Rubenesque Passion–In Which I Reflect on My Reflection

Dear Lily June,

In therapy this week, I focused on all the things I’m afraid you’ll inherit from me–not the least of which is my penchant towards anxiety and an inability to take the moment for what it is, worrying about the uncertain future or remembering a painful past (what my “shrink” calls too much “preliving” and “reliving”). What I didn’t think about very much were the physical traits you’d inherit, although they are definitely already manifesting with your thick, dark hair and your adorably plump thighs.

SONY DSC
Our thighs resemble the drumstick to the bottom left of this picture, which may make people assume we’re distant relatives of Colonel Sanders.

If there’s anything I hope you absolutely don’t get from me, though, it’s my poor self-esteem and harmful body negativity. I wish I could say I didn’t feel at odds with my own skin, accepting what I look like as a key component to my identity. Preferring the visual anonymity of Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum (translated most commonly as “I think, therefore I am”), I rarely take the time to reflect–cognitively and physically–on what I actually look like.

I’d like to say this is motivated entirely by a feminist rejection of our culture’s beauty myths, the way our society overemphasizes the physical to the point of missing the essential in one’s identity. But that would only be partially true. The other side of my vulnerable and human coin is that I’m inclined, first and foremost, to avoid what makes me uncomfortable, and my appearance has never exactly put me at ease.

***

But, if you can watch what’s above, there’s a video right now being shared on the internet as part of #OperationGirl (actor, singer and songwriter John Legend’s project to fundraise for charities devoted to women and girls). As a part of the project, sixty-three women were asked what they see when they look in the mirror. In case by the time you’re reading this, the internet has filled the link above with tumbleweeds, I’ll summarize briefly: The answers ranged from the youngest in the clip saying she likes looking in the mirror because it’s fun to the older women in the film saying that they see nothing but problems to fix, and, because of age or illness, they experience a disconnect between who is reflected now and who they used to be / see.

***

Small-breasted with wide thighs and “birthing hips” (ironically, since you were born via abdominal surgery), I have the shape that’s commonly compared with pears:

Pear
The shapely bottom is what your dad refers to, though, as an “onion booty,” round enough to “make a grown man cry.” He means that as complimentary.

If I want to be more intellectual about the whole thing, I remind myself that this body type was, during the Baroque period, the more common standard of beauty and nobility. It’s from that time in history that we get the term, from painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens, “rubenesque,” referring to his portraits of women whose bodies were curved and fleshy.

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_The_Three_Graces,_1635
These luscious ladies are the pinnacle of a Rubenesque portrait, and not a one of the Three Graces seems overly self-conscious in her “nekkid” body.

Where Rubens saw a passion for living, I’m more inclined to feel guilty about a passion for mastication. I admit it; I love, little Lily, to eat! Thus far, tipping the scales at only the 25th percentile in weight, you do not appear to have inherited this from me, and I watch as your eyes scan a room in tickled curiosity, completely unconsumed as you are with the bottle you should be consuming at the time. You’d rather explore and discover than eat, at least at this point in your life, and as long as you take in your required ounces each day, that’s perfectly fine by me.

But if you are what you eat, I reflect, as a Pepto-Bismol ad once went, that “many hotdogs are within” me. Should I see this as a bad thing? On the one hand, you have nutritionists rightfully pointing their fingers at certain processed foods with the scalding accusation of “unhealthy.” On the other, you have advocates for body positivity claiming health is a larger issue than a portion or figure size, and that the whole human being–with their complex issues of inherited metabolic processes and mental illnesses–should be taken into account. Bigger does not necessarily mean less healthy.

I’m not advocating in any way for unhealthy eating, as I know I often turn to food with more than my mouth. I eat my emotions, Lily, because once upon a time, raised in a home that was oppressive and controlling, what was on my plate was all I had agency over. And yet, “comfort foods” as such do exist, and I don’t want you to feel that you, if you’ve had a hard day, have to rake yourself over the fire for having some S’mores, in moderation of course, as a treat.

***

I digress a bit. The point is, you’re more than the sum of some problems you might think you see. When I was a teenager, all I saw was a collection of craters on my face from acne and hair that would blow up to the width of an umbrella whenever it would rain outside. Discouraged by this reflection, I turned to not eating as a solution. I got thin as a rail and didn’t feel any more beautiful for the damage I was doing to my metabolism or organs. I couldn’t see, at any weight, myself as beautiful.

Largely neglected by our parents caught in their own conflicts with addiction and co-dependency, it was my sister, your Aunt Loren, who put her energies into her body. I buried my nose in a book and would “forget,” sometimes, to eat. But both of us were looking for attention from parents who didn’t know how to love themselves, let alone each other, and at the time, the mirror’s reflection didn’t hold any arms that were reaching out to me.

***

So the therapist asked me, in the midst of my self-loathing rant, to reflect on what I was doing right for you, outside of what I was afraid you’d get from me. And Lily, I don’t leave you to fend for yourself; I change you and bathe you and clothe you. When I hold you up to the mirror, you smile, and that’s a gift that fills my reflected eyes with pride. When I sit and rock you in my chair and sing (moderately off-key), you look up at me with such trust, I see a tiny piece of me in your eyes that is loving and caring and so much more than the pounds on my body.

Even now, when I look in the mirror alone, I can say (and see) I am a mother, a role I spent most of my life too scared to take on, and I do love you immeasurably. And you love me. And I am a wife–the kind who, when your dad got food poisoning last night, stayed awake through my fleeting hours of sleep to care for you both. And like the words of the Irish poet Yates, “one man loved the pilgrim soul in [me] / and loved the sorrows of [my] changing face.” Your dad, at any weight, thinks I am a beautiful person. And I see that I am lucky.

But I have to love myself, too, or my family’s love for me won’t matter. So what do I see when I look in the mirror? I have my Polish grandmother’s, Marie’s, hook nose, and so my reflection holds tradycja, tradition. My hair holds the dark hues of my father’s and the kinky unruliness of my mother’s, and so my reflection holds family. I have a mole on my cheek that supermodel Cindy Crawford’s fans might call a beauty mark, and so I do have beauty. And as I age I will look more and more like the ones who made and raised and, for all their flaws, must have loved me. As you age, you will look more and more like me. I resist the urge, for that, to apologize. You will be, little Lily, your own woman, too. You will, if you look through the mirror in your parents’ eyes, always be lovely.

***

P.S. As a woman, though, don’t fall into the trappings of thinking, either, that you’re only your body. You, my dear, already have a working mind filled with fierce curiosity. Embrace your intelligence alongside your beauty, and you will be a force to be reckoned with!

***

This post was in part a response to the thoughtful reflection of a fellow blogger, Melise. Thank you for the inspiration!

Picture Credits:

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5 thoughts on “Rubenesque Passion–In Which I Reflect on My Reflection

  1. Melise says:

    Aw, you’re welcome. It brings a smile to my heart that I was able to inspire you with my reflections. Little did you know, I was struggling with the thoughts of “did I share too much” “what will others think”, etc. I too can relate to much of what you wrote about. Thank you for sharing. P.S. I think Lily has a wonderful, considerate mother! I’m also still chuckling over your husband’s offhand compliment! That’s a great one! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. originaltitle says:

    Great post! I struggled with body image and eating disorders most of my life. I finally started to heal post grad with the help of the “intuitive eating” philosophy and lots of ups and downs. I really hope I can follow through with my pledge not to disparage myself in front of my daughter and to instill healthy eating habits in her. I get nervous everytime I feed her because I never want her to feel hungry or forced to eat more than she wants to, but with time and as she can learn to feed herself, hopefully it will get easier. Sounds like you’re doing a great job with your daughter already by loving your own body first and encouraging her to love hers.

    Liked by 1 person

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