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 husba