Here’s one lesson I wish I had learned in childhood – be kinder to your body. I never had much use for mine, below my head that is. Probably because I was always a chunky child, I learned early on to be embarrassed by my body. Also, it didn’t do all the things I wished it would.
When my mother took me on a class trip roller skating, she and I spent the whole time on the floor while the rest of the class and their parents did loops around us. On the playground I was hopeless at Dodge Ball and Duck, Duck, Goose – so frightened of making a fool of myself that I barely participated. I would learn to scratch my knees to draw blood so that I could go to the nurse’s office and not have too participate in the softball games. In fourth grade, I couldn’t master the somersaults and cartwheels in the gymnastics class and instead got to be a clown at a school-wide exhibition – which, I would like to inform the gym teachers now does little for a young girl’s self esteem.
Since my body caused me shame and I couldn’t get rid of it, I learned to ignore it. My brain got all the accolades. I was good at schoolwork. So, although I yo-yoed in weight over the years – at one time, I now realize, I bordered on an eating disorder as I starved myself to be thin – I pretty much didn’t give my body any thought.
As I wrote last week, doing this self-portrait project, I look back on my childhood self and wonder why I wasn’t happier with the body I had. Sure my thighs were chubby and I wasn’t reed thin, but you can see I might have grown out of the baby weight if I hadn’t started to feel so badly about myself that I would eat as consolation. But, I look back and even at its worst, my body was nowhere near as horrible as I imagined. Now like all those who stare age in the face, I really wish I had appreciated it more.
I began, however, to pay attention to my body more, to feel more connected to my skin, a few years ago when I decided to get my first tattoo. I now have four. Unlike some people who find tattoos cheap or gaudy, I love the way they look, and like dyeing my hair, I think they offer me yet another artistic and creative outlet, a way to shape myself. My first tattoo was a “tramp stamp” on the lower back. Although, the term is certainly deragoratory, I found it somewhat liberating, figuring I could let a little tramp come out given my goodie-two-shoes existence. It is of a dog and cat with the Hebrew words “living soul” beneath it, referring to a passage in the book of Genesis. Some Biblical scholars feel that the word “soul” in the first chapter of Genesis – “nephesh” was translated to read “soul” when referring to “man” and “creature” when referring to animals, but that in the original Hebrew it was actually the same word for both. I, who value, the uniqueness of my pets, believe they do have souls and so I chose to tattoo the phrase and the animals on my lower back. I chose a brown henna colored ink, similar to the tattoo on my wrist, which reads “Resisto Ergo Sum” –I resist therefore I am (a paraphrasing of Descartes famous declaration)– it refers to resisting all the bad stuff that life piles on you over time, such as the belief that your body is shameful or embarrassing, for instance.
Something happened as soon as I got that first tattoo, I felt connected to my body in a way I never had before. I felt grounded. My head realized that it was attached to something and I felt proud as if I had reclaimed a lost part of myself. When my first pug, Buffy, died I tattooed her image on my right shoulder with the words “True Love” on a ribbon wound around her. The final tattoo in my quartet is a peace symbol, appropriately received in Woodstock, NY. I got this one done on the fly, a quick whim as I drove out of town. I found it all the more liberating, congratulating myself on my impulsiveness.
People comment all the time asking aren’t I going to regret these tattoos when I get old and I don’t understand the question. "You’ll be all wrinkly," they say. And, I figure I’ll be that way with or without the tattoo. I think they’re underlying meaning is that tattoos belong on the young, but like a medal or badge of courage I will wear mine on my wrinkly hide and know I lived. My body will bear the marks of my hand and I will be proud to claim them and it as my own.
The childhood picture that inspired this post is of my brother and me in our bathroom in Richmond, Vt. I cropped the photo of my brother for privacy reasons. When we were little, like many siblings we would bathe together. Once, when we were nine and seven and had just moved to Bethel, my brother had a friend over to the house and he found a photo of the two of us in the tub. I was so embarrassed by the picture that I tried to take it away and when he would not relinquish it, I wrapped my hands around his throat and began choking him. Of course, my mother intervened and rescued him before any harm was done, but I can still remember my fury at being caught naked in the picture.
The adult shot is of me after a shower today. You can see the tattoo of Buffy on my shoulder. It was important to me when embarking on this project to take at least one photo that showcased my tattoos for the reasons given above. Also visible in this photo is my pink Turbie Twist towel. A couple of years ago, I purchased it as stocking stuffers for my mother. She was nowhere near as enchanted with it as I was and gave it back to me. I couldn’t live without them. They work better than a towel because they stay wrapped on the head with a small piece of elastic to secure them. I guess, I’ll end now while I’m ahead. I may have just given you too much of a glimpse into my life with that endorsement.