Featured Artwork: “Daydream” by Anita Driessen
I am 48, sitting in session with a young woman 20 years younger than I. She is objectively beautiful, brilliant, and athletic.
“Hi Simone, how are you?
“I’m having a hard time, actually.” She says.
“What’s going on?” I try to convey my kindness with my eyes.
“I’ve never told you this before, but I don’t particularly like my body, and I hate my belly.” I look at her belly, there is no belly to discern. I look down at my belly, lots of belly there. In the moment, it feels like a Buddha belly, one full of generosity and wisdom. I ask something like:
“Do you know you’re beautiful?” I try to say this gently.
She says, “That’s what my friends tell me.” She then snorts and rolls her eyes, making it clear no compliment will shift her internal battle just yet.
I pay attention to her and we keep talking, but a tiny part of my brain looks inward. I have a belly, yes, but in that moment my main experience is one of profound comfort. Sitting, feeling relaxed, underneath my comfort I notice joy. Surprising to note the years of battles are behind me, replaced by love.
My 48-year-old body is lumpy in places, full of curves. Some curves society celebrates, some society shames. My love is sometimes conditional, of course. My body is easiest to love when I am alone. We all know the sanctioned body standards. The camera’s gaze is cold, and so is society’s. The beauty of fat people is rarely captured (though there is a proud movement on a few Instagram accounts.)
Picture me out with my friends, an early July evening walk on the beach. My friend asks a bystander, “Excuse me, would you mind taking our picture?” We line up, I put my hand around my friend’s waist and she’s so slight, like a trembling colt. The light is gorgeous, all ballerina peaches and pinks, and we’re smiling easily, glad to be with each other. The breeze flutters our hair, “And now, smile!”
We scroll through the shots. I see a fat woman standing with a lot of thin women. Questions come up, unbidden: Do I have permission to be this happy even though I’m fat and unphotogenic? Wait, who would I be asking for permission? I give myself permission. I know there is beauty in fat people, beauty in me, they just don’t know how to see it. My friend sends me the worst pictures of me. I’m a woman, in training for these emotional paper cuts all my life.
But when I am alone, walking down the street looking out instead of being looked at, I am broad, tall, confident, and powerful. Not likely to be mugged. I’m fascinated by all the faces and bodies and look at them with curiosity and warmth. I am in love with myself and in love with life, and I can reach those feelings so easily, they nestle in my hands. On I walk with the sun on my sweaty face, breeze through my unruly hair.
Within, I enjoy my thoughts, my amusements, my little realizations and prayers, my smiles and breaths. Hanging in the balcony hammock, I notice that a robin has rebuilt the nest used earlier this season for two broods. Once again the nest has crisply appointed grasses and clean edges. Like birds, I belong everywhere. I can comfortably lay on the ground, or the bench or the chair; on waxed airport floors, or on the sandy shore. My lone enemy is a narrow chair with fixed arms.
My body has many gifts. My sensitive skin sighs in gratitude under soft fabrics. Three years ago I learned about the “Highly Sensitive Person.” That’s me! This means both my senses and my emotional world are more responsive. I remember reading the Princess and the Pea when I was a child, and recognizing I was that princess. Someone knew about me. There might be others.
I often play pop music to chores, swaying my hips while I fold clothes, or put dishes away.
When I am alone, and sometimes when I am not, I can pleasure myself to feel the vital delight that gathers throughout my body. I can feel the sheet, the pressure, and my mood, how they all fold into each other, layer upon layer, and I can dig into my awareness of my desire, reaching for the starry burst of completion. Sometimes I choose the gift of awareness, passively noticing limbs, sensory spaces, and erogenous zones. These wonderful parts of myself offer up their generous beats of ecstasy: The juiciness of my joy in my pleasure.
Floating in a calm body of water is my most spiritual pleasure. I love looking up at the sky while I float and my skin spreads out covering the surface of the water and there is no border and I am the lake or the pool or the sea. The ocean holds me and I encompass it too. I am ancient and have been floating for millennia with the ethereal clouds. In this sense of primordial peace, my soul and my body remember the eternal presence of water, the beginning of things, the end of things too. Then I return to shady moss or hot sand, and my body is heavy again, but so delectably relaxed and free from question.
My most frequent sharp pleasure is the pleasure of food. My mouth is extraordinarily alive, it discerns layers of flavor. I remember eating tangerines as an eight-year-old. Peeling the orange skin careful with my little fingers, the noiseless burst of the juice vesicles in my mouth. The wash of pure tangerine essence—how bright the flavor, how inebriating the moment. Learning that life contained these unbelievably full moments of discovery. I ate another tangerine, then another, the pleasure refusing to fade even at the fifth tangerine.
My sweetie worries I will die when the world goes to shit and we only eat protein packs. He has it backwards. Why start now? As a sophisticated adult, the world is my pantry—and I delight in coevolution—for growing up under the shade of trees, in the garden of delightful berries, and rich meats, and sauces, and the cuisines of all the rivers and plains. Grateful to the countless humans that understood deliciousness and expanded our vocabulary, revealing the possibilities in juxtaposing flavors, when my mouth is suddenly a new mouth.
I enjoy trips to the day spa with my friends and we sit nude in pools of water with all our idiosyncrasies hanging out, enjoying each other’s company, free from judgment, noticing the differences between bodies with Zen-like detachment. Oh, this is that way, and this another way. Each person is unique, has their own language of skin, fat, muscle, and bone—a perfect architecture. All bodies are lovable. All bodies should be held, reveal their nooks and secrets.
Everyone appreciates my embrace, when I’m hugging friends, and when I’m spooning lovers. When they feel me, my lovers love my body. When they look at me, some look away. For others, I wear tight corsets. I like corsets. I listen to my inner voice’s clarity, remain affixed to my body’s joy, and let questioning lovers hold their own doubts.
Like all bodies, the journey of my body’s joy has had its share of tears. When I was a teenager, my brothers were relentless in calling me “Mammouth” (sounds like “Mah-Moot”) which means mammoth in French. When I was 14, my mother held bowls to her flat chest and danced around at the dinner table, singsonging “Guess who I am? I’m Sylvie.” My family frequently told me that I was too much, too fat, too unwieldy. Of course, looking at pictures from my high school years, all I see is beauty. My expressive body so lanky, curvy, expansive, and made for sweetness. But I did not understand that fully yet.
What I did understand was that the world had a bottomless ability to critique bodies, but especially female-identified bodies. I traveled between France and the United States every summer, and in France I was beautiful, and in America I was ugly and people told me so. Beauty as a cultural construct was cold comfort to me. Leaving my uncle Nicholas to start my trip back to the States, my uncle said, “I have a gift for you.” He took my hand and pressed a key ring onto my ring finger and said, “Just make sure this never fits. You’re getting fat.”
I learned eventually that some people would love my body and my spirit, and others would not. I sided with those that see me, and my beauty. My body always had so many ways of sharing its joy, but I did not know how to start thanking it until my 30s, after minor chronic illnesses budded within my body. The moments of pain highlighted the moments of pleasure, which were more abundant.
My 30s were the moment when my body moved into its full breadth, and I moved with it, into full appreciation. I would love my body, not just out of feminist obligation, but out of stubborn desire to embrace my chosen life, with my personal unique body. My body is honest, it tells the truth. I love pleasure over pain. I love comfort over striving. I love a book, and a snack, a nap, and a hug, over a run. Should I apologize for these loves? My only requirement of myself isn’t punitive, it is based on joy. I want to be able to do the things I want to do: to make love, to go for a modest hike, to walk the sidewalks of Philadelphia with friends for a couple of hours. To climb the stairs of my house, comfortably.
Before my 30s, I took for granted naps in the sun. I took for granted the flowers in my hands. I took for granted the beauty of the rich smell of loam, the green of ferns, and the hot end-of-day raspberry off the bush at the beach. I greedily snatched kisses from other people’s mouths, unthinkingly. So many joys in this world, so casually given, so easily taken. Can you treasure what you do not fear to lose? I see my 100-year-old grandfather and I measure his joys against mine. His world is smaller and echoes mine to some degree. Lots of naps. Chocolate, television, and books. Narratives and a nice meal. He watches over the orchids in his living room. I watch over the plants in my office. Their growth makes my spirit bright and helps combat the darkness of the pandemic and the weight of our societal and personal anxieties.
Simone engages bravely with therapy even through the pandemic. She likes having her relationship with her mind and heart challenged. She finds intellectual work easiest, much as I do. But I am slowly, discreetly, planting the seeds of self-love, hoping they will grow. The seeds are very small; they look like a few shared breaths together, in slowness and deliberation. Some seeds I hide under the rubric of joy—I tell her to do pleasurable things before and after moments of pain. Less anxiety, more joy, more truth and sharing of the self, more companionship in pleasure, as possible. These are some of the themes of our work. Therapists often plant seeds they will never see bud, and that does not trouble me.
I have to trust that my life’s journey is a path that others can walk. That anyone embattled with their body can find grace over time, just by noticing the small moments. I hold my cup of coffee in my bright blue ceramic mug, the one I bought the day we got engaged, and I sip the fresh ground coffee. I taste caramel, and nuts, and fire, and fields. The beans are proof of beauty and complexity, and human culture contributing to ten beautiful minutes of pleasure daily. My pleasure is in my hands, holding the warm mug. In my mouth, savoring the flavor. In my stomach, feeling a smidge fuller in a pleasant way. I feel joyful and I smile my private smile of gratitude and joy for my life, for humanity. The size of my belly is irrelevant. The size of Simone’s belly is irrelevant. I hope Simone finds her way here too.
*This essay is Simone approved and her name has been changed to protect her privacy.