The Body In Trouble

By Nancy Mairs

Here is my troubled body, dreaming myself into life: a guttering candle in a mound of melted wax, or a bruised pear, ripe beyond palatability, ready for the compost heap. The images, though they vary, always bear the whiff of spoliation. If there ever was a time of unalloyed love, I have long forgotten it, though I had hopes in early adolescence: that my breasts would grow magically larger and my mouth magically smaller; that I would become a strong swimmer and sailor and cyclist; that men, irresistibly drawn, would touch me and I’d burst into flame. Mostly I was, as I was trained to be, disappointed in myself. Even in the ’50s, before the dazzle of shopping malls and the soft pornography of advertising for every product from fragrance to bed linen, a girl learned to compare herself unfavorably to an ideal flashed at her on glossy magazine covers and cinema screens, and then to take measures to rectify her all-too-glaring deficiencies. I started painting my lips with Tangee when I was 11, polishing my fingernails as soon as I stopped biting them, and, for my first great love at 13, plucking my eyebrows. At 16, it was green eyeshadow. I strapped on padded bras and squeezed into panty-girdles to ac-centuate the positive and e-liminate the negative. I could not imagine a body that didn’t require at least minor structural modification.

I still can’t, and neither can any other woman I know. Not long ago, my mother and I shared a mirror as we put on faces for a festive evening. “I hate these,” she said, drawing her fingers down the lines from the corners of her mouth, “and this,” patting the soft sag of flesh under her chin. I didn’t try to protest, though she is a pretty woman, because I hate the same features now developing in my own face. One sister’s breasts hang down, she laments, and the other’s hips are too broad; my mother-in-law’s bosom is too ample; even my daughter, possessed of a body too shapely for complaint, rues her small round nose. All these women, ranging in age from 30 to 84, are active and fit, and fortunately they are too absorbed by their demanding lives to dwell upon whatever defects they perceive themselves to display. None could be considered vain. Not one has mutilated herself with rhinoplasty or liposuction or any of the other measures cosmetic surgeons have developed for emptying women’s pockets into their own. Their dissatisfaction with their bodies seems as natural to them as their menses or hot flashes, simply an element of womanly existence.

Even if I hadn’t developed MS, then, I’d probably view myself with some distaste. But by the time I was 30, I walked with a limp and used a cane. By 40, I wore a brace on my left leg and used a motorized scooter to cover all but short distances. Now, in my 50s, I divide my time between wheelchair and bed, my belly and feet are swollen from forced inactivity, my shoulders slump, and one of my arms is falling out of its socket.

The other day, when my husband, George, opened a closet door, I glimpsed myself in the mirror recently installed there. “Eek,”I squealed, “a cripple!” I was laughing, but as is usually the case, my humor betrayed a deeper, darker reaction. We have almost as many mirrors as a fun house, to give our small quarters an illusion of space, but I avoid looking into them straight on, and I dislike the objective evidence of photos as well. (“If I don’t see you,” my sister used to tease, her hands over her eyes, “you can’t be you!”)

I love my wheelchair, a compact electric model called a Quickie P100, and I’ve spent so much time in it, and become so adept at maneuvering it, that I’ve literally incorporated it–made it part of my body–and its least ailment sends me into a greater tizzy than my own headaches. But the wheelchair I experience is not “out there” for me to observe, any more than the rest of my body is, and I’m invariably shocked at the sight of myself hunched in its black framework of aluminum and plastic.

Although–or perhaps because–I am appalled by my own appearance, I devote an absurd amount of time and expense to its decoration. “Not for Mom peignoirs and pillows as she takes to her bed,” my daughter points out. “No, she still likes to get out and find just the right color turtleneck or the perfect pair of black leggings.” The green eyeshadow of youth has proliferated into every color of the rainbow, as well as a number that don’t appear there, and been joined by foundation, mascara, blusher and lipstick, not to mention the creams and lotions used to prepare the relentlessly wrinkling surface for this palette. I dread the day when my fingers become so weak that I have to go into the world with my bare face hanging out.

Already I can no longer dress myself, and I quip about moving to a climate so temperate that I wouldn’t need any clothing at all; but in truth, of course, I could bear to hang out my bare body even less than my bare face. I buy garment after garment in the hope of finding one to fit well enough to clothe me in some tatter of grace. Designers conceive tall bony pubescent bodies swinging down runways to some hectic beat on skinny but serviceable legs, and even the apparel that makes it to the outlet stores where I shop is cut for a lithe erect form in motion. This is who I want to be, of course, and so I cruise the aisles searching for a magic cloak that will transform me into her.

The “her” I never was and am not now and never will become. In order to function as the body I am, I must forswear her, seductive though she may be, or make myself mad with self-loathing. In this project, I get virtually no cultural encouragement. Illness and deformity, instead of being thought of as human variants, the consequence of cosmic bad luck, have invariably been portrayed as deviations from the fully human condition, brought on by personal failing or by divine judgment. The afflicted body is never simply that–a creature that suffers, as all creatures suffer from time to time. Rather, it is thought to be “broken,” and thus to have lost its original usefulness; or “embattled,” and thus in need of militaristic response, its own or someone else’s, to whip it back into shape; or “spoiled,” and thus a potential menace to the bodies around it. In any case, it is not the sort of thing your average citizen would like to wake up next to tomorrow morning.

To embrace such a self requires a sense of permission some people achieve more readily than others. George’s body, like mine, has been battered by aging and illness. Liver spots have appeared on the backs of his hands and crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes and white hairs in his beard. He bears a puckered scar on his right upper arm. A second scar, in his right armpit, is invisible, but his right breast sags where the muscles were severed. A third runs the length of his abdomen; the surgeon boasted of his handiwork, but frankly George’s reconstructed navel looks a little improvised. For several years now he has been impotent, and although I miss his erections sadly, he does not. “I’m at peace with my body,” he says. I am at a loss to explain his complacency except as the habit of a lifetime of believing that whatever way he is, is as he ought to be, a confidence that seems to arise in part from the possession of a penis, whether that organ itself still rises or does not. He senses himself to be “all right,” revising his self-image as necessary to maintain this equilibrium, just as reflexively as I feel myself to be “all wrong.”

In fact, he is also at peace with my body in a way that I am not. He always has been, and now that I can do little for myself, he rubs in lotion and sprays on scent, clips nails and stray hairs, wrestles stockings onto my rubbery legs, lifts me off toilets in women’s rooms from Los Angeles to London. His ministrations, combining skill with sensuality, reassure me that this is the body he has loved since he first set eyes (or, if recent research is correct, nose) on it 35 years ago. Not long ago, a young clerk in a Victoria’s Secret shop, joining in our deliberations over assorted styles and colors of underpants, was clearly startled by George’s experienced and critical eye. Settling on a couple of briefs, in a sensible cut but a sexy fabric, he explained that he was the one who had to get me into them, but she still seemed to find his expertise–so patently nonprurient, rather like my grandmother’s–a little kinky. Which was, he’d doubtless point out, her problem, not his. The peace he feels with his body has rendered him secure enough in his sexual identity that he enters and exits feminine space with aplomb. George’s attentive and affectionate presence provides proof against the revulsion with which I am all too apt to greet myself; and even his easier peace depends in part, I’m sure, on the fact that my body has remained crazy about his body throughout its vicissitudes.

I doubt that any body, whether in trouble or out, can fully conceive a self without an other to stroke it–with fingertips and lips, with words and laughter–into being and well-being. Research has demonstrated that infants deprived of touch fail to thrive, and that blood pressure is lowered and spirits are raised in elderly people given pets to caress.

If physical stimulation is wholesome–even lifesaving–at the extremes of life, why should we suppose the middle to be any different? Our bodies conceptualize not only themselves but also each other, murmuring: Yes, you are there, Yes, you are you, Yes, you can love and be loved.

Reprinted from Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled by Nancy Mairs. Copyright 1996 by Nancy Mairs. By permission of Beacon

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