I have a friend who can’t talk about her appearance without using the word “troll.” She’s short and small. She has beautiful creamy woodsy coloring– light brown hair, pink peach skin, glittering green eyes, a graceful swoop of a nose. She is small enough that you feel protective around her. You look at the space around her scanning for potential difficulty. Can she reach that plate she’s after? Am I towering over her? If I had to compare her to a magical creature, troll would not make the list– for one thing, trolls are huge and live under bridges. I’d pick nymph. I don’t know that she’d like that, nymphs don’t have a rep as being very powerful. But if I was going to cast my friend in a movie about a magical encounter, I’d have her play the spirit of an elm the hero rests under. She isn’t the tallest tree, but her leaves spread out and provide cover to all kinds of creatures who need it. I would give her a squirrel to always be holding when she appears to the hero, because she is compulsive about caring for wild small creatures, whether that’s animals or people. The ways that the sunlight dapples through the leaves of an elm tree is a lot like how people feel around my friend– a running, soft beauty, engrossing in its constancy of change. Tree leaves and the sun put on light shows regardless of the presence of an audience– this patch of grass looks lovely, but now look at this one over here. That’s what it’s like to watch my friend live her life– ahhh, now this idea looks lovely, now this book over here. It’s the sunlight, but it’s the sunlight dancing through my friend’s mind, face, body, hands.She is lovely, but like almost all lovely women, she is specific in her loveliness. If we were at the state fair, and all the women were tagged in the ears and resting in their pens, and one 4H kid was going to win the prize of raising the best woman this year, the 4H kid who brought my friend wouldn’t win. Because she is short, and she’s obviously Jewish, and she doesn’t have a tall spindly frame topped with grapefruit boobs.
I feel nervous about talking about the specifics of my friend’s physicality, because my friend and I are on the same page in agreeing that women are socialized to experience themselves as both the livestock in the competition and as the 4H kid trying to win the prize. By pointing out the ways my friend’s physicality is aesthetically pleasing, I wonder if I’m only telling her that the livestock competition is valid. But then again, she insults her face and body and there’s a weird moment where the people around her think, “Who is she talking about? What body does she think we’re interacting with? What face does she think we see?”
This is the most normal story I could tell you. A lovely woman lives as if she is a particularly unfit object for other people to experience. When in fact we are drawn to her, when she is providing us with lovely cover, when to hear her thoughts and walk with her and sit in her living room are all great blessings.
Women who fall outside the ideal height for the livestock competition seem to feel the sorrow of being an unfit object deeply. I have another friend who is both actually tall and cannot help, in her manner, in her laugh, in the outfits she puts together, in how she talks and what she talks about, taking up a lot of space. If she were a man we’d say she has a commanding presence. Since she’s a woman, when she went off to college, she made the very rational choice of never eating. She tells me people thought she looked great. I believe she must have looked a lot like the women on TV when she was doing that. She almost killed herself.
She is very careful about taking and looking at pictures of herself these days, because if she spends too much time thinking about her appearance, she might stop eating and almost kill herself again. Once I was in a strip club with her spouse (because I am problematic) and we were talking about how strong the strippers were and her spouse said, “I love that, I love an amazon,” and I thought, “Oh shit, yes you do! You married one!” My friend is living in a body meant to be tall and muscular, a body that you don’t want to fight with, a body that could hurl you over a fence easily.
If I was casting that friend as a magical creature in a movie I’d make her a big god damn hawk. A shiny black hawk with a 4 foot wingspan. She needs time above the trees to spread her wings out. She needs time to hunt. I do believe she needs to wring a neck every so often to be her happiest. Once we went to a party and this blonde, blue-eyed architect dude was trying to be our friend. But you know, some dudes, when they want to be your friend, they just talk a lot and puff themselves up because they don’t know any better. My friend repeated back something he said in such a derisive tone, with such an extreme eye roll, that it broke his psychological neck. He was a limp dead field mouse for the rest of the night. I felt bad for him, but at the same time it’s pretty majestic when she dives down for the kill like that.
She’s lovely in a very specific way. As livestock, with a tag in her ear, she won’t win the competition. Her inner 4H kid, even having put the livestock on a very restrictive diet, goes home without a ribbon.
My mom, as a young woman, placed very high in the livestock competition. She had long blonde hair, a beautiful lively face, 5’6″, a lithe frame partially created by a family heritage of women not eating. She was firmly ensconced in a Polish neighborhood of recent immigrants in which most people worked in textile mills. No one, upon her graduation from high school, mentioned college to her. At 19 she married a rich guy she met working as a secretary. Her looks were her best bet for moving up into another social class– not having to be a secretary forever, and for sure not having to work in a mill her whole life like her bubci did.
That marriage didn’t work out. They got divorced, it was the late sixties, my mom went looking for some way to be more than livestock in the world. She knocked on doors organizing for community health centers, she got a history degree because of a scholarship for divorced women, she got together with the hairy organizing nerd who would become my dad.
My dad’s sisters were less successful as livestock for one specific reason– they all were very bottom-heavy. Nice faces, good height, but then these thighs that exploded from under their hips. Thighs that strain the fabric of pants. Thighs that mean you can’t keep a key in your front pocket without the distinct outline of it being visible.
By the time I was six I had a clear vision of the body I’d have as an adult. I knew what smart, tomboy, fearless girls grew up to be. They grew into tall skinny women with dark hair, a la Marion Ravenwood in Indiana Jones or Princess Leia in Star Wars. They had small hips and small thighs, but they did have boobs. Not the kind of boobs big enough to pull apart the front of a button up shirt, but boobs you’d see the tops of if the shirt was thoughtlessly unbuttoned pretty far down. They had bodies not unlike the body my mother had.
Around that age, my family took a road trip to the western Pennsylvania steel town my dad’s sisters and mother lived in. We had a fourth of July barbecue in my grandmother’s backyard. I was very impressed with all the stars in the sky, which we didn’t have in the city– they were swirling, countless, actually milky looking. The adults would pick me up and put me on their shoulders so I could be closer to the sky. My aunt stood over me and offered to pick me up. I looked up, and saw the way her thighs were rising over me like Stonehenge pillars and I had the clear thought, “I will never let myself look like that.”
Guess which side of the family my lower body favors.
What do those thighs make me? When are thighs like that in movies or in magazines? They generally aren’t. Sometimes they are in rap videos– the women aren’t ghostly pale like I am, but every so often they’ll have thighs as prominent as mine. They are thighs that are very, very good for twerking upside down, because they are big and jiggly. Even knowing that the beauty standards of video girls are just an alternative judging criteria for my livestock self, I am so relieved there’s some competition of lady objects I might have a fighting chance in. My 4H self wonders if I could bring home one of the lesser ribbons– not the blue one, but maybe yellow or orange?
Twerking wasn’t a thing in the Midwest when my thighs sprouted, and also I am white, and there’s no way my mother, who encouraged a cultural whiteness that was striking for the inner city context I grew up in, would’ve let me do that. While my classmates wore Starter jackets, door knocker earrings and slicked back ponytails with crispy curls, my mom went into credit card debt buying us L.L. Bean. She had relied on the appearance of WASP-y beauty to move on up from a poor Polish neighborhood, so she dressed her kids like we ran a sheep farm in Maine, even though we were broke and living in a neighborhood that sometimes got called Little West Virginia. Not for having any trees, but for having lots of extended families living together in too-small houses who would always take their fights out into the middle of the street.
I knew I was not a correct object. I was not Marion Ravenwood or Princess Leia. The boys in my middle school told me I had thunder thighs. I sure as hell knew that already. I also knew I had boobs that pointed down and were covered in jagged red lightning bolt stretch marks, as were my thunder thighs and big butt. I didn’t know who to be in such a body. I was clearly, unmistakably female, but also marked as poor, trashy, sexual, stupid, defective.
When I went off to college and got raped, it was a classic Big Ten school-style rape– I was wasted, I was pushed around, I wanted to do something but I didn’t want what he did to me. In the immediate aftermath I was very confused. He was the second person I’d had sex with. I had had the idea that if you went into a sexual encounter thinking it was casual and not about starting a relationship there was not a way you could be hurt by it. When he pushed me around I thought, “He must not know you’re supposed to ask and not rush people into this.” I felt unnerved about what happened but I didn’t want to admit I hadn’t been in control.
Then three weeks later the guy who raped me told me a joke about myself. He said someone had asked him if me and my best friend were prostitutes, how much we could charge. He told me he had told that person he did not know what we could charge, but that I would be a much cheaper prostitute than my best friend.
Then I got it. I had felt weird because the point of the encounter was to make me feel humiliated. That was why he pushed me around and did not ask and rushed me and why he had wanted to be sexual in the first place with someone who couldn’t stand up without hugging the wall. But that’s as far as my liberatory imagination got me. Because I agreed with him. I knew my body as an object was less acceptable than my friend’s body as an object. I thought, with my unacceptable body I shouldn’t have expected that I could get drunk and people wouldn’t want to have fun humiliating me.
My thunder thighs invited it. My floppy breasts invited it. My weird personality, all the ways I hadn’t figured out being a girl, the ways I laughed too loud and talked too much, and wanted to get drunk and wanted to make out– faced with a defective creature, of course he wanted to stomp on her.
If I had to cast myself in my magical creature film, I’d be a bear. I wouldn’t even be a talking bear, I’d be a regular bear. I’d be a bear because bears are 70 percent butt. I’d be a bear because they’re furry, and I was furry even before testosterone. I’d be a bear because they like a lot of alone time. I’d be a bear because seasonal sleeping is central to their lives. I’d be a bear because I want some cubs someday. I’d be a bear because they’d much rather stand by a river and catch fish jumping out of the water than run after a deer. I’d be a bear because you shouldn’t fuck with a bear. A bear isn’t trying to fuck with you but you don’t want to fuck with a bear either. If you fuck with a bear they will get your head in their mouth and they will gnaw that shit off.
I don’t know that my generation of women can ever fully escape the conditioning that has split us from our bodies. I think I’ll always have a sense of my body as a livestock animal. I think I’ll always have the 4H kid in me assessing the competition, thinking of ways to present the livestock, ways to groom it, ways to feed it, ways to exercise it so that when the judges come around we can snatch a ribbon.
I wish we had some space for us to be able to put down these illusions for awhile. My friends can’t hear when I tell them who they are. They think I’m bullshitting them to be nice. They trust tv and movies and the reactions of strangers on the street more than they do me. The fact that I love them means I have no credibility as a judge. My eyes, which have studied them, which have inventoried the beauty they embody and create around them, cannot be trusted. I can’t blame them. I trusted the opinion of the guy who raped me. When that guy told me how I ranked as livestock, my internal 4H kid went, “Sure, sure you’ve made good points.” I didn’t say the perfectly natural comeback, which is of course, “Why are we talking about what I could charge for sex when you have to rape people to have any?”
You know why some bears dance and play the trumpet? Because they’ve forgotten about their sharp teeth.
I hope I get to have some girl cubs someday, and I hope they will know, in a way my generation can’t, that they aren’t livestock to be judged. That’s what we do to animals headed for slaughter. And of course girls are not meant for slaughter, they belong to the wild world, where they are meant to spread out, to be big, to hunt, to cover and sustain small things. If they are never put under the spell of being livestock, then perhaps they’ll be able to do what I wasn’t able to do. Which is to look in the face of a dominator and remember, “Ah yes, that is a head that will crunch nicely in my jaws.”