In spite of the horde of in-laws gathered in the open kitchen right next to me, I was practicing Karate. I had a tournament in a month and vacation was no excuse to slack off. A wall of windows looked out over the pond and a forest full of blinking lightening bugs. Before this trip I’d never actually seen lightening bugs, and it was an exercise in discipline not to drift away from my practicing and become lost in the mesmerizing mass of tiny winking lights. I scrutinized my reflection in the darkening windows. Was I checking my posture? My form? My direction of focus? Was I absorbed in an art that unites mind and body in a way that I find more soothing and fulfilling than just about any other activity you can name?
Nope. I was looking at my butt.
That’s right. My butt, after two pregnancies, was a lot flatter and lumpier than I would like it to be. I fancied my rear was like a pat of butter sliding down the side of a hot biscuit. Only in my case, it was melting down the backs of my thighs.
I caught myself. Hypocrite. You’re always like, “Oh, women need to stop judging themselves,” and you can’t even practice what you preach. (See how I judged myself there?)
Well, I thought, if I can’t stop it, that shows how deeply rooted self-hatred can be. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girly-Girl Culture, has a similar problem:
“As for so many women, the pathology of self-loathing is permanently ingrained in me. I can give in to it, I can modify it, I can react against it with practiced self-acceptance, but I cannot eradicate it. It frustrates me to consider what else I might have done with the years of mental energy I have wasted on this single, senseless issue.” 1
Our culture preaches that a woman’s main value is in her appearance. Iron corsets and sixteen-inch waists are long out of style, but striving for today’s ideal beauty can be just as crushing. The worth of souls may be great in the sight of God, but the companies that sell makeup, pills for weight control and more do not care about women’s souls. They care about money. And the more deficient they can make women feel, the more money they make. An industry worth billions hinges on convincing women and even girls that their eyelashes are too short, their lips and breasts not plump enough. We grow up believing that cellulite lessens our value as people. This is our “pathology of self-loathing.”
Back to me, staring at my rear in the big dark window while I should be practicing side kicks. I had an epiphany. It was very dramatic, what with my reflection and the fireflies and all: a memory from a medieval fair the summer I got married. I ran a merchant’s booth there with my friends. We caravaned down with our tiny, dented college student cars crammed with cloaks, tents, and wares, then slept on the ground for a couple nights and hawked during the day. Just the sort of situation to induce a mystical life-changing experience, now that I think about it.
My epiphany also involved a wise and mysterious old lady. See? Dramatic.
I’d gotten up early to arrange hard candy and shortbread wedges in tempting piles at our pavilion’s entrance. Dew chilled my bare feet and clung to my skirt. A man with long, draping sleeves and a heavy gold circlet glanced into our shop as he hurried by with a plate full of bread and breakfast sausage; probably thinking of a lady who needed wooing with something sweet or pretty. People always woo each other at medieval fairs.
I spotted a row of gauzy belly-dancing scarves hanging at the front of the shop right next to ours–a seductive rainbow of shimmering softness, rich metallic fringes glinting in the pale morning sunshine. I brushed my hand across the rack of filmy cloth. Fabric rustled, tiny bells tinkled. I rested my hand on a night-blue scarf with delicate silver coins sewn around the edge.
“It’s on clearance. This is our last time selling,” said someone behind me.
The woman’s gray hair fell loose to her waist, and silver jewelry hung heavy from her plump wrists and neck. Her voice was low and firm, and her skirt swirled around her ankles when she moved.
I let my fingers linger on the scarf. “I’m getting married in two months. No cash to spare.” I glanced at a nearby bin of silver anklets covered in bells. “I’d love to learn how to belly-dance, though.”
To me, belly-dancing was forbidden fruit. Many of my friends did it. For a while there had even been a “Modest Bellydancing Club” at BYU, but last year they’d been shut down on a technicality. “Raqs Sharqi,” as it was known traditionally, was developed hundreds of years ago to help women strengthen their muscles for pregnancy and childbirth. A worthy goal, I thought, and a beautiful celebration of womanhood. But my prudish side kept me from enjoying the art in all its wiggly-jiggly glory.
The old woman smiled, deepening the creases around her eyes. Those eyes were solid, like the turquoise pendants around the woman’s neck. They belonged to someone who knew what she wanted from life.
“You come by later,” she said, “and I’ll show you some. Your fiancé will thank me for it.”
I probably blushed. `
And then she disappeared in a puff of smoke.
Hours later, during the lull that comes in the heat of mid-day, we stood on the grassy space in front of our shops.
“Every move comes from your stomach. From the inside,” she told me. “Do you do your Kegels?”
I had no idea what Kegels were. Coming from this woman, who seemed bizarrely confident in her body for her age, I wasn’t sure I should know what they were.
“Ah, sometimes,” I mumbled, in extreme premarital ignorance.
“You should do them every day,” she told me, sternly, “you’ll live longer.”
I drank in her advice, still wondering about the mysterious Kegel.
“Your shoulders,” she said, “should be back, and your breasts proud.”
This woman was saggy and round, in the way that can naturally come with age–hardly someone I would have pictured as having “proud breasts.” Her brash use of the word “breasts” threw me for a loop, too. I wasn’t used to being around people who were so very…comfortable with their bodies.
I saw her perform later that week. Many people danced that night, but I remember her the best. She wore traditional dark, muted, colors from head to toe; no flashy satins or bare skin. Her hair still hung loose, and she carried a glinting curved sword. Thumping drums and clashing tambourines filled every space in the old wooden hall. As she danced, I realized what she really meant by “proud breasts”. Each roll of her hip was wrapped with a confidence that clearly did not rest in the shape of her body or the appeal of her face. She was strong and controlled. With curved sword balanced on her head, she showed me the deeper meaning of her simple instruction. Hold your shoulders back, breasts proud, because your breasts are a symbol of your strength as a woman. Stand proud because you have power beyond your looks and fertility. Walk with dignity because your breasts have nursed children, because they bear the marks of pregnancy. Hold your breasts proud because they are sagging with age, which means you have wisdom and experience. And dance like this woman danced: confident, practiced, admired because of her age and skill. A body well-used, a self well-loved.
I once read someone refer to the stretch marks of pregnancy as battle scars. My pale skin bears the marks of two battles now; purple and silver, they trace down my hips and over the little pouch of loose skin around my stomach. Spider veins, too, burst in blue and purple fireworks over my thighs, ankles, and breasts. Like the wounds of a soldier, they show that I’ve fought for something I care about. And I will not be ashamed.
“The day I realized that the cultural ideal of femininity was, quite literally, unattainable? The day I realized that women are supposed to be sexy and chaste, undemanding and seeking commitment, meek delicate flowers and strong backbones of the family? The day I realized that if you’re tall you’re supposed to look shorter, and if you’re short you’re supposed to look taller, and if you’re fat you’re supposed to look thinner, and if you’re thin you’re supposed to look more voluptuous, and that whatever body type you had you were supposed to make it look different? The day I realized that every woman is insecure about her looks… including the ones we’re supposed to idolize? The day I realized that, no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked, I would always, always, always be a failure as a woman?
That was the day I quit worrying about it.”
–Greta Christina, Alternet 2
1Orenstein, Peggy. Cinderella Ate My Daughter. (p 141)
2 Christina Greta, Alternet, “Wealthy, Handsome, Strong, Packing Endless Hard-Ons: The Impossible Ideals Men Are Expected To Meet.” http://www.alternet.org/reproductivejustice/151344/wealthy_handsome_strong_packing_endless_hardons_the_impossible_ideals_men_are_expected_to_meet?page=entire retrieved on July 16 2011, written on June 20, 2011.)