What Lives in the Female Belly

I decided to name my blog “Stories from the Belly” for a few reasons. The first was that I wanted to tell the kinds of stories about being a woman that aren’t often shared out loud—true tales that might feel too shameful or painful or embarassing to tell anyone. Instead, a woman might store these stories deep within, locking them inside her body and forgetting they are even there.

I’d buried these types of stories in my belly for years. I didn’t even know that’s where I put them until I took a writing class with poet Jack Grapes more than ten years ago. Jack teaches students how to access the memories that we’ve buried in our gut, right in the belly.

I grew up having very strong feelings about this part of my body. My belly, like the earth, has always been round, never flat. Even when I’ve placed myself on a restrictive diet or felt motivated enough to work out five times a week, my belly is full and soft.

As a teenager I tried to hide my belly. I would wear loose clothing. I subsisted on half-breaths for years so I could keep my stomach pulled in under my rib cage. If only my belly would disappear—although anatomically if I didn’t have a belly and all that it contains I’d be in big trouble.

Maybe then I shouldn’t have been surprised that my belly was where I’d buried the true stories that I was most mortified and wounded by: the story of how I endured a verbally abusive relationship;  the story of how as a young girl I hid my dark complexion inside nylon stockings and under long sleeves (I wanted people to think I had lighter skin); and the story of when a swim teacher molested me.

In Jack’s class, I used my pen to siphon out the painful memories and release them from my body. In the process of transforming these traumas into stories for class, I began to heal from them. I started to feel whole again.

When I later participated in women’s circles, I discovered that stories that come from the belly are even more more potent when shared. These gatherings usually begin with a “check-in.” Each woman takes her turn talking about an internal struggle, a personal victory, or a new realization about herself.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years a woman has told the kind of personal story that people usually don’t talk about and I’ve thought, Really? You mean It’s not just me!?

Whenever it’s been my turn to share a fear, a neurosis, or a “this happened to me” moment, the women’s responses have been similar. Always, there is empathy, compassion, and recognition. Often, in these exchanges, some kind of release or relief happens for someone if not everyone.

In certain women’s circles nothing even needs to be said. The telling of an experience is visceral, transmitted from one female body to another.

Like at one gathering that was specifically for survivors of sexual abuse. As I entered the room, I looked around and realized that I knew almost everyone there.

That understanding alone—of knowing that these women, whom I knew personally, also carried their own stories of sexual abuse in their bodies—helped shed my shame around what happened.

Before that circle, I’d spent years trying to hide in plain sight. I was scared my abuse secret would be found out. I pursued acting but constantly sabotaged any potential success. I wrote professionally but only as a ghostwriter. My fear was that if anyone discovered I had been sexually abused they would want nothing to do with me.

But as I looked at these women, whom I admired and knew to be courageous, warm, compassionate, and wholehearted human beings—women I was honored to call my friends— I began to see and feel differently about myself. I started to let people see me.

For me, it has been shame that has compelled me to act smaller, compact my fullness, and swallow my voice. Shame caused me to entomb my messy truths in the bowels of my belly—along with my complicated feelings, my fiercest parts, and even my power. It has been in the digging up and reclaiming of all these disowned bits, allowing them to find their rightful place in my body and in my life—without the shame—that I’ve finally started to embody my wholeness.

The title of my blog pays homage to women and their bodies in all their fullness. It honors different aspects of the lived female experience that often get cast aside, disowned, or stuffed down in the belly. It embraces the (my) feminine appetites.

These are the many desires that live in the female body. And I’m not just talking about sex and food either.

I am a woman who is hungry to know herself totally, demands to be fully met by her man, and wants… craves… must have… much from this one life.

Thank goodness we have the stomach for all of it.

The Female Belly

The Female Belly Comes in Many Forms


The Other “F” Word

Three years ago I turned forty. I flipped out when it happened, even though I knew that the negative ideas about women hitting middle age are misogynistic and wrong.

Here are excerpts from my journal that I wrote in 2011 about this milestone age (Apparently I was watching a lot of Oprah back then):

  • Oprah says that hiding your age is like denying your existence. Yet I can’t help myself. At parties any time the topic of age comes up I find myself leaving the room and running to get a drink. If I come back and people are still talking about age, I get up again, this time to go look for ice. I don’t want to admit that I’m 40—especially living in Hollywood where it seems like everyone I know is 25.
  • I’d lower my age on Match.com if I wasn’t so opposed to lying. My ex-boyfriend says that a lot of guys who see my profile are writing me off right away just because the number “40” appears in my age box. It’s almost as if my age is my expiration date and I’ve turned into a carton of spoiled milk.
  • People who know my real age say that I look pretty good “for 40.” Still, there’s that caveat, “for 40,” as if “looking good” and “40” don’t usually go together.
  • I finally decided to stop checking my face in the mirror to see if any new wrinkles appeared overnight. I mean, what if by staring at myself under the blaring bathroom light, my forehead furrowed with worry, I’m making more wrinkles happen?
  • I watched Oprah’s Lifeclass on OWN. The episode was about celebrities on aging. Actresses Ally McGraw, 72, and Bo Derek, 53, talked about how their necks are now showing their age. I thought, Fuck! Really? The neck? The fucking neck? One more body part to worry about.

Entering middle age for a woman can feel scary in a society that places so much value on youth. Girls and younger women are objectified. Older women are mocked or treated as if they are invisible. And if a woman tries to hold on to her youth for too long, she too risks being ridiculed. It seems to me that the only way for any woman to escape this contempt is by dying young.

Psychologists and former models Vivian Diller and Jill Muir-Sukenis are the authors of Face It: What Women Really Feel Like as Their Looks Change say, “While individually we were taught that beauty is only skin deep, our youth-obsessed culture reinforces the notion that beauty is our currency, our power, and what makes us female.”

They write that millions of women are “surprised, and embarrassed, even” to discover that they care so much about their changing looks. Even “the first wrinkle or gray hair can send us into an emotional tailspin.”

Reading their book, I thought, I’m not the only woman my age feeling this way? Why don’t more of us talk about this? It would definitely make me feel less alone, neurotic, and superficial. Now I understand why there are women who feel like they have to get Botox shots or go under the knife. We’re taught to despise ourselves for getting older yet we look down at each other for wanting to look younger. 

At the Academy Awards this year, actress Kim Novak, 81, made a rare public appearance. Novak, who became a big star in her twenties, obviously doesn’t look like her younger self. But she does appear to have undergone some work.

The vitriol directed at her by men and women on social media for trying to look younger even though she is an old woman made me sick. I can only imagine how it made Novak feel. Then again, she probably would have gotten just as much heat if she’d walked onto the stage looking her age. I can see the headline now: Kim Novak, 81, actually looks 81!

About six months into being 40, I realized I had a choice to make. I could keep chastising myself for getting older, or I could stop buying into the messed up ideas around aging that I’d internalized. Considering that I’d spent most of my thirties waking up to who I really am and what I really want, I certainly didn’t want to fall asleep again under another sexist spell cast by the patriarchy.

At 41, I kicked my sugar habit and became the healthiest I’ve ever been. I also started writing my first book because I was finally ready. After 40 years of people pleasing, I stopped saying yes whenever I really mean no. I also stopped worrying about men who weren’t interested in me and started to pay attention to the men that I was interested in. Last year, I met the person that I want to grow old with. And even though I don’t look 23 anymore, or even 33, I love the way I look today at 43.

Selfie of a photo selfie 6/21/14

Selfie of a photo selfie 6/21/14

Still, I’d be lying if I said that I no longer panic whenever a new sign of aging makes an appearance. Just the other day I stressed out when I saw a gray hair fall out of my left eyebrow. I’d never even thought to worry about that body part.

But then I remembered that Sundance, my boyfriend’s cat, is white. I decided that he must have hovered over me while I slept and shed hair over my face. “Please let that be white cat hair and not my hair! Please let that be white cat hair and not my hair! I implored said eyebrow.

I must say that so far my forties are proving to be—to use yet another F-word—(pretty damn) Fabulous.

Road sign symbolizing life’s upswing in my forties.

 

 


The Story of a Woman in Sexual Pleasure

A few years ago I was asked to participate in a storytelling show. The piece I read was called “My Vibrator Story.” I had written it in a workshop and test read the story at the end of class. The audience, made up of the other participants, was primarily women that day. My story, a personal tale about masturbation, ended up getting lots of laughs—so much so that I was invited to share it in front of a much larger, public audience.

But when the time came to read “My Vibrator Story” at this bigger event—no one had told me there would be over 100 people there—I bombed in my delivery of the piece. I indicated to the audience when I wanted them to laugh. I kept looking at them and smiling as I read as if to say, “This is one big joke, let’s not take me or my story too seriously.” The audience’s response, as I read my work and when I finished, was lukewarm.

It was a long time before I was willing to read any story in front of strangers again. What happened to me that night? How hard could it have been to just read words off a page? Maybe I was too nervous. I’d never read my work in front of that many people before. Or maybe I’d felt insecure. The list of performers that evening had included original Saturday Night Live cast member Laraine Newman and other known performers.

Looking back now, I realize that beyond nerves and self-doubt there was something else going on for me that night: I’d felt deeply ashamed to be talking about female sexual pleasure, especially my own, in front of an audience that included men.

Masturbation, by Gustav Klimt Wikipedia Commons:  http://tinyurl.com/m743nxn

Masturbation, by Gustav Klimt
Wikipedia Commons:
http://tinyurl.com/m743nxn

“My Vibrator Story” is about what I did years ago one summer. Tired of feeling disappointed in dating and having no desire for casual sex, I went down to the local sex shop and bought myself a sex toy. I liked mine so much that I went back to the store and got vibrators for my closest girlfriends, too. When I got tired of my vibrator I bought another and then another.

The story version of my experience, told in 1400 words, includes a jaunty play-by-play with orgasms. It also talks about the relief I felt for the respite: For once, I had total permission to not worry about someone else’s sexual satisfaction. I could let my sexual experiences be all about me. And as I got to know my body better, I learned more about what I liked and what I didn’t like. I began to recognize what worked for me and didn’t work.

When it came time to share in public what to me felt like an empowering, self-honoring experience, the last emotion I expected to feel was shame. But that’s exactly how I felt—as if I was telling a disgusting, dirty story.

Also, thoughts like these ran through my head as I had read: Why couldn’t I have read the story about the night I was almost date raped by that frat boy in college? Or what about the one where my swim teacher fondled me when I was ten? As if those stories were less offensive because they were about horrible sexual experiences and not positive ones.

Granted, there are now more stories out there that portray the more pleasurable aspects of a woman’s sex life—The HBO shows Girls and Sex and the City  and Showtime’s The L Word are a few examples. Also, more women are openly talking and writing about the female sexual experience, including their own.

Still, many people in this world continue to treat female sexual pleasure like a taboo topic: Fit to be viewed mainly in a pornographic context, and even then primarily for the purpose of arousing the male gaze. God forbid the portrayal of sex when it revolves around a woman’s own pleasure.

In 2010, the movie Blue Valentine almost got an NC-17 rating because of a scene where actor Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on his wife, Michelle Williams’s character. She is the one who orgasms. Last year, the CW network edited out a scene from an episode of the drama Reign because it depicted a female character sexually pleasuring herself. And just this month, Jean Franzblau, a writer/performer, got fired from a corporate job because the client found out she has a one-person show called Coming Out Kinky: A Grown Up Story.

Why are so many people in society still uncomfortable with stories about female sexual pleasure? I suspect this has a lot to do with a patriarchal paradigm that generally refuses to acknowledge women as sexual beings in their own right. It’s okay to think of a woman as a slut or frigid or a sex object. A sexually empowered woman is still a big no-no.

Despite my behavior in private and my personal belief that female sexual pleasure is awesome, I’d obviously internalized the cultural shame around talking about it. Although the truth is, if the audience (no matter the size) had again been primarily women, I wouldn’t have felt mortified when reading my “My Vibrator Story” out loud.

To be clear, the men who were in the audience that night didn’t do anything to make me feel bad about telling my story. But as I looked out into the crowd and saw them there, my first response was shame. I think it’s because on some level a part of me believed that patriarchy was right: female sexual pleasure is acceptable but only when a man is involved and not if it’s all about the woman.

Any kind of societal or internalized conditioning that makes a woman feel ashamed about owning and embracing her sexuality has got to go. The next time I read “My Vibrator Story” in front of any audience, I’m going to do my best to tell the story simply and unabashedly.

 


On Mother’s Day Greetings and the Sacred Feminine

On Mother’s Day, I deleted a Facebook post before I had a chance to publish it. The update was going to acknowledge all the moms that I know. The reason I never posted the message was that there was more to it. The post in its entirety would have said: “Happy Mother’s Day… so grateful to you moms for embodying the Sacred Feminine.”

We live in a world where greeting card companies have come up with all kinds of ways to say Happy Mother’s Day—from funny greetings, to the poetic kind, to religious-themed greetings, to cards that are purposely inappropriate. Still, I hesitated to put up my greeting because I worried that someone out there might think I was just being “woo-woo” spiritual or, even worse, take offense that I’d linked “mothers” to the “sacred feminine”—as if to put the two together would be blasphemous.

As a teenager and through my twenties I didn’t see much use for my femininity except for whatever purpose it could serve for attracting the opposite sex. After I grew breasts and hips I learned how to wiggle and sashay in such a way that if I walked into a room you’d have to look at me. I would constantly bat my eyelashes, flip my hair from side to side to give off a “Charlie’s Angels” effect, and speak from my throat (rather than my diaphragm) so my voice would sound huskier.

It was the masculine I revered. Let me be more like my dad and less like my mom when I grow up, I secretly hoped. My dad was career driven, in charge, a successful CEO, and strong. All of the women in the family—my mom, my sister, his sisters, and I—adored him.

As far as I could tell by looking out into the world, men were in charge. Even in my religion of birth, Catholicism, it was always about the men. Women were cast as mothers, wives, and whores to support the masculine or be shunned.

It wasn’t until I started studying The Tantric Dance of Feminine Power ™ that I realized I wasn’t even close to embodying my feminine self. I was mimicking an idea of what I thought that was.

The first time I saw a woman do this subtle body practice, I wasn’t really sure what it was I was watching. All I know is that she was moving in ways that you don’t normally see out on a dance floor or in your typical dance class. And when she was done and she opened her eyes there was this expression in them that seemed to cry out, “epiphany!” Only, what about?

Then it was my turn. I stood up. Following the teacher’s instruction, I closed my eyes, spread my legs hip-width apart, bent my knees slightly, focused my attention on my womb and waited… for what, I wasn’t sure. What if nothing happens? What if I stand here the whole time the music is playing and I’m boring to watch? Maybe I should start wiggling my hips around and make this dance happen.

And then something did happen. There was this rush of energy that seemed to come directly from my pelvic area. It rose like a geyser through my core, my chest, my neck, my arms, until I too was moving in unfamiliar ways. Except that I wasn’t moving my body, it was the energy moving me: pushing one hip forward, the other hip back, raising my right shoulder, extending my left arm upward. And the energy kept coming in waves… growing thicker and thicker like molasses. What is this? Who cares! This feels amazing!

Through The Tantric Dance of Feminine Power ™ I discovered that there was more to inhabiting my female body than meets the eye. I started to pay more attention to what was going on inside me rather being so concerned with how I look. Instead of focusing so much on what the man in my life was doing or saying, I began listening more to my voice and paying attention to my desires.

I started to move in my body (and later in the world) from a place of genuine impulse that had nothing to do with pleasing anyone but me. I learned how to access my real feminine power—the one that comes from within and not the “power” that’s really just about whether or not I can capture the attention of a man. I stopped putting my passions and dreams aside whenever I got into a romantic relationship.

I am by no means perfect at any of this. But what I now know for sure that women are more than just the second fiddle to men. We are equally important and just as worthy of reverence.

Webster’s Dictionary offers several definitions for the word “sacred,” including: “highly valued and important, entitled to reverence, entitled to respect.” The feminine is sacred.

Saying that mothers (or any female) embody the Sacred Feminine isn’t sacrilege. It’s holy truth.

So today, more than a week later, I’d like to say: To all you sacred moms, Belated Happy Mother’s Day! I bow down to all of you with genuine reverence and appreciation.

http://tinyurl.com/lo3teqd

Sacred Feminine!! http://tinyurl.com/lo3teqd

 

Have you ever had an AHA MOMENT when you realized that you were just skimming the surface of all that you really are? I’d love to know more.


Owning My Voice

For years, I was terrified to show the world any of my own writing. I found ways to avoid professional work that would require a byline with my name attached to it. I was stymied by a number of fears: What if my writing isn’t good enough or what if it’s “too much?” Worse yet what if what I say offends, turns off, or upsets anyone, possibly everyone—rendering me undateable, unhireable, or, even, unfit to be part of society?

Stories from the Belly has been up and running for eight months. This post marks my 17th one. While the blog is fairly new, for me working as a blogger is not. I’ve been ghost blogging for eight years and written thousands of posts—only you would never know that any of them were written by me.

I’d even started other personal blogs in the past—four, to be exact (one of them I’d forgotten ever existed until I stumbled upon the URL in my bookmark folder the other day). I never made any of these sites available to the public.

Author Virginia Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own, “I would venture to guess that Anonymous, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” For a long time, I might as well have been this “Anonymous.”

I’d love to think these fears are just a product of my own personal history—my Catholic upbringing, being born into a culture (Filipino) where sometimes the greater offense is to tell the truth rather than to keep up the facade that everything is fine. But from talking to other women in my life I’ve found that this is bigger than me.

iStock_000016165776Medium

I’m not the only one who has worried about the consequences that might arise from expressing a personal truth or opinion in a female voice. At a young age, many girls are trained in how to be seen more, heard less. We are taught to make our voices sexier or dilute them of any real authority. We learn how to infuse the word “like” into nearly every sentence, end our statements with question marks, or wait for someone else to tell us when we can talk and what we are allowed to say.

For some women, especially in certain countries, speaking the truth can lead to jail time or a death sentence. And even in Western countries, there are female writers who have received rape and murder threats for expressing their opinions in a blog post or some other publication.

When I started Stories from the Belly last year, it wasn’t that I had gotten over my fears or stopped caring about any possible fallout, both real and imagined. It was that I finally understood that my fears were keeping me boxed in, shut up, and disempowered. I was allowing cultural conditioning and the constraints placed on me because I happen to be a woman to win out.

The only way to take my voice back was to start writing as me even if not everyone liked what I had to say. This included writing about the female body with as much naked candor as I had the courage to muster. (Society will objectify and sexualize the female body, but God forbid an honest depiction of what it’s really like to live in one—many consider that subject taboo.)

Writer and feminist Audre Lorde said: “Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever… and at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

I doubt that anything I’ve published here has disrupted any dinner parties yet— although sometimes I can feel my parents squirming 400 miles away as they read my latest blog post. And I’m pretty sure that a lot of my older relatives are wondering what the hell is wrong with me. Then again, one of my uncles just signed up as a subscriber.

When I published my first blog post early last September, I sent it out only to a designated “safe” list of friends I knew would be supportive. My second post, about working out with Jane Fonda, I published to a slightly bigger list on Facebook. When I published my third post, about my period, I secretly hoped no one would see it. Instead, not only did readers find me, but many of them seemed to resonate with what I wrote. They left comments. The blog and its readership have been growing ever since.

When one of my blog posts, “Growing Up Like Skipper: On Breasts and Objectification,” got Freshly Pressed on WordPress and then syndicated on BlogHer, I was deluged with comments, mostly from other women, eager to share their personal breast stories. Apparently many of us had similar experiences and feelings about our breasts—only none of us knew this because no one talks about it. (As for me, to discover that sharing my truth could cause strangers to open up and tell their stories, rather than turn away, was a healing of its own and an honor.)

And while I did receive one comment from one reader about the “Skipper” post: “This post is like a rich white male proclaiming all the downsides of being so privileged. Cry me a river, please.”—You know what? I survived. And I became even more committed to continuing to write as me and tell my stories, including what its like to inhabit my female body.

That doesn’t mean I am devoid of the old fears. Often, before publishing a blog post, I pause, hold my breath, and second-guess myself: Did I reveal too much, get too personal? What if the writing isn’t good enough? Why the hell don’t I write about lighter, more positive topics, like ‘how to meditate’ or ’10 tips for growing a rose garden’? Or, what will my dad/former landlord/ex-boss/neighbor/best friend from kindergarten who I haven’t seen in over 30 years but is now my Facebook friend think of me now?

Then, I remind myself of what is really important: That I keep telling my truth no matter what. Then I press “publish,” and get on with the rest of my day.


Facing the Vagina

I am a 9-year-old living with my family in Argentina. The day is so hot that if it weren’t a Saturday and we were at school the teachers would have fed us popsicles at recess to keep our temperatures from rising.

We are swimming in the shallow end of a pool. There are five of us.

It’s my turn to use the scuba mask. The other girls are bobbing around in a row.

I take a deep breath before dropping underwater…  as I float by, each girl pushes the bottom of her bathing suit to the side to show me what’s behind the nylon fabric… thin slits between flesh are all I see… and then I’m up and out of the water, greeted by giggles as I gasp for air.

I take my place in line and pass the mask down to the next curious girl.

 

Last Saturday, I found myself staring at someone else’s vagina again. 101 Vagina, a photographic exhibit, which is touring the U.S. and Canada, was ending its opening run in Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: 101 Vagina http://tinyurl.com/kc8527c

Photo Credit: 101 Vagina
http://tinyurl.com/kc8527c

Staring at the photo of vagina #001, hung high enough to meet me directly at eye level, I realized that I had never looked at another vulva that closely before—let alone 101 of them.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that it was a total Aha moment for me to discover that no two looked alike—at all—whether it was the size or shape of the labia, the direction in which a clitoral hood swung, or the texture of pubic hair (some patches even seemed to defy gravity, growing in a sideways direction). Each vagina was unmistakably distinct.

Seeing so many of them in the span of an hour was a lot to absorb. By the time I got to #048, my brain gave up trying to process what I was seeing and I let the visuals and the impressions they were making wash over me: Is that MENSTRUAL blood dripping down her thigh? Those look like tight clothing marks… was she sacrificing comfort to look skinnier? A tattoo of a stick figure pushing a lawn mower… CLEARLY, this is a vagina with a sense of humor. Why do I feel like I’m looking at such foreign terrain?

It is hard to formulate any opinions or judgments about a woman if all you see is her vagina. You can’t tell anything about her politics or socioeconomic status or what she might do for a living. You can’t assume she’s a smoker or if she is a hipster or even guess her age.

The black-and-white images, shot by photographer Philip Werner, aren’t meant to arouse. They expose what is real, while alluding to that which continues to stay hidden and distorted.

Most females don’t get the opportunity to see another vagina besides their own beyond the limited depictions that society allows. The vagina is not a body part that gets much visual play in the media: documentaries, maybe, or certain premium cable channels, and even then just barely unless the programming is “adult” TV.

Vaginas that do get star billing in pornographic movies and girlie magazines are usually smoothly shaven with symmetrical labia, perpetuating the myth that this female body part should ideally look a certain way. Labiaplasty surgery to give women and girls the “designer vagina” of their dreams is growing in popularity.

Vagina Art made by exhibit visitors Photo Credit: 101 Vagina http://tinyurl.com/mmgyyme

Vagina Art made by exhibit visitors
Photo Credit: 101 Vagina
http://tinyurl.com/mmgyyme

Like so many women and girls, I grew up relating to my vagina as the place for sex and making babies. It was also that part of my body to cover up and protect. Pleasure was to be had but not to the point of losing total control. And then there are the hundreds of thousands of sexual assaults that happen every year.  Is it no wonder that so many females feel cut off from the vagina?

In the exhibit, each image of the vagina is accompanied by words written by her woman: “Hungry pussy… spoilt and neglected… I recently removed my hair as a gift to my lover… lush… sticky smell on my fingertips… La Petite Tulipe… At the moment, my child has taken it over as her own portal… ””

The vagina, and a woman’s relationship to it, is so much more complex than the sum of its parts.

Certain spiritual traditions believe that the vagina is the doorway to the sacred… a passage between worlds. They know it to be the place in the female body where Shakti—the cosmic primordial force—resides.

101 Vagina is on tour in the US and Canada through the end of June, including a return trip to Southern California next month. There is also a coffee table book of all the photographs and women’s writings available for purchase. Part of the profits goes to charities that are fighting to stop violence against women.

I bought one. I like the idea of someone sitting down in my living room, picking up the book, looking inside, and being confronted with what is real.

 


The Virgin Mary, Body Image, and Her Story

I grew up feeling reverent toward the Virgin Mary. When my pregnant mom still hadn’t gone into labor a few days after my due date, she prayed to the Holy Mother for help so that the doctor wouldn’t have to induce her. My mom started having contractions just hours later.

My parents gave me Mary’s name twice—Marie is my middle name and Lourdes, which is a French form of the name Mary, is my baptismal name. Every night as a child with my mom sitting bedside, I would pray aloud: “Hail Mary, full of Grace…. Blessed is the fruit of diamond Jesus…”

I would say the word “diamond” with special emphasis because I thought it was so beautiful that there was such a thing as a diamond Jesus even though I didn’t know what that was. It wasn’t until I was 10 that I figured out that the words were actually “thy womb Jesus” and understood what that even meant.

Our Lady

The Virgin Mary was my one number one role model of a Catholic holy woman. There really wasn’t anyone else. The nuns who had become saints didn’t appeal to me much. The idea of wearing a habit did not sound fun and I didn’t want to give up TV or shopping (which I assumed they did) or pray all day (which I assumed they do). And while I admired Joan of Arc, I didn’t want to end up like her—burned at the stake.

I tried to be good like Mary, but hardly ever succeeded. Standing outside the confessional as a girl, I would get ready to declare my sins: Talking back to my mother for grounding me after I got a C+, not sharing my Barbie dolls with my sister, having a dream about Janet Jackson (Her album Control had just hit the radio waves. I was worried my dream meant I was a lesbian), and disobeying my father because I watched the movie Risky Business even though it was “R” rated.

I was even going to stay a virgin until marriage. That vow of chastity, however, was soon forgotten thanks to the influence of my female dormmates in college who would not stop talking about sex: how they weren’t getting any, how the sex they were getting wasn’t good enough, or how they were getting sex but wanted more sex. I just had to find out what the fuss was about.

Eventually, I gave up trying to be as good Mary. It seemed to me that she was just one more ideal that belonged to a faith whose values and ideas were beginning to seem less relevant to the realities of my own life.

It wasn’t until I read the book Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother by journalist and author Lesley Hazleton that I began to wonder if maybe the Holy Mother might not have been that different from me as a woman.

The first whiff of a bunch of aha moments in the making came when I looked at the cover of Hazelton’s book. Gazing back at me were the dark eyes of a dark-skinned young girl.

Mary Photo

Until that moment it never occurred to me that a woman as revered as Mary might have had skin coloring like mine. I’m Filipina-American, not Middle Eastern, which a real Mary would have been—hence the dark skin and eyes. But for someone who grew up seeing statues and paintings of Mary that were always of a blonde-haired, pale-skinned female (and who had internalized that white skin was the fairest color of them all), to see a brown-skinned woman cast as an accurate portrayal of what Mary could have looked like felt healing.

Hazelton writes about a very different Mary from the icon who became famous as the mother of the Son of God. Based on the time and place when she would have lived, if Mary was a real person, then “Maryam” (her name in Aramaic) would have been a 13-year-old girl who could very well have been schooled by her female relatives in the healing arts and midwifery. Born before the time of Christianity, her spiritual devotion would have likely been to the Goddess Isis, who was the Great Virgin of her time.

Hazelton also speculates that if, in fact, Maryam was a midwife, then she would have known how to easily terminate an unwanted pregnancy. This would mean that regardless of how the conception happened, Maryam’s decision about whether to become a mother might not have been as choiceless as the world has been led to believe.

That Maryam would have had her own experiences outside of being Jesus’s mother was a surprise to me. I had never thought of her in any other way. (I sometimes feel this way when I look at my own mother in that I find it hard to see her as the person she is beyond the context of being my mom.)

In paintings and murals of Mary kneeling at the foot of Jesus’s cross, she always looks so benign and resigned as she watches him dying. Hazelton dares to look behind the image to a much more plausible reality of a mother who likely would have been wailing, angry, and inconsolable. Then there would have been the challenge of learning how to keep living after outliving her son.

The idealized, perfect Virgin Mary of my childhood would have never behaved so humanly.

If Jesus died at 33 then Maryam would have been 46. Middle age didn’t look then the way it can now. As Hazelton points out, Maryam’s hair would have had lots of greys, her skin lined with her years and roughened by the weather. Yet in all the images created of the Holy Mother, she is never allowed to grow older.

Instead, as the stories go, Maryam just rises up into heaven, her body and youth perpetually intact. (These days, the only icons that get to stay forever young and beautiful are the ones who die way before their time—Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe are two examples. Not only did Maryam forego aging but she got to bypass death.)

This makes me wonder, were the great artists like da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Rubens the ones making up the unrealistic female beauty and body image standards of their day? If so, then not even a real Mary would have been able to live up to their ideal of a never aging Madonna that they immortalized in so many of their great works.

As I imagined Mary as Maryam, I realized how important it is when honoring the female role models and heroines of today and years past—March is Women’s History Month—to also remember that there is so much more to each of them than their contributions, accomplishments, or what they mean to us personally.

Every woman who makes history also has a Herstory. This narrative of her own lived experience is so much richer and deeper than what is written in history books, captured in still images, or condensed into a news headline. Knowing this allows us to see and celebrate the real woman behind the idealized icon.

Reading about Maryam, the woman who could have been the real basis of the Virgin Mary, didn’t make the Divine Mother less pure or holy to me. If anything, experiencing the Sacred Feminine brought back down to earth as a flesh-and-blood woman allowed me to see my own divinity reflected in her humanity. I love her even more now.


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