I was in my bathtub with limbs curled, facedown, staring at the drain. I tapped at the low level of water with my hands. There was beauty in the simple colors and textures: muted gray metal of the tub, shiny silver of the drain circle, soft lines and shades in the pink, peach, and cream tones in my hands’ flesh.
I felt fascinated and simultaneously pained as I focused on the vision.
I was feeling sensitive. It was evening. My own body’s tub was probably matching my bath’s with an equivalent level of hormones: low, but rising tides. And a little wine or beer in the mixture (whichever it might have been at snack time that evening) put me at the right potency, like a witch’s brew, to receive a stream of thoughts steaming with sentimentality.
I found the image of my fingers lovely, focused and close as I was on them, but had, just a moment before, analyzed my torso in the mirror and found it worth criticizing, found it to be something that I continually failed to improve. I had sunk into the high walls of my tub as if to hide from the world. There are ideals that we would all like to reach, that we may even be capable of reaching, such as specialized knowledge of certain topics, the best execution of our artistry or athleticism, or well-maintained relationships. But we can easily feel that if these are not achieved or maintained, we are constantly failing. All of these can be serious issues that can lead to obsession, self-defeat, and depression, but the body is a very visual reminder of something that needs maintenance. I wanted to hide it.
Logically, I know that my body is fine. Those that say anything to me about it give me compliments, not criticisms. I am healthy and found to be attractive in my culture. Nevertheless, the re-occurring feeling of self-disappointment, even to the point of offending myself, persists.
I had recently come across several articles discussing the modern problems for women and self-image. Writers point out such details as airbrushed images and the lack of diversity among models, as well as, contrastingly, men’s disinterest in idealism when confronted with an available female. Men’s expectations of a woman are typically much less harsh, it seems. The messages are heavy. But knowing better doesn’t mean that I feel better. Not all the way. It helps, and I am grateful for the research and positive journalism that writers contribute to our collected data banks, but accepting the messages does not quite transform the way I feel about my daily self. The instinct to compare and judge continues. (I am bypassing nutritional and gender issues at this point).
As a part-time artist and fashion designer, I am often looking for idealized forms and proportions, and usually have myself as the most available human guide and model. It is, for the most part, useful, but the body also changes. As does the mind. On sensitive days, I can get frustrated when my form does not conform to the ideals I am trying to create. Yet, I am glad to paint any female in a figure study, and appreciate the nuances of natural form. I try to encourage every person, particularly women who are hesitant because they feel flawed, to be comfortable with modeling for artists. Artists want to study every body shape, and it is not a judging process. (I am bypassing cultural and societal issues at this point). I want them to be confident and comfortable with their bodies. I am sympathetic, but want them to stop the self-criticism. I want them to focus on the work.
As beautiful as a painting can be of a model, myself included, I personally continue to struggle to feel like a Woman. It’s hard to identify the Self, the observing, moving “I”, with an image. I don’t identify my Self as my body. Maybe that is why, when it see it, and realize that it is the thing by which others recognize me, I get nervous. I look for the things I don’t want to be a part of my identity. I don’t feel super-sexy and alluring. Compared to images that exemplify these adjectives, especially modern media, I FEEL childish. I am short. My bosom is small. I make erratic gestures. When I pose, it is often as equally a mimicry of what I have seen, as a search for potential biological identification. I do not identify at all with the statuesque images of “Woman” I have seen even in modern glamour or even ancient sculpture.
But if I exclude all other comparisons, it is there. One image in the mirror. No size reference. Just woman….
Still I struggle to find confidence, even knowing that I am, compared to many other females in my culture, petite and proportionally appealing. Knowing this, and still being capable of cyclical self-loathing, I cried in my tub, for my own ridiculous (notice the continuation of the ridicule) struggle and for the struggle of ladies who may feel even more removed from ideals, and for… just… all women.
I imagined being able to see myself, then, singular, one person in the whole world, thinking, vulnerable, strong, unique, and also weak, crouched in a tub. And I imagined where that perspective was coming from. Who was seeing my Self objectively? The UberKate? The Super Kate that felt lucky to know the Earth at all, let alone from a human perspective?
I have another imaginative generation. In the past, influenced by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Carl Sagan, I imagined being a simple spirit, imagined being introduced by a universal guide to the Earth, and being asked, “Would you like to know this planet? What life form do you choose?” My spirit considered a bush. A long life, stationary, with many leafy receptors. But it dared to choose human. And it received this form. This idea returned to me now. My “spirit”, my “UberKate”, received this life form in order to experience life on Earth. It received this form to watch over, to observe, to advise, to worry over, to disapprove of, to forgive, with whom to share fascinations. How could she not find it all extremely precious? How could she not… fall in love?
Again, I broke.
“I love you, Kate”, I said to myself. It felt strange. And important. And heartbreaking.
The person, or spirit, or Self, who loves me wants to take care of me. Regardless of flaws, this is the form through which I get to know LIFE. And it is the form I need to take care of. Nutrition, opportunities, mistakes, wastes, achievements… Only “I” know what all of these should be and have been. And if seeing myself as, simply, yet profoundly, the material through which “I” get to know anything, helps me to understand Life better, I will work from that seemingly higher perspective. There is a Super Kate that loves me very much; who will swell at the visions and ideas that only I can produce, that will wait for me when I need to have a day of unreasonable grief, who will wade through emotions with me, who will wait to find my more rational self later in the evening (or the following day) with new thoughts on the perspectives of One Gal In This Society, or who will meet me, laughing, sharing the humor that is the nonsense of feral animal humanity, laughing at the ability to fool ourselves and everyone around us about our civility even though this wild uncontrollable part of ourselves exists; who will find me beautiful at any part of the day before I’m ever seen by another person, who will tell me when I’m not doing as much as I could or should, but will be my strongest partner when I’m ready to try again.
Maybe this is my way of understanding Religion, my way of making spiritual issues personal. In a way, I’ve turned myself, and all of us, into gods.
Because I am a female, I am especially understanding and grieved for women’s issues. But this applies to men as well. To everyone who worries about self-image, self-worth, self-acceptance… The Super or Spirit versions of yourselves are in love with you. That may be all you need to know. No more critiques, and no more pride, either. Just this precious amount of life. Be kind, and take care of yourselves. Be sympathetic, and do the work that helps you to flourish. You are your Super-selves’ favorite person.