The Body in Trouble

By | 2017-01-13T20:42:29+00:00 June 1st, 2014|
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Originally published October 1997
By Nancy Mairs

nancy-2Here 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 eye shadow. 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 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. 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 a 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.

Reprinted from Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled, 1996. By permission of Beacon Press.


Since 2000, Nancy Mairs has published two more books of essays as well as her uniquely personal reflection, A Dynamic God: Living an Unconventional Catholic Faith, her ninth book — which a Los Angeles Times book reviewer tagged “a stunning collection.”

For 10 years, NM highlighted the work of great women wheelchair users such as Mairs, Gretchen Ryan and Harriet McBryde Johnson in an annual Women’s Issue. At a time when men with SCI dominated the landscape, we wanted to connect women with true peers around the topics of body image, domestic abuse, fashion, health, self-esteem and empowerment. (You can find a collection of articles on these topics and more at In 2008, NM editors decided that women’s concerns had been successfully integrated into the publication and that a dedicated Women’s Issue was no longer necessary. Let us know if you agree by emailing