I have a memory of how it started.
I was visiting my Dad in New York and my big sister had taken me and a friend to the fairground. I was thirteen years old. It was summer. I was dressed in shorts and t-shirt. When our turn came for the Ferris wheel my friend and I went to take our seats. As the fairground worker placed the safety bar across our laps he raised his eyebrows and nodded towards my lower half. ‘Nice legs’ he said, directed not at me but at the man operating the controls. I remember feeling both strangely flattered with the attention (were these nice legs like the ones I had seen in magazines?) and confused (why was a strange man who barely looked me in the eye commenting on my body?) and in that moment I did for the first time what I would learn to do habitually for the next three decades: I looked down at my legs and experienced them not as belonging to me, but as separate entities open to evaluation by others, who seemed to know something about their worth that I didn’t.
That moment has always stuck in my mind. Before then I had never consciously looked at myself through another person’s eyes. But from that moment onwards I became aware of the existence of the critical gaze. Aided by women’s magazines, television ads and the culture’s running commentary on women’s bodies I soon internalised the art of dividing myself up into different bits: ‘problem areas’ that had to be resolved or ‘strong points’ that had to be enhanced and preserved.
Thus began the journey of plucking, waxing, shaving, colouring, curling, dieting, scrubbing, pummelling and polishing. I learned things I had thus far been blissfully unaware of: that the bumpy flesh on my adolescent thighs was called cellulite and something I was morally obliged to abhor (I actually found it interesting!), that I needed a gap between my thighs but never between my teeth, that I should strive for a flat tummy but not a flat chest, that eyebrows had to be shaped and lips had to be plumped. Luckily I was growing up at a time when at least the bits in my underpants were still outside of public scrutiny.
As time went on my education continued. I was taught to worry about ‘bingo wings’, saggy breasts and a flabby tummy – basically to hate the body my own mother was starting to grow into. Through university, relationships, travel, emigration, art college, work choices and childbirth these messages endured, making it hard to remember an occasion when I felt completely and utterly and joyously at home in my body, the way I had as a young child. A lifetime of programming would not allow me to forget that someone somewhere might see me and judge my appearance.
I wonder now: who would I have become had I been allowed to feel myself from the inside? Who would I be now, had I been allowed to know my body the way the oak knows herself by her ability to weather a storm, the depth of her roots, the creatures that inhabit her branches? Or the hawk by the sensation of his wings in flight and the keenness of his sight?
What if, I had learned that the beauty of my legs lay not in their shape but in how they could run and kick and jump and dance? What if my breasts were celebrated for the comfort and nurturance they could provide to my child and nobody cared whether they ‘kept their shape’ after breastfeeding? What if I was taught to love my hands for their ability to play music, make pots, dig the soil, knead bread and countless other things, irrespective of whether I bit my nails?
Perhaps by now I would be less interested in preserving some semblance of a youthful ideal that is not my own and more interested in seeing my body change and mature, recognising my mother’s face in the mirror and looking forward to one day occupying my grandmothers body: honouring the sagging of cheeks and breasts and thighs, and embodying the spirit of the woman whose large wrinkly hands warmed my tiny fingers in winter.
The body felt from inside is not the same as the body viewed from outside. Placing my head on my mother’s lap I am not concerned with its lack of visual symmetry or firm contours. I experience the comforting softness, the familiar smell of her clothes, her fingers brushing through my hair. In that moment I get a bit closer to our shared history, my great-grandmother’s body through my grandmother’s body through my mother’s body. Holding my son in my arms the transmission continues and I feel his beauty and the indescribable ‘everythingness’ that he brings. Stories and histories move through the flesh.
To inhabit life, or to be inhabited flesh, is nothing short of a miracle. What if we could honour that miracle and celebrate the bodies we were given as they grow and change and weather and die, each phase placing us in a continuum of time and space, not only in relation to our ancestors and descendents but in relation to all creatures inhabiting bodies on and within the body of the earth at this very moment. The seal in its dense flesh covered by thick oily skin that slides effortlessly through the water, the small delicate feathered body of a robin taking flight, the hard shell of turtle or the frail armour of dung beetle, the slithering forms of earthworm and viper – each of these bodies experiencing cold, warmth, rain, wind, hunger, thirst on their own unique terms. Each fully taking part in the cycle of birth, growth, decay and death.
Spending time away from mirrors and the frozen images that continue to press on us a disembodied benchmark for beauty I rejoice in being one body amongst many: some human, some not, lying in the grass with my face pressed against the earth, swimming naked with the river flowing across my belly and between my thighs, feeling the rain on my skin.
Watching the trees release their red and yellow leaves in their final farewell, sitting quietly observing squirrels hunker down for winter, breathing in the different scents of moist earth are all ways of putting myself back together again. It’s how I try to capture the fragments and grow back into who I am without the ‘gaze’. It’s about finding my place as a human creature amidst these different bodies of feather, shell, flesh and stone.
It’s my attempt to know myself again, from the inside, undivided.