I am fat, with massive breasts that swing when untended and get raw where the bra meets the skin. Bad hearing in my right ear, horrifically nearsighted. Bone spurs in my ankles and the beginnings of bunions, rough and cracked heels. I get deep, painful zits under my arms and anywhere else my body touches my body. Stretch marks, birthmarks, moles, cellulite. Anemia. Keratosis pilaris on my upper arms, a perpetually itchy back. Hair that is half-fine, half-curly, gives up its curl easily except when it’s humid; beneath all of it, psoriasis on my scalp. Perpetually bad hangnails, nails I still chew on occasion, sandpaper elbow. A startlingly rare Simian crease on not one but both my palms. Dark, coarse hair beneath my chin. It doesn’t get any better when you go inside: My uterus is a mess—endometriosis, scar tissue, periods like crime scenes, cramps so bad I fold in half. A joint disorder that makes my cartilage bend like Gumby. My jaw clicks when I stretch it too wide. My body failed to make multiple permanent teeth; I still retain a single baby tooth at the top and have an implant at the bottom where the baby tooth fell out and nothing took its place. I have large, glossy mandibular tori below my tongue that get in the way of dental X-ray braces and have been cut on tortilla chips, more than once. I still have an overbite despite years of expensive dental procedures. Back pain and neck pain and foot pain. Bad posture. Clinical, powerful anxiety, for which I take medication that makes my entire digestive system — stomach, bowels, and all — go haywire without the judicious application of supplementary medications. A mix of genetic landmines, nature, self-imposed problems, plain old bad luck. As a result, I think of my body as an animal, one that perpetually needs more than I can give her.
Even as a teen, I didn’t fit into the Macy’s prom dresses; my mom had to take me to a specialty shop that sold formal dresses for “mature” women. I once hiked to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s grave, deep in the woods near the border of Massachusetts and New York, and while solemnly contemplating the vagaries and tragedies of her life, accidentally shit my pants. I’ve had my period on nearly every surface imaginable — love seats and hotel sheets and office chairs and, once, a blooming rose on a friend’s hardwood floor — and have keeled over in public places from the pain. (Once, at a job in college, I fainted and woke up to concerned co-workers calling an ambulance and pressing ice to the bottom of my feet.) I am utterly helpless without my glasses and struggle to hear people at parties or other crowded locations. If I wear flats, one part of my foot hurts; heels, a different part. My fatness does not embarrass me, but my chin hair does, and the hideousness of my feet. My anxiety convinces me I have cancer or rare genetic disorders; the meds that control my anxiety give me such bad heartburn — like, hot-poker-down-my-esophagus bad — it makes me vomit. Every podiatrist I’ve seen, and every manicurist, has clucked in sympathy when handling my hands and feet. My jaw hurts so hard it gives me headaches; the pain crawls down my neck and into my back. My hair tangles where it shouldn’t and refuses to hold curl where it should. I once threw my back out leaning over my bike to lock it. I indulge my pica; chew on ice constantly. Once, a masseuse in an airport touched the throwing-stone muscles in my shoulders and gasped, involuntarily, “Oh, bless your heart.”
and not amenable to discipline
Here’s the first time I tried to control my body: midnight hair-removal in the upstairs bathroom so my parents couldn’t hear me. First razors: simple, accessible, but very temporary. Then Nair: chemical, smelling foul and searing like a sunburn. Melts the hair like a lollipop on a summer sidewalk; leaves a patchy rash that looks like hives. Then Nads, an Australian self-melting waxlike product from an infomercial. Edible, according to the packaging. But I didn’t pull my skin taut like I was supposed to and ended up with a black bruise along my bikini line, red dots of blood welling up through the brutalized hair follicles. I had to stop wearing underwear for a while to let the skin heal. The hair kept coming, on its own timeline, some ancient genetic force I was utterly powerless against.
I gave up on that fight, but I do what I can. I roll around on lacrosse balls to release my wretched back muscles, beg my wife to dig her elbow into my shoulder, pay to have chiropractors and other bodywork specialists beat me within an inch of my life. I wear a night retainer, rub creams into my skin, pick at my scalp. Rub cuticle oil on my fingers every night and carry Band-Aids in my purse for the inevitable hangnails. Superglue the deep fissures in my heels together. Stretch my Achilles tendon over the spurs so the pain lessens. Bought bordello-style red sheets that hide all blood, menstrual or otherwise. I take pills: painkillers and Zoloft and proton-pump inhibitors and probiotics and nose sprays and fish oil. I pop the zits, though I probably shouldn’t. Have developed a plop/turban system for my hair to help retain its curl. Doing what I obliquely refer to as “my stretches,” which I do while watching “my programs.” Drink lots of water. Go to therapy. Try, and fail, to meditate. Crack my joints and twist my hips and do front folds to get my back realigned. Learn to love leggings. Run, though never fast and never far. Tilt my chin up at the mirror, running a finger along the bristle and the velvet, and pluck the teased hairs out by the root, holding the tweezers in front of me to examine the skin that wreathes the bulb at the base.
Once, many years ago, I got out of bed to watch the ferocious glory of a late-night Iowa thunderstorm. I groped around for my glasses, but they were not there, and so I ventured into the darkness without them. As I walked toward the living room, I slammed my toe into the leg of a table and limped the rest of the way. I stood in the open door and watched the lightning rip open the sky, so bright the streetlamps turned off. The rain came down in torrents; the thunder made the old windows rattle in their panes and my rib cage in my chest. Even without my glasses and with my throbbing foot, my body was there, experiencing the storm and experiencing the night, and we both felt satisfied.
When I returned to my room, my pajamas smelling like ozone and petrichor and my face damp from the mist of the rain, I found my glasses on the floor next to my bed and slipped them on. It was only then that I noticed something like oil pooling around my aching foot. I flipped on the lights and realized that my foot injury had removed half the skin of my baby toe and I was bleeding like a shot deer. I wrapped the injury in a tissue, bound it with Scotch tape, and ventured back into the rest of the house to survey the mess.
With each instance of lightning, I realized with horror that I’d left a massive trail of blood along the hardwood, like a dying murder victim trying to crawl to safety. I could not comprehend the nature of the disaster, the sheer amount of chaos such a tiny piece of my body could create in such a short amount of time. I was amazed and angry in turn and would spend the next hour cleaning so my roommates wouldn’t wake up to their cat’s paw prints through the blood. The toe healed but has never looked quite the same. Sort of flat on the side. Just one more thing to add to the list.
I do not hate my body, because such a thing would be pointless, shortsighted. You cannot hate an animal for what she is, especially one who bears your ungrateful mind through this terrible world. And anyway, how do you hate something who marks her territory so dramatically, with such violence and panache? Who reminds you, with each step, I am here, I am here, I am here?