauty, are currently doing to change current conceptions but cites the dichotomy of beautiful versus ugly as problematic to such a cause, how beauty always implicates ugly. Ultimately, however, she finds the expansion of beauty beyond Victoria’s Secrets models refreshing, and as a mother of two teenage daughters, so do I.


Raising girls in 21st Century America is complicated. Raising girls probably has always been complicated, but in this world of consciously and commercially reinforced stereotypes about body imagery, where young girls are vulnerable to the obsessive compulsion to conform to culturally dictated beauty standards, it is particularly troublesome. 


Unquestionably, there is too much emphasis on the female body as artifact of beauty and sexuality. It is also undeniable that many walk the earth unconscious of their inherited values and aesthetics, what culture has produced in them:  their tastes, predispositions and prejudices. Historically, women have been treated poorly as citizen bodies, practically erased representationally in the arts, for instance (See Syreeta McFadden’s The lack of female genitals on statues seems thoughtless until you see it repeated). So women grow up in a vacuum of realistic body portrayals to challenge social “norms.”


In my early mothering years, I didn’t want to raise two daughters without at least attempting to defy norms. When they were little, I bristled at the pink and purple princess culture vulturing girls on commercial television, so I attempted to shelter them, feeding them a steady diet of commercial-free Public Broadcasting educational television. However, living smack dab in the suburbs of Southern California, I found I could not blind them to imagery that I did not agree with or even downright feared. And though I wanted to run counter culture, I was actually driving home the very ideas I wanted to avoid. 


I knew what I vociferously avoided would be the very thing to lure my children. By avoiding princesses, I was drawing the curiosity of princess-dom to two children not living in isolation but among blossoming princesses.


So I decided the best tact was to expose them to all that I believed would indoctrinate them, commercial television and radio, the internet, Justice clothing store ads and other girly-centered media, and then use the exposure as opportunities to discuss options and causes. 


I have always spoken to my children with words to make them reach rather than me sink. I would often remark that the store Justice was painted in colors that draw prebuscent girls of their age, pinks, purples and pastels, and then ask them who decided those were girl colors. They may not have understood the questions then, but now as teenagers, they are vocal feminists and advocates for the non-conformists, especially defying normative behaviors expected of them as women. Their dress and actions do not always affirm their words, but there is a consciousness of the conspiracy that captivates their style impulses.


I remember the trickiest issue of parenting two girls was body referencing and diet. To tackle the thorny body image issue, I steered them early from identifying anyone by body type or parts, skin color or size. I modeled pointing someone out by location, i.e., that guy in jeans and a tee shirt next to the cereal boxes–not by body traits–that tall white dude down there, explaining that no one wants to be identified by something that marks them at birth, something they did not choose. I thought it was the clearest path to disassociating their body as their only avenue of identity–at least as a starting point. Of course it was more complicated than that.


Before my children could think and prefer, I had them enrolled in classes:  art, dance, gymnastics, soccer, science, theater and whatever else I thought would expose them to opportunities and practice habits and hobbies healthy for them, a path to learning. It was no surprise that two daughters of a soccer playing mom would love soccer. 


With soccer they learned about their bodies’ needs, dietary, sleep and exercising. It was a no brainer to let them eat a begged-for donut before a game and then ask them how they felt during the game compared to say a pre-game banana with peanut butter. They figured it out. They also learned about competition and their bodies, fueling for better performance. We never talked about their diet but fueling choices. We talked about what they ate as promoters of good feeling and health, not body shape.


As a result, neither have been overheard to speak of one another’s weight when the taunting insults fly in their daily needling and razz-rationing. I don’t know what they say when I am not around, but I suspect they rarely judge beauty on the basis of weight, at least. I have witnessed their scolding their peers for doing so.


When they were young, my message about body-intensive focus would be lost, I feared, in a society that prizes beauty as exceptional whether the craze is body shape svelte or zoftig, Twiggy or Marilyn Monroe. The tidal wave of social stigma was too forceful, I thought. They would find out winning the lottery of a culture’s beauty award, one has to have the right metabolism and bone structure, the right chromosomal admixture. One has to measure the self against others on arbitrary dice rolls of anatomy. I desperately wanted them to understand that where body beauty is often the goal for young women, intrinsically achievable happiness is sidestepped or forsaken.


I’m troubled with using “beauty” as a synonym for feeling valuable and powerful and magnificent. It’s not far removed from nominally inspiring, but ultimately shallow, slogans like “Confidence is sexy” and “Nothing is more attractive than happiness” that treat emotional well-being as an accessory. I seek happiness because it feels good, not because it makes my hair shinier. Happiness, confidence, self-esteem—these things should be ends, not means.


Yes, and so how do we teach our daughters about the relationship of beauty and happiness, ends and means? How do we keep the word in our vocabulary without having it used as a weapon or a criterion for worth?


It is not enough to say that “everyone is beautiful in their own way,” to quote an insipid, grammatically inferior Ray Stevens’ song lyric. Some “body positivists” would have media drilling the empowerment of all body types into cultural consciousness.To do so, expands the definition beyond meaning, dilutes its aesthetic etymology and weakens it as a tool for evaluation of non-humans. Beauty is not merely in the eyes of the beholder as there are objective criteria for evaluating beautiful art or poetry, for instance.


Miller offers another conception:


Instead of insisting that beauty is necessary for everyone, more body-positive activists are working toward making beauty optional—something we can pursue if it matters to us, but also something we can have full and satisfying lives without. We should affirm our bodies for what they can do, how they can feel, the tribulations they’ve survived, and the amazing minds they carry around, without having to first justify their existence by looking pretty.


This is not merely a manifesto for those perceived as old and ugly to feel better about themselves. It takes a body fullness that does not need outward validation, a self-sufficiency that manifests contentment and dispassionate awareness of cultural tagging. Critical thinking skills help to distinguish self from selling, what is sold to and through women.


Whether or not I have succeeded as a parent in a myriad of ways from teaching them to clean up after themselves to balancing a bank account, I have given it my all to encourage my children–all of them (daughters, nieces, nephews, students)–to think. And why I love my careers as teacher, writer and mother–for the seemingly insignificant but wholly critical contribution I attempt daily at raising awareness, teaching analytical skills by which to destroy the inherited, constructed world. It’s the least this world citizen can do.

A Touching Tale of Healing Touch


Evan was not my first love. My heart framed in poetry books, I sought love early. By fourteen I had had my first heartbreak and by sixteen, I was initiated to the world of embattled sex my mother fear-burned into me:  woman as fortress and men as invaders.  

 

It was the 70s and free love was the slogan but not the practice. I was not the only young woman who paid the bodily price of losing what I did not understand I had–self-love, real love. 

 

So when I fell in love with and married a French man a few years later, love was permeated with heady visions of Romantics like Byron and Wordsworth, but sex was informed by the attitudes of Plath and Sexton, hardened and cynical. 

 

In my mind, love and sex were distinct and only the former was indispensable.

 

I loved Jean-Marc, but we were not so much “in love” as we were good friends. To me, that was more important. 

 

Besides, it was clear I was not his physical type. He had had a girlfriend when I met him in college, a French goddess of natural beauty, as if she emerged from the heather, golden smooth skin delightfully coating her delicate bones and showcasing her eyes of sea blue. 

 

She was the essence of what I deemed poetic femininity at the time. And I was nothing like her, not delicate, soft, supple, petite or graceful. I wasn’t French. I was New York, bookish and big. 

 

But several years into our marriage, I grew thinner, more athletic. I struck a lean, tall figure with improved grace and balance from running and tennis. I had transformed the book worm smoker of pubs and diners around New York to an outdoorsy athletic competitor in California.

 

When I separated from my husband, I was in the best shape of my life, 28 years old with a hard body everyone noticed but me. 

 

That is when I met Evan.

 

Evan taught me to love my body. I met him after my husband confessed that he was in love with someone else, a friend he had grown up with in France. Even though that relationship did not pan out, both of us needed time to sort things out. 

 

In reality, the separation between us occurred long before, had been growing inside me. Jean-Marc’s vision of me affected my own. I was a rebound, the consoler and good friend when the goddess dumped him one New Year’s eve. 

 

I was no beauty, but I was comfort.

 

His eye for aesthetics and style were distinguishing features of my attraction to him but also the very features that attracted him to others, beautiful, lean, olive-complected men I later came to find out. 

 

So why did I choose someone who could not love my body? Over the years, I have considered that question. 

 

Perhaps the body-mind division I fixed early on, prioritizing the intellectual over the physical sublimated my bodily emotions–etched the picture of an unlovely woman in my mind.

 

But I imagine, poor body image grew out of many seeds: my parents’ relationship, genetics, cultural dictates, social influences and my own love relationships. 

 

Though Jean-Marc and I shared a love that made us grow in the comfort and safety of that umbrella love of young adults, he could not love me intimately, the way a lover sighs at the sight of his beloved’s nakedness. And we couldn’t talk about it for the pain and the guilt. But the elephant in the room nearly crushed me. 

 

Eventually, I was flattened. I no longer had desire–until Evan. 

 

I fell in love with him in a cafe in New York. He spoke soothingly about presence–being present in each moment–and though I had read my zen and Heidegger, I was witnessing the words rather than thinking about them. 

 

He warned me beforehand and then he touched my hand and said, “You’re a writer; describe the experience of my hand.” Of course I didn’t know what he meant; I only said I wanted to be a writer, and I was off balance with his touch.  

 

So I described how I felt uneasy with a near stranger’s touch. To which he asked, “Does it feel warm? soft? rough? Can you feel the arced tips of the nails unforgiving yet pleasantly smooth?”

 

I hadn’t even thought of the physical sensation. I never did. All passed through my mind first and the physical was always sublimated, denied or ignored. Probably why I rarely saw a doctor, going about my business trying not to think of what ailed me.

 

Later, his first touch of studied tenderness opened my eyes and aroused passion I buried long before I knew its heat, its colorful flavors. He touched me, what was before his eyes, not a projection of me. 

 

And then he took me on a tour of the secret vales and rich verdure of my body. It blazed real love.  

 

Love–true love–is presence in touch; it needs no longing, fantasy, style, grace or poise–merely acceptance in being. 

 

When I embraced my own beauty, uniquely my biological experience, replete with singular angles and curves, scars and splotches, I learned to be heart-wise loved by someone who could love me–all of me–and confirm I was worthy of another’s hand softly sweeping the hair off my brow. 

 

My feminine, I learned, was desire—being—in touch.  

 

How can we ever know how others sense the world? The question should evoke a yearning to find out without the hope of ever doing so. However, it is the practice–the focused being of and with others–that matters. It’s how we connect, avoid loneliness, while maintaining our own integrity.

 

It is how we find love, real love.

 

Touch led me from interpreting the world to experiencing it. Getting out of my mind, possessed with others’ formulations of love and sex, and into the moment–breathing presence; it brought me the fullness of acceptance, as a body, my body, with someone else’s.  

 

No, Evan did not teach me acceptance by his touch; eventually, I was able to receive his touch by my own clarity–of space, moment, nearness of another’s presence becoming my own.  

 

He taught me to “see” like the scientists and philosophers and lovers we are–empirically, intellectually and emotionally.  

 

I wasn’t rushing headlong into someone else’s story for me. I had learned to better integrate my body and mind, which took examining inherited perceptions: those of my mother, husband, authors, and culture.  

 

It took practice to own my body. It still does.

 

And being in the precise moment recalled by someone’s touch–healing in its grounding.

 

Evan lies next to me now, his pillowed head in the shadow of mine. I am reading, elbow-propped, turned away. 

We are prone, bare, having just settled into bed for the night. Humid heat of a New England summer makes flannel impossible and silk torturously sticky. We sleep this way most nights four seasons long.

His body is serpent shape mirror of mine with inches of space between us, creating the comfort of a cooling air canal. We are art in symmetry.

His hand, open palmed, smooths across the contours of my hip, waist and shoulder, smearing heat like oil upon the line of curvy seas in the imagination of his hand–port to starboard to port again. The slow rhythm of his caress lulls my lids to half mast as the warmth and tingling skin sensors combine, dance me to lullaby languor. These are the moments.

I stop reading to softly lower my head to the pillow, ever so slowly, avoiding the slightest ripple in the water of his soliloquy wave. I hold my breath the whole way down.

Releasing, exhaling in measured silent wisps of warm air through my teeth and the pebble O my lips make, anchor hits bottom, the sync of his hypnotic oar undisturbed; it continues to brush the still of my anatomy’s ebb and flow.

I breathe just enough air to live, causing not so much as a flutter-by in the sheets. If I fill my lungs too deeply, selfishly, I will signal sleep’s onslaught, killer of this powerfully peaceful moment of breath, body and hand. No dream could be better than this. I own it–to the coral depths of fibrous memory. 

Naked Bodies on Herself.com: Pornography or Powerful?

2015/01/img_0324.jpg

So, is this pornography or a good idea? Herself.com, copyright dated 2015, claims to be dedicated to women, about women for women, according to their manifesto:

“Herself is a gesture to women for women by women; a chance to witness the female form in all its honesty without the burden of the male gaze, without the burden of appealing to anyone. These women are simply & courageously existing, immortalized within these photos. Within their words, their experiences and stories are offered on Herself in the hopes of encouraging solidarity – that maybe we as women will take comfort in the triumphs of others rather than revelling in each other’s defeats. Let us reclaim our bodies. Let us take them back from those who seek to profit from our insecurity.” -Caitlin Stasey

At first glance (lots of bodies to glance at, that being what hits the viewer first), the idea struck me as disingenuous, maybe a marketing ploy. After all, there are seven or so women featured naked with their stories interspersed between nude photos–on the Internet. The metaphor is supposed to be something like the naked truth, but how exactly are these women avoiding the male gaze and pornographic objectification on this public space?

However, after reading the interview questions that each woman responds to, I changed my mind a little, thought more about it. Women respond to many questions ranging on topics from first time sexual experiences, body image, marriage, monogamy, and polyamory, to name just a smattering of the content. The questions are rather blunt and aim for honesty. Few touched on the political such as those about reproductive rights and contraception. The rest are personal.

So what makes this anything more than a sociology graduate school project/case study? Well, the attempt to disseminate ordinary, non-Photoshopped, random, high quality, well-photographed bodies that are not merely categorized in the usual culturally accepted genres of naked or partially clad female bodies, i.e., models, actresses, erotica, pornography, or cadavers, is to challenge culturally acceptable notions of female nudity imposed on the public with other versions of the story of the naked female body. Potentially, it is a direct challenge to the media by ordinary women maintaining control of the deployed-into-society imagery that undergirds bias and affinity, dictates social norms and relegates some bodies to lesser or more valuable against usual criteria, i.e., commercial, aesthetic or familial.

If Herself.com’s game is to infuse media with naked bodies owned and thereby controlled by those throwing their bodies out to the public and not an advertising agency or other commercial enterprise, then I think it is a good idea. However, they will need a great many more bodies to display spanning all demographics: age, race, ethnicity, shape, identity. I will be curious to see where this site goes.