I wasn't present when The Living Room recorded our most recent show, "Body Image and Sideburn Moments." Lest you think I have no body image issues—or solutions for overcoming them—I invite you to read this essay:
Bodies In My BasementI collect bodies in my basement.
Over the years I’ve amassed hundreds of them.
And I feel good about it.
Every summer I take the kids to the pool. They adore what I avoid: Exposure. To the water, the sunshine. To other people. While they frolic and splash, I seek cover in the shade, fully clothed, attempting to lose myself in a novel. I note the irony of isolating myself at a pool labeled community. When I face the thought of exposing my physical flaws, my body feels more like a prison than a temple.
Nearly lulled to sleep by the afternoon heat, I squint toward the pool. Hiding behind my sunglasses, I see my children and all the other people enjoying the water. Wonderful people, in every shape, size and color—some rotund and Rubenesque, others elongated like a Modigliani. Observing with my Artist’s Eye, I appreciate the distinctive beauty of each one.
Leaning into the sunshine, I dig through the beach bag for the sketchbook I brought from my basement studio. Quickly, rhythmically, I begin to draw—sometimes without even looking at the paper. I try to capture all of those life-filled bodies in fleeting strokes: Families strolling by. Mothers standing, hips cocked to one side, talking to complete strangers. Grandmothers stooping over large, unwieldy beach bags. Children sliding and laughing. Little ones, wrapped in bright-colored towels, shivering in the sun. I suspend time, movement and space as I collect these gestures one at a time in my sketchbook. I want to save them. The imperfect bodies are the most interesting to an artist. The rolls and folds create elegant forms. I notice that a pregnant woman's belly mirrors her toddler's, and contemplate the connection. I study the variety of proportions, and find that none is wrong.
I am in awe of the souls who courageously parade their corpulence without inhibition. They don’t mind being exposed and vulnerable in swimsuits; they’re simply enjoying the water and the sunshine and the community. As they should.
Having cast myself to this poolside corner in relative darkness, I suddenly feel ashamed. Not so much of my body, but of the way I hide it, enshroud it, and sometimes even loathe it; the way this damaging mindset distances me from my kids. What kind of mother am I? I recognize that, in my reluctance to join my children in the pool, I’ve fallen prey to my own insecurities. In one fell swoop I’ve managed to devalue my mortal frame, a gift from God. I’ve cheated myself out of an opportunity to share a spirited activity with my children. And I run the risk of passing down a ridiculous complex to my own daughter, not to mention the children I hope she’ll bear in a future generation.
Driving home the other day, I heard a song by Regina Spektor that seemed like a fleeting revelation. The lyrics: “I have a perfect body, but sometimes I forget. I have a perfect body because my eyelashes catch my sweat.” It’s just a silly pop song, yet it struck me with such tremendous force: My body, my children’s bodies, all of our bodies are perfectly engineered, from eyelashes to perspiration. They do what they were designed to do. Cells divide. Scars heal. Babies—entire human beings—grow inside their mothers. Before they’re even born they sprout fingernails and toenails, and develop impossibly complex parts like eardrums and eyeballs. Miracles, all.
I yearn to develop an Artist's Eye—the Creator’s view—toward my own body. I remember that form follows function. I’m slowly learning to rejoice in my ripples and curves rather than lamenting the loss of the hardbody of my twenties. It’s easier to love the pillow of padding on my belly when I remember how I earned it: creating life, giving birth—four miraculous times. Through conceiving, bearing, feeding and nurturing children—through motherhood—I have finally used every part of my body exactly as it was designed, every function for its intended purpose. I may not look perfect, but I am complete.
I wonder: Were I to pull out of my basement the bodies I’ve collected in my sketchbooks—my creations celebrating His creations—might I somehow pull myself into that light as well? I have never drawn a body that wasn’t beautiful. I have never brought a baby into the world whose body seemed anything less than perfect. I would love to envision a self portrait with the same appreciative eye. Perhaps then I could escape this notion of a prison and celebrate my body for the temple it is...both for how it's shaped, and for the divinity it houses.
I make a conscious decision to own my complete form and join my children in the pool. Donning a raspberry-red tankini I enter the water slowly, tentatively at first. I take a step, and then another. I try to silence the words of a former boyfriend still ringing in the back of my head: “Jana, get in the water quick before anyone sees those legs!” Wincing a little inside, I throw on an imaginary cloak of invisibility, shutting out judgement and shame. Who cares if it takes me the whole summer to turn from blue to white?!
The water catches ripples of light, sparkling in the sun. The initial shock of cold gives way to a refreshing escape from the heat of the day. I am immersed. Lifting my head, catching my breath, feeling clean and alive, I see my children’s faces, beaming. They don’t notice the varicose veins or the dimples of cellulite. They see their mother, present and joyful, willing to splash, dive and call Marco. Or Polo. They may not be aware of the pride I sacrificed to join them in the pool, but I can tell they sense the love behind the gesture. Their smiles and enthusiasm tell me their happiness multiplied when I finally summoned the courage to dive in, all in. With them.
I'm proud of the fact that I collect bodies in my basement. Those stacks of sketchbooks are my personal witness to the beauty of the human form, in all its varieties. Including mine.
Big shout-out to Lime Ricki Swimwear, who helped me overcome my pathological fear of swimsuits. Every suit I've worn since the writing of this essay is made by Lime Ricki (I now happily own five, and no longer shrink away from getting in the pool or playing on the beach. Thank you, Lime Ricki!)
This was originally posted here. It is the piece I presented at the Listen To Your Mother show in 2014. You can hear me read it for that audience here. An earlier, shorter version of this essay was recently published by Deseret Book in an anthology on body image called Why I Don't Hide My Freckles Any More. All were based on a post I originally wrote for this blog several years ago, here.