The first step in reclaiming my body began a little over a year ago at a Trader Joe’s in the suburban south.
I was thirty-eight and six months into an MS diagnosis. The vision in my left eye still threatened me with darkness and when I dared to peer through it, the world was smudged by a gray, cloudy filter. The tiny store was crowded with hipster parents and cranky toddlers sticky with fruit leather, or sugar from the bakery next door. No matter where you went, you were in the way.
I stood in front of tiered buckets of spray roses and carnations, mums and seeded eucalyptus. I reached for the seedy branches wrapped in plastic. Eucalyptus was my favorite, a simple pleasure, the bend of a stem heavy with buds and leaves reminding me of the soft curve of a shoulder. I closed my left eye, studied the greenery through my right: normal. I closed my right eye and looked through my left: the VSCO preset equivalent of a lesion squatting on an optic nerve. It was a fun, anxiety-ridden game I used to play called Why isn’t it normal yet?! My knees grew numb with fatigue and I leaned against my little red shopping cart.
For months I felt like my body had betrayed me. Like rules, and religion, and gluten-free, grass-fed, non-dairy everything huddled in mean-girl scrutiny and mocked my constant trying to do the right thing. I’d followed all the good girl steps so how the hell did I end up here? I went home, unpacked groceries, dusted off my old DSLR and rescued the tripod from under a pile of dry-clean-only clothes in the back of my closet. I didn’t know what photos I was going to take, but somehow I was going to capture a piece of me that had remained hidden for far too long.
When I was about six years old, I had my own bedroom and a canopy bed with a Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, shams, and canopy my mother had sewn. I was a serious and sensitive child who frightened and cried easily. I didn’t like to be noticed or perceived as misbehaving. In kindergarten I used to pretend to be asleep on my mat during nap time because that’s what nap time was for, and I was a girl who did what was expected.
In my bedroom, I laid among dolls lined on top of the Strawberry Shortcake bedspread. I wasn’t wearing any clothes. I said, “I am the naked queen,” to Rainbow Brite, calm and authoritative, with a smile. I stayed there for a long time (or maybe just a few minutes) on my back and talking. I wish I could remember what I talked about, but I don’t. It was an honest and innocent moment veiled in a thin layer of looming shame. Before I’d gotten undressed, I knew enough to shut my bedroom door and lock it. At 6, I knew something about my body was not allowed.
At 38, I shut my bedroom door and locked it.
Two bouquets of eucalyptus were laid on the foot of my bed, seeds trailing along the duvet like creative carnage. I took off my shirt and pulled down my bra straps, set the timer on the camera and sat in a wooden chair, gripping those bending branches as leaves spread across my chest. I’m not a photographer or a model and didn’t expect much, yet light from the window found the skin of my shoulder. Branches searched my neck and arms, deliberate. I blinked at the photo in my camera, breathed a little ‘oh!’
For the first time in many years I allowed myself to revel in how much I loved my mouth. I allowed myself to look at my body without thinking too much about it. Without seriousness, and scrutiny, and shame. But I hesitated to post that image on social media because *gasp* my exposed shoulder! My collar bone! I looked like I might be naked behind those beautiful sprigs of green and what would that say about me?
I posted that photo amid all my sweating and anxiety around doing so because while I was still scarred by my body’s betrayal, I also recognized my betrayal of it. How, in an effort to please and fall in conventional line, I denied sensuality and my body. I denied myself.
The photos I take are more suggestive than explicit, and that is enough for me. Some of the characters I write in prose or stories push sensual boundaries I am still uncomfortable pushing in real life. However, I am uncomfortable because I’ve created my own boundaries and (mostly) no longer care much for the boundaries impressed upon me.
I have little desire to squeeze into anyone else’s box.
One of the female protagonists in my book If I Fell, a young 20-something, says, “I did not think of my body, what it felt like, tasted like. What it was capable of doing, attracting, inducing. How could something so wholly and uniquely mine be so foreign to me?”
I was this girl. A lot of women were. I still pick apart my body, like my soft, stretched mom belly and breasts. I’m insecure about hormonal acne, scarring, and the eyebrows I over plucked in the 90s that have yet to grow all the way back. But I am working to know this body, to love and honor this body, and feel good about doing so.
I am the naked queen after all.