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June 2022

Victoria's Secret

Last week this video popped up over and over in my social media feeds:

It’s a recording of a flash mob outside of a Victoria’s Secret, and the singer/songwriter Jax is performing her song “Victoria’s Secret,” which is about how our perceptions of what women’s bodies are supposed to look like are manipulated by marketing. I think it’s a fantastic performance and has a great message.

I noticed, though, as I read the comments of strangers on my friends’ feeds, an overwhelming similarity: so many of the comments went along the lines of “I hope I can teach this to my daughter.” And while I am 110% behind young girls learning body positivity, and I hope I taught it to my daughter better than my mom taught me, I started to feel like maybe there’s something wrong with me? Have all the other 50-year-olds gotten over their body negativity?

One of my very strongest memories from childhood might be the last time I loved my body unequivocally. I was sitting on the lounge chair on the patio in our backyard, reading a book. It was a summer afternoon and that morning I had done my three-hour gymnastics workout. Lying there in the shade with my book, I pointed my toes, lifted my straight leg in the air, flexed my biceps, all because I had finally mastered something at the gym (I don’t remember now what skill it was). I felt strong and skilled and, most importantly, light. So small and compact the summer wind could lift me. I thought this is exactly how a body should feel.

I was ten or eleven.

After that summer afternoon, I wanted to keep the feeling of being both strong and small, so I worked harder at the gym. I don’t think I really matched up what I ate with how small I might be, but I never stopped yearning for that feeling. And for whatever reason, I never felt it again.

I mean, this girl could do fifty pull ups and then fifty dips and then one hundred sit ups in a row; she could do flips on a 4” wide balance beam and swing around the bars.

AmyGymnastics11

But she hated her body. Her boobs were too small and her butt was too flat and her thighs were too big.

In my 20s I had three magnificent pregnancies with no complications and perfectly healthy babies who I nursed without issues. But I hated my body. I wanted slimmer hips and a flatter belly and bigger boobs and smaller thighs.

In my 30s I was a strong runner with no injuries. I was busy with three, then four kids who I had plenty of energy for. But I hated my body; my belly was even bigger, my boobs saggier, my hips wider. I started to struggle with weight gain. My thighs were still too big and my running pace was too slow.

In my 40s I fought through several injuries and kept running. I began hiking on a regular basis and discovered I’m a pretty fast uphill hiker. I trained for and ran a marathon while recuperating from pertussis. But I hated my body, because losing weight became impossible and I got a good growth of back- and side-boobs and my skin began to sag and wrinkle.

And here I am, 50 years old. Still hating my body. Don’t get me wrong: I have gotten better. A huge part of me accepting my body was finding running clothes I love (which might sound like a marketing gimmick but for me it was an answer. Girls without thigh gaps are never going to be comfortable in tiny running shorts). Now if you gave me three magic wishes to use on my body, I’d wish for healthy knees, painless feet, and a better memory rather than slim thighs, big boobs, and a flat belly. I know it’s imperfect, especially by society’s standards, but my body is the only thing I have to experience this world with, so I try to cut out the negative self-talk and accept it for what it is.

But I’m not sure I will ever not have this deep-down body shame.

I don’t think my mom ever got over it. During her last illness, she told me once that she hoped, once she got better, she could keep off the weight she’d lost. The weight she’d lost suffering with intense abdominal pain, several surgeries, and a limited diet: that lost weight was her silver lining. And I don’t write that with judgement but with sadness. I’m not sure she ever thought her body was good enough.

A friend once told me that she was surprised to read (in a blog post) that I struggled with my body image. “But you run all the time! You’re strong and you’re not overweight like me.” I don’t know—do I carry around this shame out of conceit? Is there a body weight that’s too small to express your embarrassment over, like cultural appropriation except with body issues? I don’t think so. I know plenty of runners who are faster than me, who have that stereotypical “runner’s body,” chiseled muscles and a flat belly and a thigh gap, who also carry around the same shame. (And, in some ways, running makes it…not exactly worse, but adds another level. How silly of me to call my soft, slow body a runner’s body! Is a 10=minute-mile even running or is that just jogging? If I were more dedicated, I’d be faster, thinner, stronger. Can’t have carbs and a fast-run summer!)

So yes: I am here for songs and social movements that celebrate real bodies. The shapes of all the bodies. More, the concept that who we are should be determined by…who we are, how we chose to live our lives, the way we love our people and try to take care of the world, rather than what size our clothes our, how flat our bellies, how gapped our thighs. I am so much here for teaching this to our daughters and granddaughters. I long for the existence of a generation of women valued for what they contribute to the world, not for their level of sexiness.

Oh how I want that for younger generations.

But I grew up in an era where these ideas didn’t even exist, raised by a mother from a generation that was very much about how you look. (I will never not hear her saying “Amy sure is looking heavy” when I look in the mirror at my body.) For myself, all I can do is continue to fight it. To acknowledge the thoughts are there and then to take my sub-par but alive body out into the world, dressed in a skirt that might be too short for my Mary-Lou thighs and a tank-top that might show way more side-boob than is visually comfortable, and do things. Run, hike, walk. Fumble at climbing, swim poorly. Hold my husband’s hand, hug my children. It’ll never be perfect, this body. Just like I might never rid myself of the shame in order to love it completely.

But I’ll keep trying.


Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Still lifeI read the novel Still Life very slowly and over about six weeks. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it—I was, immensely—but because of the style of the plot. It is a book that tells the story of a man’s life, with the smaller, everyday conflicts interacting with larger social issues over decades. Not the kind of novel you read for the conflict or the tension, but for the beauty of a life.

It tells the story of Ulysses Temper who, while serving in Italy during WWII, meets Evelyn Skinner, an art historian who is working to save Italy’s art masterpieces from the Germans. The encounter isn’t very long, only a couple of days, but it changes both their lives. They don’t meet again for at least twenty years, but their lives kind of revolve around each other. Ulysses goes back to London after the war, eventually is drawn back to Florence (where he met Evelyn) along with his found family. He survives the 1966 flood of the Arno (an actual historic flood that I knew nothing about), creates a business making globes like his father did, raises The Kid. Eventually he and Evelyn also reunite.

That’s kind of a summary of the whole book.

Which is why I was able to dip into and out of it at will. But I also read it slowly because I absolutely fell in love with the characters, and I was afraid that Sarah Winman would do what Kate Atkinson did in A God in Ruins (SPOILER): make it all a sort of dream-life that Ulysses didn’t get to live because he actually died in the war, not his captain.

But that wasn’t what she did at all. Instead, it was just…just an excellent novel about people making their lives the best they can.

Oh, and ideas about art.

And Florence (the city I most want to return to).

And history.

And food, of course. It can’t be Italy without food.

The mysteries in a life that life finally solves, but only very slowly. The way connections eventually reveal themselves, the inauspicious ways we don’t connect, the accidental times we do.

What love actually looks like. What a family does.

A Shakespeare-quoting parrot named Claude.

I loved this book so much. I think it will be my favorite book this year. And I’m actually glad I took so long to read it, picking up and finishing other books while actively reading this one, too. Because the slowness meant I got to spend more of my time in the world with Ulysses and Evelyn and The Kid and Claude.

And the writing is just lovely.

I usually start my book reviews with a quote. I couldn’t pick a single one from this book; there were so many beautiful things written. So I’ll end instead with a few of my favorites:

All this is a response, Ulysses. It’s not more complicated than that. Of course, we can then throw in execution of the craft—how well one paints—and the history of the piece, its provenance, and we can come up with value. But always the value for me will be response. How it moves one.

Book after book after book, the written patrimony of Western civilization. And sometimes through the mud, a glimmer of gold or a glimmer of blue stilled their breath. Made them humble, that shy glimpse of ancient holy. (As characters help clean up after the flood.)

Poetry, though, was sand. Ever compared to stars in its granular infinity. Ever shifting.

It’s what we’ve always done. Left a mark on a cave, or on a page. Showing who we are, sharing our view of the world, the life we’re made to bear. Our turmoil is revealed in those painted faces—sometimes tenderly, sometimes grotesquely, but art becomes a mirror. All the paradox, ours to interpret.

The world of the domestic kitchen is a female world. It is a world of routine, of body and of bodily function. A world of blood and carcass and guts and servitude. Men may enter but they do not work there and yet work is all that women do there.

It’s always been quite hard to know—to pinpoint, let’s say—where one’s unique story really begins. Does it really start at the moment of birth, or with those who came before? Instilling, distilling, in one’s veins the lived life, the unlived life, the regrets, the joys, as effortlessly, as dubiously one might say, as they hand down a certain walk (you to me), or a frown (you to me) or limp, mousy hair (Mother to me). If this is so, then my story starts with you.

Open up. Things happen here, if you let them. Wonderful things, Miss Skinner. When you least expect it. Are you ready, my dear, for things to happen? (Evelyn’s first experience at the Uffizi)

There are moments in life so monumental and still that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all.

So, time heals. Mostly. Sometimes carelessly. And in unsuspecting moments, the pain catches and reminds one of all that’s been missing. The fulcrum of what might have been. But then it passes. Winter moves into spring and swallows return. Beauty does what is required. Loneliness becomes a mere Sunday.


Book Review: When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill

Am I not enough? Was I not good enough? … Because sometimes love isn’t enough.

When women were dragonsThis blog post is titled When Women were Dragons: A Book Review because of SEO and brand styling and yada yada yada. But it isn’t really a review. I mean, I could write a review of the book, which I’ve been looking forward to reading since I read about it back in March. I could write that I liked it and that my copy is full of underlining and notes. Or how it made me think about Naomi Alderman’s The Power and how desperately I want women to have some actual power that would change the world, and how without power I feel in the United States. I could write about the writing, and the character development, and how my real complaint is with the ending, which kind of fizzled for me because it was too pat. About the inclusion of Tennyson’s poem “Tithonus.” Or even about how I kept giggling over a one-star Amazon review I read, wherein the reviewer hated the book because it wasn’t really about dragons.

(Nope. It’s about feminism, and how women both lose and take back power in myriad ways, and what courage is sometimes like, and how family can both devastate and save you.)

But I had such an emotional reaction to this one that instead I’m going to write about how the story impacted my life. (Thus it is inherently spoiler-y, although I’ll do my best to  keep that at a minimum.)

In the novel, which begins in the 1950s, women sometimes just spontaneously turn into dragons. This is not a thing people in polite society talk about; like periods and breast cancer it is a “women’s issue” and, even though houses are burned down and husbands “vanish,” society just pretends like it doesn’t happen. Alex lives with her mother, who is in remission from breast cancer, and her father, who is a bank executive (and a jerk in the classical 50s sense). She loves her niece, Beatrice, and her aunt, Marla. Then, one day, America experiences the Mass Dragoning, when thousands of women become dragons; her aunt is one of them. Her mother finds Beatrice and tells Alex that she doesn’t have an aunt but has always had a sister, and then they go on, pretending that their family has always been this way. (Definitely not talking about what actually happened.)

Eventually Alex has to take care of Beatrice on her own. And that was where the book got problematic for me.

Not because the writing wasn’t good or the story didn’t make sense (it is and it does). But because I am very purposefully avoiding books about sisters these days.

This is because my relationships with my three sisters are so damaged they will never, I believe, recover. There are many stories involved in this damage, stretching back many years—my own sisters-are-difficult novel, I guess. Or memoir, but it does almost feel like fiction because when I stop and look at it, I cannot believe this is my reality. The recent experience (I don’t even know what to call it, betrayal, rejection, abandonment…there isn’t a word for “my sister broke up with me”) is the most painful, as (as far as I understand) nothing really happened, except I just became unacceptable to be involved with in ways I am too stupid to intrinsically understand. I have argued and discussed and tried to understand, but it hasn’t done any good, really; that sister simply doesn’t want me in her life in any significant ways.

So as the story in When Women were Dragons progressed, and I realized it was getting more and more sister-y, I almost stopped reading. The writing pulled me through but I confess: there were many tears on my part. Near the end, it becomes apparent that Beatrice desperately wants to dragon, but she is holding herself back from it because Alex doesn’t want to lose her. Eventually, though, Alex has to come to peace with what her sister wants. “Essentially, you have a choice,” one of the characters tells her, “you can force your sister to remain in the form you know, or you can accept her as she wishes to be.”

It’s a novel so the connection isn’t exact. But similar enough to make me grieve all over again. Because my sister dragoned, in her own way. She chose to change forms because the one she had before—the form that included me in her life—was unacceptable. In a sense, I did get a choice; not, though, about whether or not she would change. She changed regardless of me. (And, really: why would my opinion matter? The point of her choice is to NOT be influenced by me.) The choice I had was how I would respond. But the painful part is that, unlike Beatrice who still wants a relationship with Alex after she changes, my sister doesn’t.

I finished this novel feeling horrible all over again about myself. Was Alex selfish in not wanting to lose her sister? Am I selfish because I didn’t want this change, this sister-less life, because I never would have chosen it? Was Alex willfully blind in not seeing how her refusal of Beatrice’s change was damaging Beatrice? Was I blind to how my presence made my sister’s life miserable?

For Alex, although she wouldn’t have chosen it, her sister’s change gives her more freedom. She no longer has the responsibility of a child to take care of while she tries to go through school. She’s able to continue interacting with her sister and to make her own life.

For me, I just feel desolate.

I can’t say this book gave me any enlightenment in regards to my sister relationships. It might have actually made it hurt more, in fact. Even having a metaphor—“dragon” as a verb, to undergo a massive change in order to have the life you want instead of the life society gave you; fighting to be a truer version of yourself no matter how much it might impact others’ lives—doesn’t truly help. It’s just metaphor, after all. It brings a bit of understanding but it doesn’t make it hurt less.

In the book, not all of the dragons are like Beatrice. Most of them don’t stay, or they don’t come back. They simply leave: their family, their friends, their homes and occupations. Part of me understands that, as regular life can become awfully heavy sometimes. And most of those husbands were awful. But I cannot understand mothers leaving children; if that makes me a weak feminist, so be it. But maybe THAT is what makes it hard for me to understand my sister’s choices, too. Yes; love, so deeply intwined with memory, can be a burden, but it isn’t only that. Life is more complicated than leave or stay, than dragon or human. Beatrice strikes the tenuous balance, maintaining relationships while being who she really wanted to be. Love was enough to make it work.

It wasn’t for my sister.


Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Truth didn’t mean anything without someone to share it with; you could shout truth into the air forever, and spend your life doing it, if someone didn’t come and listen.

UprootedAfter I finished the first two Scholomance books I still wanted more Naomi Novik entertainment, so I decided to listen to Uprooted.

I didn’t go back and read what I wrote about the book when I first read it. I just went on my vague memories of the plot—a consuming, angry forest; a demanding lord called The Dragon, a seemingly-average girl becoming the lynchpin in saving the world, a tower, something to do with magic. I let the story fill in the gaps. The novel opens with Agnieszka, a teenage girl who is chosen by the Dragon. Every ten years he choses a girl to live in the tower with him; no one is sure what the girl does, but she always returns changed, unable to stay in the village any longer. The villagers are sure Agnieszka’s best friend, Kasia, will be chosen—she is beautiful and accomplished and brave—but the Dragon picks her instead.

The Dragon is a wizard, and his primary responsibility is to use his magic to keep The Wood at bay, just far enough away from the borders of the villages to let them live normal lives. The Wood is malicious; it wants to consume all of the space and kill people in horrible ways.

When Agnieska arrives (by magic) at the Dragon’s tower, they eventually discover that she, too, has magic. Only it is very different from the Dragon’s magic. And their personalities are very different, so there is a lot of conflict in their relationship.

One thing I had forgotten about this novel was The Wood’s origin story. I’m not sure why that didn’t stay with me, as it is really the heart of the narrative. And the way Agnieska’s friendship with Kasia is portrayed: loyal, true, sweet, but not without conflict and hard feelings. I loved so many things about this novel.

Reading this so soon after Novik’s other books made me realize something, though. She is definitely a fan of the Mr. Darcy syndrome, as all of the books by her I’ve read have a character who falls in love (eventually) with a man who is prickly, difficult, and misunderstood. As this is not my favorite trope (Pride and Prejudice isn’t my favorite Austen), it makes her books a bit less enjoyable for me.

Still, listening to Uprooted (while I sewed the memory quilt I made for my friend) was a great choice. I enjoyed being immersed in a vivid fantasy world and seeing Agnieska figure out how to solve her problems.


Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay


Darkness gives way to morning's sunrise, winter ends, there are flowers, birds fly. Honour the goddess, remember the gods. We are children of earth and sky.

Children of earth and skyI’m not sure what to think of this novel, Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay. It is a fantasy-ish novel based on Renaissance Europe, with a huge cast of characters. Several of the characters’ arcs involve trying to overthrow The Grand Khalif. There is art, sailing, adventure, battles, romance. (The first time I listened to one of Kay’s works, Tigana, I was listening while I drove to Disneyland with my sons and several times found myself glad I was listening on headphones. There is some spice in his books!) There are women who manage to overthrow the restrictions society and puts upon them. A soldier who finally finds his way home. Grand cities and beautiful countryside. My favorite scene was Leonora Valeri’s takedown of her father, but Danica Gradek finally finding a peaceful place (and the narrative of her impact down through generations) comes a close second.

I loved the book.

But I am also not sure I loved it.

Because as all of the conflict gets sort-of wrapped up, the individual story lines ended (in ways that were generally positive), it felt very…I don’t know. True-to-life, I guess, which is fantastic, but I wanted more of a novel-esque ending.

I think I had to mull it over for a few weeks before I could say what I felt about it. It is, at its heart, individual stories of people involved in their society’s larger conflicts. Sometimes their stories entwine in literal meetings and interactions; sometimes the characters feel the influence of others’ choices in ways they don’t ever understand. A lot like life, yes.

So, if you delve into this one—I listened to the audio and it is almost 20 hours long; the narration is by Simon Vance and is amazing—know that the end won’t be the wrap-it-all-up kind of end that most fantasies have. Even though you do find out what happens to all of the characters, none of the social conflicts are settled by their impact.

Which is really, I think, the point.