A Badge of Honour
When I was at university, the first time, I worked in a women’s clothes store along side my studies. We were expected to deliver a certain caliber of personal service in the fitting rooms. I enjoyed my time at this station, chatting to women, getting to know them if only for a short while and helping them feel confident in their appearance was and is right up my street. Generally I’d be left feeling content, worst case scenario I’d be just as bored and tired as I was before. On one occasion, however, I was left drawing the curtain not on a customer but instead to conceal myself as I burst into tears.
The lady I had assisted was looking for a dress to wear to a party. She was trying one on when I offered her my help. Awkwardly and timidly she let me in. This sensibility was not uncommon. I complemented her as the dress fitted her well. She pulled and tugged at the modest but V-neck cut attempting to close the gap of absent fabric across her chest. She protested that the dress wasn’t right and so I asked her what it was that she didn’t like about it so that I could find a suitable alternative for her. The customer let go of the neckline and revealed a scar obviously from a mastectomy. “I can’t have this showing. It’s so ugly and I don’t want everyone to stare.” For a split second I paused to digest the visual but almost immediately I blurted out that she may not be alive if it wasn’t for the surgery that resulted in those scars and that she should view them as a badge of honour for her life, for being alive. Admittedly it may not have been my place to give an opinion on something so personal. Regardless, I stand by my statement. She didn’t agree with me however and left the shop without a dress; the process was overwhelming for her she explained before departing.
I fear that there is a double standard when it comes to how we view scars. On men they are stoic, heroic, the mark of admirable survival. On women they are a defect, a flaw. Mastectomies aren’t the only way to obtain the lumpy tissue; caesarians, appendicitis, netball, cooking, mole removal, self-harming, growing upwards and outwards and gaining stretch marks. They are not rare but they are unique. Should we hide them, disguise them, have them surgically shrunken?
I’ve never seen a scar on another woman and felt distaste for it. On the contrary my own have brought me to tears. I have an amalgamation of marks on both my knees from tarmac and AstroTurf. These don’t faze me at all. However there are five horizontal lines, bulbous, that lay across my left wrist. These have caused me much distress and self-consciousness. I was seventeen when I made the incisions into my own flesh. It only happened the once. I don’t consider self-harm an issue I suffered with rather it was my five year battle with bulimia that was the real struggle. Nevertheless I tried it once out of desperation; making myself sick twenty plus times a day wasn’t giving me relief anymore. I bear the marks of that one evening at home on my body permanently. I used to daydream and toy with the idea of having them removed surgically, I even asked my Dad.
My father isn’t particularly well versed in the realms of mental health, or lack there of. Yet he gave me a surprising answer when I voiced my brainstorm. “No one worth your attention will care about them, or let it affect how they view you, and anyone who does you shouldn’t waste your time on.” Yes, Dad. You are right. It’s almost a decade since I required a bandage on my wrist. I no longer care if anyone catches sight of them. They have acted as a way for people struggling to feel safe being honest with me. They have been conversation starters for serious, deep, beautiful discussions. I really only surround myself with people who maintain enough depth and understanding that they can appreciate that there have been tough times before. Even if I am a vivaciously happy and confident young woman now, it may not have always been that way. And that’s okay for people to know; in fact I’d dare to say it is good for people to know.
The Naked Sisterhood
Being around other women in all their natural glory is good for us. Not hiding parts we don’t like about ourselves has a positive affect on the collective. Casting prudishness aside and being naked amongst others’ bare bodies helps widen your appreciation and acknowledgement of the human form.
I was nineteen when I went on a girl’s holiday to Spain. Four of us stayed in a friend’s parent’s villa in a quiet town. We didn’t have much to do, or indeed much money to do anything, and we rightly or wrongly were more focused on our tan, what music was playing and comparing sex stories than we were interested in the sights. That week the four of us only put clothes on for our evening outing for local cuisine. Our tans were even, our bodies exposed, differing from one another but united in ease. Big boobs, small boobs, uneven boobs, scarred boobs, flat tummies, flat bottoms, sticky out tummies, sticky out bottoms; it was all there. By day five I was so uninhibited I felt a shift in my soul. I purposefully commented on this and thanked the girl who had encouraged me to feel free enough to be naked as I wished. I told her I’d never felt so at home in my skin and it was down to their attitudes to their own bodies that I was able to feel that way too. I explained that I loved them and I could see their unique beauty regardless of their shape, form and dress size and it made me apply the same attitude to my own being. I came to love myself as I loved my friends.
We are bombarded with images constantly. Images with the very same measurments are consumed over and over, so much so that they have burned a rigid template of what is good-looking into our psyche. By being open and honest with one another about what a real woman looks like, not hiding ourselves, we create familiarity and safety in our differences and eliminate the small minded view of beauty.
Gloria Steinem wrote of a similar experience to my Spanish epiphany when she went to a weekend-spa with uninhibited women in her collection of essays “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions”. For me this learning was deepened when my sister carried twins full term. I remember consciously looking at her body, at just 5’3 she was a vision of the magnificence of nature, of the female body’s capability. Through the arrival of my niece and nephews (all four of them), I praised my sister’s body for nurturing and delivering the most precious things in my life. I adore her stretch marks where those unique little balls of energy were formed. They are triumphant marks of a successful pregnancy, an honour. Steinem also poses that scars and marks from birth show courage without violence. In contrast the seemingly more honourable scars from accidents at war, glorify violence. That double standard serves us no favour.
I continue to expand my understanding of love for the female form, including my own, as I take in those around me. My friend’s are different heights to me, they carry weight in different areas to me, and we don’t compare ourselves. We laugh that a T-shirt on me is a dress on her but that’s about it. Otherwise we complement her fleshy butt, her jiggly breasts or her muscular arms. I have never been so in love with my physicality. Earlier this year I fell so ill I was unable to walk, I progressed to a cane and now I can even run again. Since the ordeal I regularly give my legs a loving (albeit mental not literal) high-five for striding me to and from the art supply shop. I love my tattoos dearly and contrary to my mate’s mum’s belief, I do not fear what they will look like when I’m older. It is a privilege to age because the alternative is eternal youth and that just means you died young. When my tattoos are old, I’ll be old too. I even love my scars. They remind me of what I’ve accomplished in the last decade and that hard work does pay off, whether that’s professionally or personally.
Our natural form, our scars, our marks, even our tattoos are visual representations of the path we’ve trodden, the obstacles we’ve overcome and our triumphs that proceeded this very moment. Just as our experiences have contributed to who we are today, so has the map of marks, wrinkles and sun freckles that adorn our physical being. A person who loves you may love that crease beneath your right eye when you laugh really hard. A person who admires you may well admire the signage that you too have overcome mental health challenges. A person who endeavours to be your equal may find familiarity as they recognise the shape of themselves within your figure but not in the pages of magazines.
By loving ourselves it helps teach our sisters that difference exists. I don’t hide my body I embrace it. Most importantly of all, though, I don’t think too much about what it looks like. I’ve got bigger fish to fry than to worry about whether my thighs touch or not. I’ve got a degree to achieve, a website to run, books to read, equal rights movements to march for, health to pursue, fun to be had and wrinkles from laughing to earn. What I do think about is that my arms and hands hold the paintbrush that I feel so connected to. My heart fuels each article I write and the vision I have for the website. My eyes wrap around each word of the mind-expanding books I consume. My legs, having been so uncertain earlier this year, held my protest-sign and me proudly upright at Town Hall as I stood in support of the marriage equality YES campaign. My digestive system gobbles the 20+ supplements I take on a daily basis and give me the energy I require to function. The words that fall out of my mouth constantly give me reason to laugh, sometimes in dismay, and my eyes, my cheeks and my tummy get taken over.
This body of mine moved continents with me. This body of mine holds a broken-hearted friend or high-fives a kid for an awesome handstand. This body of mine enables me to do all the wonderful things that I want to do. This body of mine is the only one I will ever have. This body of mine, is mine, all mine. Thanks bod.