A Meditation on Bodies, Food, and the Pursuit of Beauty
When I was eleven, my family and I went to dinner with the Sundells every Wednesday. Karen and Bob sat at one table with my parents; Anne and I sat at another. We brought Barbies, plunking them into the empty breadbasket and calling it a yacht. We made them dresses with coral napkins and staged impromptu fashion shows on our placemats. After the salad, and extensive discussions on which Barbie was prettiest, we put the dolls aside and turned our attention to the waitresses.
Conversations usually began with something like “Look how pretty she is,” and then moved to assessments of footwear and eyeliner. For instance, Bridgette, our usual server, was tall and striking and always wore pendulous earrings. “I bet her husband buys her all that jewelry,” I remember Anne saying. We were just a decade into our lives, and already we were well-versed in conventional standards for beauty. We even knew the narratives that went along with them. And we knew Bridgette had it––that nebulous appeal rooted somewhere in her genes or her workout regimen or her facial cream. And so did Barbie. It was still uncertain how we’d go about achieving it, but sometimes we practiced with lipstick filched from our mothers’ handbags.
That night at home I stood in front of the mirror next to my naked mother while she appraised herself. She turned one way, then the other. I turned one way, then the other. She pushed her fingertips into the almost unnoticeable tissue on her hips, measured the jut of her ribs and collarbones with her hands. I ran my hands over my round eleven-year-old cheeks and the bulge of my abdomen, still at full capacity with birthday cake. I left the room without warning. She found me minutes later, squeezed into the gap between the wall and my bed, face wet. “What’s wrong, honey?” she asked. I said simply, “I don’t look like you.”
My father was there before she could answer. “Jeri,” he said, an unusual edge in his voice. They stepped into the hall and spoke in voices low but animated, and I heard him tell her not to scrutinize herself in my presence. “She’s eleven,” he said. “It’s too young. She can eat a whole cake if she wants to.” Somehow those words, true as they were, failed to stick.
• • •
Once, for Christmas, Karen bought my mother a book called Wabi-sabi. Its subject was a Japanese worldview, an aesthetic centered on the acceptance of imperfection. That same year, my mother gave Karen a new pair of tennis shoes and a card that read, “Know your limitations, then defy them.” My mother read aloud from the book on the drive home from dinner: “In all things there are deficiencies which are signs of beauty. All things are more beloved for their imperfections.” After a block, she gave up and closed the book.
When her gaze is turned away from the mirror, my mother recognizes beauty everywhere. One afternoon out walking in Scotland, I turned to point out the skeleton of an abbey in the trees and saw that she had tears in her eyes. “Look at the path!” she trilled. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” I laughed. Of all the things she could have remarked on—the sweeping countryside, the looming crags, the fingernail of coastline between city and sea—she’d chosen the trail beneath our feet. I was struck then, as I often am, by her boundless appreciation and her near-limitless conception of loveliness. For her, it is everywhere: in the whir of a springtime lawn mower, in an empty locust’s shell. And yet, when she looks at herself, it shrinks to scarcity or is absent altogether.
I’ve often tried to trace my mother’s obsession backwards, to work out its origins. Her appearance is a source of self-worth, to be sure, and one that she shares with each of her four sisters, but why is it the most important one? I imagine sometimes that it’s because she married so young, packing boxes into my dad’s mustard-yellow jalopy and driving off to elope at 18. If that’s the case, perhaps her prominent collarbones and flat stomach stand in for the profession she never had, though she’s been dancer, teacher, bookkeeper, model. And mother, of course, which, in the end, made all the others impossible.
She feels this choice still, feels still that she somehow fell short. It bothers her most when my father tells stories about his patients or when she is asked where she went to college, and in these moments she is quiet. Later, as we sip chamomile tea in my bedroom, she says, “Maybe it’s not too late for culinary school” or “I’m going to start dancing again.” The next day she laces up running shoes, or goes on a juice fast, or bends into a hundred flawless downward-facing dogs. She does these things fanatically. And all talk of dancing and culinary school is suspended, at least until the next stranger asks, “What did you major in?”