This is a story about love. And like any story about love, this is a story about self-love, which is to say: this is a story about war. This is a story about war.
I never knew what it felt like to be beautiful. This might sound strange to you, because on the surface I am what some people have called, “pretty.” I never liked the word pretty, because pretty was not my greatest aspiration.
I wanted to be a writer. I grew up the daughter of an academic and a teacher and I loved words, letters, literature. My grandmother bought me a Webster’s Dictionary for Christmas in 1993 when I wasn’t quite old enough to read alone, just yet. “To Grace Lorraine,” she wrote on the dedication page in the upper-left corner in a sweeping cursive. And in my mind this meant that I was destined for greatness.
I imagined who I might become: a serious writer, or at the very least someone to be taken seriously, who was always surrounded by books, substance. At such a young age I recognized in myself a desire to be seen, and not on the surface of things. I wanted to be Seen.
And then life happened. I was rushed along in school, in this club and that. I became a cheerleader, Homecoming Princess, and an academic, but also the Homecoming Princess because this and that and then the gown and whatnot. Which led to other things.
I rather liked being told I was pretty. I rather liked the attention, even though it always felt cheap. Unearned. I had only to stand there, and for people to comment, and take what they would, or would not, and that was that. It never occurred to me that pretty was something to be proud of because pride involved work. And pretty just was.
For my entire life my body was left open for comment, suggestions, or otherwise. And somehow my body, a body that for me was simply an occupier of space, had suddenly become infused with an identity that I could not understand, nor occupy.
But I am also a person inside of here! I wanted to say. And for this reason I felt alone in the world. I was trapped in an exterior to which people not only identified with, but loved. And on the inside, whatever I was feeling was not allowed, no uncertainty, no pain, no suffering. And then I left for college.
In college, bodies were presented as objects of desire. It was the same world I had always been in, but somehow it seemed to matter more this time. Maybe because I was alone, without my family, without my hometown, my friends; or, maybe it was because I was only a shell of a person, a shell that I had been both presented with and denied. Suddenly the only thing that I had was the potential of being pretty in the eyes of someone else.
And then the chickens came home.
I don’t remember the day in particular that I stopped eating. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but a gradual, “I’m not hungry today,” a thought that surprised me. In my mind, I was making a decision about my body that nobody else had made for me and therefore it was mine. This made me feel powerful.
Days turned into weeks turned into months turned into 85 pounds and an in-patient hospital for Anorexia Nervosa and possible death. It never occurred to me that I would become someone with an eating disorder. It never occurred to any of us, really—not my family, not my hometown.
And yet, there I was, near death by starvation in a body that was and wasn’t mine, in a place that I had never been before, but somehow knew quite well. In a strange way, I rather liked not being told I was pretty anymore. It was a, “Fuck off.”
The pretty comments faded and were replaced by whispers, and looks of horror, and mostly just sheer panic. It was curious how much people’s reaction to me had changed and it didn’t make sense to me in a way because to me my body hadn’t changed. It was a different shape, but still the same shell.
For years, even after I had regained the weight I couldn’t identify with my body. I respected it, fed it properly, exercised, but I always felt uncomfortable, or slightly misplaced. I felt like my feet were disproportionately large, or small, and I didn’t understand how to occupy space, much less feel comfortable.
My imagination had always entered the room before me, and somehow my body never quite made up for it. Though, prettiness had returned with my weight and this seemed to excite people. To them, I was beautiful now because I had large breasts and a femininity about me, a softness that suggested I was good in bed. I also had life which brought with it other things.
My imagination had always entered the room before me, and somehow my body never quite made up for it.
I desperately looked for ways to connect with my body, to claim it; I danced, participated in extreme sports, had sex. I explored and searched for a space that I could safely occupy as my own. But still I came away empty, depleted. Uninspired. How could I reclaim a body that was never really mine to begin with?
The day of the shoot I had reservations. Thoughts persisted along the lines of, “What if my parents find out?” or worse. The repercussions seemed endless. There was this and that and this and then that and whatnot and it just never ended.
“Do you want me to stand here?” I asked the photographer.
“No, I’ll let you know when I’m ready.”
“Or, over here?”
“Not ready yet.”
There was a thunderstorm in Los Angeles that day which made the air feel humid and strands of hair stuck to my face, giving the impression that something mischievous was about to happen.
“OK, I’m ready for you.”
I stepped out in front of the camera and turned to the side before I took my underwear off. The fan was on and my hair blew behind my shoulder in an effortless gesture.
“Look over your right shoulder toward me.”
I turned my face to the camera and closed my eyes. In my mind I started walking through a gallery of images. I thought of the little girl in her blue sundress with her hair in a ribbon, who pretended to read with her big sis by holding a book upside down. As I walked through the gallery, each image emerged, one replacing another to recreate me over and over again. There was the white satin gown I wore to the homecoming ceremony and the girl who left for college and the girl who wore a black backless dress and the girl who didn’t wear makeup for a year. As I met them I thought about the comments, the looks that had shaped who I thought of myself as. There was the girl who was too weak to walk and the girl who not only lived, but survived, and there was the girl who was afraid to publish until I finally arrived at the girl who was standing nude and paused. She was so delicate. I was afraid to move quickly. I wanted to bring her in close, hold her in my arms. I could feel her body shake as she refused to cry. I leaned over and kissed her closed eyes. She crumbled. This was not a war with my body. It was deeper than that.
Beneath my anger was fear; and beneath my fear was the infinite tenderness of motherhood that all women carry; beneath which was rage; and beneath my rage was hopelessness; and beneath all of it was terror. The terror of being myself in the world.
When I reached the end of the gallery there was only one picture left hanging on its own. It was a portrait of a woman who I had never seen before. She had eyes that knocked me back a few steps. They were bright and alive and in them I went to a place I had never been. She was peaceful, and vulnerable; happy, and somewhat sad; curious, strong. And in her presence all of my fear, anger, and hopelessness disappeared. She had no persona, or need, or want; no agenda, or desire even. She was beautiful. As I studied the portrait I saw something else too. I saw power. But it wasn’t an overbearing power that rained down. It was subtle, unspoken. It was a power that was known. It was love. As I stood even longer before the portrait, I saw a freckle at the bottom of the woman’s lip, the hint of dimples, a glow on her face radiating from inside, and then I recognized her. It was me.