By Lorie Levison
I sit beside the pool in my wheelchair, short shorts and sports bra, my swimming attire. The little girl’s step slows as she sees me, holding back on mother’s arm, staring unabashed and wondering at my skinny legs, the wheelchair, looking into my face to register my own awareness. She walks ahead, looking back. For all she knows, her next step could take her into the pool, but her eyes are glued, as her young mind struggles to put together the pieces of my body in a wheelchair. Mother speaks softly, “Come on, honey, don’t stare.” Still turning, the little girl says without a trace of self-consciousness, “Why are her legs so skinny?” “Come on, honey,” says Mom.
I lie with my new lover close upon me, his breath warm, full, centering. His eyes so close, I study the lashes, the fine map of tiny wrinkles above the lids. He murmurs, “You are so beautiful!” and I breathe in love with his breath, a fleeting thought catching in my mind: I feel the need to stop, tell him about my body, how it’s different, will he be OK with it? I had planned to tell him, to talk, but now? His eyes, skin, the delicious tangle of limbs and fingers call me back. … I think, no, not now. What body? What difference?
I sprawl across the bed with my young son, wrestling, hyper, in a tickling frenzy. He jumps to my feet, grabs my ankles and holds them astride his hips and rocks back and forth Elvis-style, singing loudly, “Spaghetti legs! Spaghetti legs!” I scream in mock rage and lunge — laughing — to take him down.
In the hospital room, 18 years old, white coats with pockets hiding shamed hands. They line up at my bed, talk above me, turn me over, open the gown to point at my back, draw cold fingers along the tracks of my scarred spine, show the handsome young residents — peers or potential lovers standing just outside these temporary walls. They close the gown and say good day and leave me crushed as a dried leaf underfoot. Too young to even know. But I know. …
Body image (sigh!) … will it ever be mine? The more I ponder the question, the more I think the answer is no. What is body image, anyway? Is it how we want others to see us? Is it what we imagine others see? Do we even need an image? Mother Media and her marketing strategists say, definitively, “YES!” Meanwhile a significant percentage of the planet’s population would not even understand the self-absorption of “What should I wear?” or “My hair is impossible!”
Body image seduces all of us in this culture, regardless of age, class, gender or intelligence. Everywhere we look, we are assaulted with images of how we should look, move, speak, behave. It’s an encompassing net thrown from all angles of the media, and no one is immune without dedicated, persevering effort. Most of my healthy, beautiful women friends are uncomfortable being in a bathing suit, critical of their legs or bosoms or bottoms. From my perspective, they don’t have anything to complain about, since all the parts work. But it gives us a common meeting ground, since I too have frequently bemoaned my imperfect body.
Often I’ve witnessed this common scene: A pretty woman walks by, and a passing man surreptitiously looks her up and down, tasting, evaluating, with no eye contact, no human contact. She feels the gaze, lowers her own eyes, tries to pass unnoticed. Her cringing is almost visible, as she tries to make herself disappear. I recognize it easily; it’s almost the same thing that h