Doing my part to support the cottage industry that is DNA testing, I spent ten minutes disgustingly spitting into a plastic tube and in a few weeks, I received exactly zero surprises. Which is to say that there is no eight-times-removed presidential cousin, no link to an A-list celebrity, no shared roots with a celebrated academic. I bear no common ancestor with a notable writer or even notorious criminal (great Uncle Joey was only a small-time bookie, after all). My people were farmers, laborers, and migrants. They came from families with dozens of siblings, who lived through the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, who tended the land in rural Southern Italy and Middle England, who served the ruling class. They were workers. They worked. Head down, no nonsense. All day. Probably 7 days a week, usually outside.
Evolutionary biology being what it is, peasants tend to possess a certain type of body. Strong, squat, no frills. Great for picking greens on the side of a hill or walking, heavily encumbered, for long distances on uneven terrain. Bodies that can be relied upon to birth scores of children, keep food on the table, and clean up after everyone. Sturdy bodies, with capable lungs and strong hearts. Bodies not necessarily valued for their elegance, but for their reliability.
As opposed to, say, regal phenotypes, with their lithe limbs and light eyes, weak chins and small waists. Bodies with fine features, soft hands, and petite frames. No, those bodies are better suited for laying in four poster beds than making them. They're meant for fainting couches, tufted thrones, and war rooms. Too delicate for digging ditches, regal bodies are built for supervising minions and tracking the price of oil. Theirs are the bodies who write the histories. Ours are the ones who tell the tales.
And it shows.
I have always struggled to make peace with my peasant body. Actually, struggled is not the word. I have been in an outright war with this flesh. I have dieted and exercised to beat the band. My bookshelves sag with the weight of so many promising titles - exhorting me to abandon sugar, salt, carbohydrates, meat. I have endured the stench of hot yoga, the relentless pace of capoeira, and the existential quandary one experiences when riding a bike so hard your muscles feel like they will spontaneously combust, all the while moving not one inch forward, in a darkened room, filled with women who would offer a blood sacrifice if it meant not looking the way that god intended them to.
In my early 20s, I spent the better part of five years running six miles a day and eating vegetarian. I adopted the lifestyle of a "health nut" and abandoned the one of a "sewer rat". I eschewed fats, skipped desserts, and weighed myself daily. I was strong and lean, a size 6 and sometimes 4. I had a flat stomach, lean back, and one chin. I could reliably spring into action, spend the day hiking and still be up for dancing all night. I possessed a body that seems unreal to me now, but even then, I would have told you I was lazy and needed to lose 15 pounds more.
20 years hence, while sometimes I may find myself edging toward the light end of heavy, I mostly reside closer to the other side of spectrum. The parts of my body that I loathe may as well be criminals for all my hateful judgment. I can practically see the lineup. The most imposing in this posse are Calves and Belly, which stand on either side of Upper Arms. Less problematic, but still a threat is Ass, which is flanked by Back and Thighs. Chin, in her first such rite of Bad Girl passage, cowers at the edge, squinting against the bright, harsh lights, wondering if this is really the life she wants for herself. Passing storefront windows, I catch a glimpse of my reflection. I am the eye witness, looking at mug shots, recognizing perpetrators, pointing out miscreants, eager for the whole ordeal to end.
These body parts make sense to me in the context of my lineage. My thick calves are the calves of a shoemakers wife, my broad waist that of a tired Italian matriarch, my wide hips call to mind a woman who makes beans and cornbread for lunch to feed the itinerant farmhands who annually reap her family's small broom corn crop. Correspondingly, I can't imagine the skinny arms of a starlet lifting all that wash onto the line. I can't envision a model's gamine lap giving warmth to all those children. It's hard to picture the Lululemon model walking all those miles to fetch water and carrying it all the way back home. In the world of steady manual labor, heft is a blessing, girth is gold.
But here? In 2021? Me? I am none of those things. I am not a farmer, not a washerwoman. I have running water and only three children. I am a first generation college graduate. I have vacationed more than once in the Bahamas. I hold a masters degree and several credit cards in my own name. I've hiked Machu Pichu (for fun) and drive a luxury SUV. I grew up never knowing hunger and if I wanted to, I could order a Banana Cream cheesecake to be delivered to my house and wouldn't have to rise from this chair until it arrived, like magic, on my doorstep, in less than an hour. No, I am no manual laborer. I am not a pioneer. I sit at my computer for hours on end and I could no more fashion a shoe than I could skillfully wend my way through a catastrophic dust storm.
I can't be certain, of course, but I am going to guess that I am my great grandmother's wildest dream. She, who did know how to survive a dust storm, who did cook for farmhands, who did all the family's wash by hand. But then again, maybe she was too busy surviving to have such fanciful notions. Maybe her greatest dream was that she would live long enough to meet her great-grandchildren. Maybe it was my thrice great aunt's greatest dream. In any case, I feel sure that somewhere in my family tree is a woman who prayed that her sacrifices might evince opportunities for an unspecified female descendant. And, whoever she was, I imagine that she did not consider this: that, despite this woman's accomplishments and enviable life, she would find herself, in her worst moments, focused not on her bounty but on her deficiency. That, instead of feeling joy for her many blessings, she would feel shame for what she imagined to be her curses. Where there should have been victory, she felt defeat.
This body, Our body, My body, - a body that, for millennia, has required such substance to survive harsh winters and grow a family, is now home to a woman who finds herself, in this modern age, in an entirely inverted paradigm of self-image. I can't tell you how many eyelashes and birthday candles have been coopted over the years in the service of a wish to be smaller, more delicate, more sinewy, less round. Far from valuing my own strength, in the darkest hours of my adolescence, I longed to become a waif, utterly powerless. In my early adulthood, I simply wished my body would melt. And in the unnameable hours that marked both periods, there was, buried deep, a hunger to disappear altogether. Today, mercifully, I am not quite so despairing. But still, in my most vulnerable moments, I find myself utterly, unacceptably lacking.
This has been hard for me to write because it has been hard for me to face. I am an imperfect perfectionist and a lying truth-teller. I have consistently told myself I am a thin person in a fat person's body and believed it. I have carried on in the fantasy that, when I had enough time, enough money, enough bandwidth, I would finally, through sheer willpower, sculpt myself into a tiny, perfect person. I have labored under the false assumption that my body was the arbiter of my value and that once I spelunked my way to my essential core, I would discover a golden angel who never spent a moment in self-doubt and always craved kale.
I am currently in what might be called the pre-contemplation phase of self-love. I see it, I want it; I want to do what it takes to get there. It seems far away but still on the map, in the realm of the known universe instead of an undiscovered planet. And, sticking with this analogy, I don't know how to drive a spaceship but I know it can be done. I've never walked on the moon but I also don't think Neil Armstrong was just in front of a green screen. The thought of voyaging into the unknown is scary, but I can see that the benefits are, yes, out of this world.
These days, I use my peasant's body to bend and twist in all the ways necessary when you are raising three children. I use it to vacuum and to write, to launder and to podcast, to do the dishes, walk the dog, hike in the beautiful hills that surround me. When I go up and down the stairs, dozens of times a day, when I carry my sleeping daughter from the car to her bed, when I plant new flowers because it's finally spring, I am grateful for these legs. I couldn't live without my hefty arms, I'd be lost without my sturdy back. And so, in my better moments, I do my daily routine with humble gratitude for the bodies of the women who came before me, women who buried children and never got to go to school, women who worked all day and came home for their second shift. I attempt to live my life in tribute to those women who could never dream of taking the time to articulate their thoughts into written words, much less share them with the world.
I'm working on catching a glimpse of that reflection.