Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 2: Body of Work
In my nuclear family, the body was not something to be celebrated. It was not a marvel or a wonder. It was not a beloved house or a blessed one. I learned that bodies were to be hidden. Or punished—by you or yourself or by others. Bodies were always in want of improvement and chastisement. They were rarely enough as they were. And they were not just an aspect of who you were, they were everything about you. They told the story of your laziness, your unintelligence. They whispered the secret that you were the kind of girl to let a boy get you into trouble. They were too loud, too big, too much.
Bodies were the landscape on which you endured your punishment: a slap in the face for forgetting to come home from a sleepover in time for your piano lessons. Welts left by a belt across your behind for some infraction it turned out later that you hadn’t committed at all. My body was at times marked by the tines of a swizzle stick, the curved bowl of a pot spoon. My sister and I would spend long minutes pre-punishment, hidden in our shared closet, hitting each other to test out which belt hurt the least. (I didn’t understand geometry then; that it was better to be hit by a broad belt than a thin one.)
Later, when I’d grown too old for spankings, my body became merely a disappointment. My father, I think, wanted most of all a pretty daughter. No one with an outcropping of an ass like mine, whose genetics gave me thickened ankles and fat thighs as pre-existing conditions could, of course, be seen as anything as fat, despite my narrow waist, my small breasts, my small, sloping shoulders.
My mother wanted a daughter who didn’t remind her of sex. She made me drape my body in long skirts—at church, during high school—shaming me into sobs when I came home from college one summer audaciously wearing shorts that showed my curves. They didn’t cling; they skimmed, but still my body was a sin I didn’t know I was committing.
I was very smart. I had a beautiful singing voice and was becoming a talented writer. But I was short. But I was fat.
A friend told me once, years later, after I’d gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted and gained weight and dieted, and gained weight again, that I moved gracefully. We were at a writing retreat, and were doing some sort of movement exercise that would, the theory went, eventually yield poems. I had never thought of myself as graceful, not someone as big as I was, who stayed “big as I was” even when I wasn’t. In grade school, a classmate had told me I walked like a duck, and that’s who I was, the girl with the awkward body, what Trinidadians call obzuky—out of place, awkwardly wrong. How could there be grace in this body with its legs once likened to tree trunks by a boy who presumably liked me? I mean, can there be grace in a body like mine no understanding of how to be—or to stay—just enough?
A Latina physical therapist told me once, as we were working on fixing the knees I had somehow mysteriously wrecked, that she liked my culo and wished she had one like mine. Mine? My very fat ass?!? I walked out of therapy that afternoon knowing something of what it must be like to feel beautiful. Not because of an outfit or a hairstyle or even a sparkling personality, but that kind of beautiful that comes from sitting squarely in your body, inhabiting every square inch of it, joyfully, unabashedly, unashamed.
I don’t remember what that feels like now. Though that’s the story I’d rather tell, how that one conversation changed me forever. I want to write my body a happy ending, and I want to stop writing about my body. I want my body to become a neutral space.
I threw my scale down the trash chute last fall and vowed not to do Weight Watchers ever again! I felt so bold. So empowered! So free!
Now, I feel disappointed. I feel shame when I look in the mirror sometimes that here we are again, and I’m confused that that shame is no longer enough to get me to diet again. I question whether I obsess about my fatness because it’s comfortable to do so, and it’s what I’m used to. Is “why can’t you lose weight?” what hangs in the closet where we used to keep the belts?
I can make peace with my body for hours at a time, like yesterday when I was wearing leggings so soft and so pretty that I didn’t really care that you could see my multiple levels of tummy. And, to tell the truth, when I’m naked, peering at myself in the mirror like a voyeur, my body doesn’t read like an unsexy blob, but rather like a beautiful and mysterious landscape, maybe somewhere in the British Isles, where there are rolling hills and verdant valleys, and people purposefully set out to go striding through those undulations because who knows what joy will be found there?