I pushed Ed into the park yesterday around five. Springtime is lively upon Rome. The atmosphere parts its lips and exhales a shower of pink Judas petals. They flicker down through the sunlight and form mounds on the sidewalks, fill its rivulets, create a cartograph of entropy. They highlight in dying violet the top-to-bottom tension between dumb earth’s imperative and man’s drive to fling his dreams out far past his crown.
Lemons startle in the breeze.
Periwinkle manes of wisteria clamber over the rugged walls of the convent down the street, while a crayon-set of blossoms peeks over the edges of the great stone bowls atop them. In the half-tamed park where I run, constellations of oxeye daisies have colonized the underfoot. These humble margarita flowers have inspired a new tradition between Edda and me on our afternoon journeys to the park: She demands that I pick one for her; I oblige. Then she insists that I pick one for myself. (I tried today to continue moving without doing so and she erupted in protest.) Once we both have our little blossoms, she starts our dialogue, using the flowers as puppets:
-Hi. I respond.
-Io sono Ed.
-Why don’t you tell me? Where is papa?
-Pappa e a lavoro.
-That’s right! He’s at work.
I give her flower a kiss with my flower and we move on.
Ed is famous around the park. She greets everyone, working the swing-set crowd like an old politician, while looking like a little, blonde sasquatch. She races frantically from one enterprise to the next with her unruly mane of curls following close behind. Her preferences run to things she can push, climb, disassemble. The little plastic play kitchen does not capture her imagination except insofar as she can shove it over to the tune of a big crash. The most appealing aspect of the plastic playhouses, as far as Ed is concerned, are their rooves. She drags a chair over, clambers on top, stands on their precipices and crows like a rooster. I hover nearby, fending off another in a long line of near coronaries.
It’s sort of like Cheers there in the park, except with no beer and a lot of parents–and everybody knows your kid’s name, not yours. I’ve had to memorize so many toddler monikers at this point… it seems utterly understandable that parents in the Arab world, upon giving birth to their first son, become Um or Abu of so-and-so, subsuming their individual identity to their new role as child shepherd. I’ve discussed birth, in-laws and all of the uneasy sacrifices of parenthood with an assortment of men and women whose names I have yet to learn.
I think about this submission, historically, about the days when identity was linked to places, parentage, professions—one of modernity’s marks that our names no longer grab at a communitarian sense of self. Potters and Smiths no longer occupied with clay and iron. Eriksons not born of anyone named Erik. Welshes who’ve never been to Wales. Porpoises with no purposes. I read the other day that our current obsession with the self is reflected even in popular music. Song lyrics over the past generations were analyzed and it seems that “I”s have shouldered out the “we”s and “you”s of a bygone era.
I once argued with a Finnish friend who claimed that any infringement on his individual will and personal goals by obligations to family or ideology or culture would essentially be a form of enslavement. He would rather die than live like they do in the global south, he claimed, with all his big dreams strangled by a loathesome emphasis on family. He lauded his native Scandinavia for its embrace of autonomy, its utterly secular and mostly relativistic morality. Its salted fish products.
-Oh, oh, don’t forget its incredibly high suicide rate! I added.
-Bah. He replied. (Some Europeans say ‘bah’; I think they think we say it too. It’s sort of cute.)
-No no, you’re right! So what if you end up alienated, purposeless and living in a shack, first befriending and later eating squirrels, building ineffectual explosive devices. As long as noone objects to your public masturbation performance art, it’ll all be worth it! After all, isn’t that how humans got where we are–not social cohesion and cooperation between a bunch of relatively foppish monkeys–it was your mercenary, self-indulgent, rebel consumerism. Welcome to Whole Foods? Welcome to Thunderdome! How did I not see that?
I think it was around this time that Kim stopped talking to me.
(On a related note, I privately suspect that the death of moral outrage will drain both performance art and Marilyn Manson albums of their life’s blood, if it does no other good.)
If these days it is about us, when we are women, it is also about our bodies. By which I mean on this day it was about my body, when the smiling Filipina nanny looked me over and then asked me, or rather declared:
Oh, are you pregnant again!?
Now, in fairness to her, this was mostly my fault. My body was perhaps not yet suitable for the rose-colored, skin-tight, wife-beater I was wearing over my black sweatpants. I’d just been out for a jog and it was hot and I was in too much of a hurry (too lazy) to change into a t-shirt before going to pick Edda up. But really? Pregnant?! Where was the cultural forbiddance against ever asking any woman who wasn’t moaning in labor at that very moment whether or not she was pregnant?
No, no, no. I said, smiling broadly, trying to reassure her that I wasn’t offended, knowing that she would feel bad about basically saying I was fat.
I just had a baby four months ago…well, five months ago.
She looked embarrassed, moved to the far end of the park and stayed there.
An English-speaking, half-British friend of mine showed up shortly thereafter and I told her what had happened. She guffawed: “Oh, it’s happened to me several times.” She said this in that tone women reserve for untrue claims meant to comfort their girlfriends—like: “I am SURE no one will judge you for not breastfeeding!” or “No, I don’t think his new girlfriend is pretty!” or, most commonly, “Oh, I feel fat too!” These claims should be considered almost as authentic as when our grandmas tell us how pretty we are.
Now, I have to concede a bit of vanity. I’d been feeling proud at having stripped off all but four pounds of my pregnancy gain in just five months. Gloaty, even. I almost posted my BMI as a Facebook status update before the not-being-a-douche imperative took over. So no, I am not immune. But that little fist of fatness, apparently concentrated in the sub-bellybutton pooch as if containing a little, cellulite fetus, was the last gasp waiting to depart. In truth, it’s not so much fat, but rather the stretched out stomach muscles still making their slow migration home. They say the changes wrought in the body during pregnancy are easily the most dramatic thing we ever put our forms through. But I’d thought it wasn’t noticeable.
Unlike most women, I tend to imagine my body looks better than it actually does. Whatever body dysmorphia inspires some women to starve themselves, work out for hours each day, try to get down to a size double-zero so that gay fashion designers will still not want to have babies with them—Yeah, I have the opposite of that. If I see a picture of myself looking slightly rounder than I do in my imagination, I think to myself: Wow, I must be really skinny, since the camera adds ten pounds.
If Ed inherits anything from me, I hope it is this deluded narcissism.
In America, conventional wisdom says that having kids ‘changes your body.’ This is code for ‘makes you fat.’ Not long ago, I pointed out to a friend that most Americans have no difficulty getting chubby without ever being pregnant. And personally, I will take a little extra flesh on my friends and family any day if the alternative is seeing their skeletons peeking out from behind the curtains or having to watch them not eat and feel bad about doing so myself. Here in Rome it is more problematic. Italy never got the memo about kids = fat. A couple of years back we went on vacation with another couple. The wife had given birth three months before and I watched in disbelief as she pranced onto the beach with a more bikini-ready body than I have ever boasted. Clearly because she is evil…and magic. So if I put on some poundage, I am going to have to look beyond the babies to place blame. Given that it’s Italy, I also won’t be able to point the finger at a high (all) carb diet, since they are having babies and eating pasta and still not obese. I don’t actually know what Italian women blame when they get heavy. In their shoes I might say Berlusconi. The next time I meet a morbidly obese Italian I will have to remember to ask her.
So, after an hour of frantic play, I took Ed home, and once she was safely ensconced in her Lego universe, I took some personal time with the full-length mirror.
I examined myself. The tummy was indeed a little provocative, but the hips were no wider. Same old Kentucky Fried chicken legs. Same humble chest. Same old football-ready supershoulders. Hair, still oily. Skin, still spotty. But overall in good, working order. No third nipples weeping from the forehead. No bizarre nest of skin tags. (I have an irrational fear of skin tags.) Upper arms–still not flappy. No one was about to mistake me for Heidi Klum, but I felt content again. In part I have my mother to thank for this. As a child she gave me a hard time about my looks, so the bar has long been set to low. She was a very pretty woman herself and probably disappointed that I didn’t appear to be carrying that mantle. On mornings before junior high she would join me in front of the big, bathroom mirror and list her grievances with my visage: My eyes were too buggy; my mouth too pouty; skin too zitty; horse face, and my nose, oh, but my nose, for my bulbous nose she reserved the majority of her disdain:
As soon as you turn eighteen we’re getting you a nose job!
(She,of course, had one of those perky, pixie noses.)
As a girl, this promise of surgery filled me with dread. Whatever the failings of my face, it was mine and I didn’t want to look in the mirror and see some shape in the middle picked from a book. In my imagination choosing a nose would be like going through a book of fabric swatches; I’d maybe have to decide between the Barrymore and the Madonna models and then wake up looking like someone who knew how to match her clothes. The burdens of being good-looking would follow. People would notice me in the mall. I’d have to pay attention to fashion, learn how to use an eyelash curler, not wear the same jeans for a week. There might be glitter and bangs involved. It was all very overwhelming. After all, I was the girl who thought of Barbie as an appropriate subject for gruesome, human experimentation. I found it amusing when the toads I’d pick up would pee all over my arm. This relationship with the new, beautiful me was never going to work.
In this, I felt like the nose and I were on the same team. We were the underdogs. We always stood by each other. It had never wronged me. It did its job, smelling and warming air and so on. As an adult I have even learned to appreciate it. My husband calls it the little potato. Babies like to grab it–anything that gives babies pleasure can’t be all wrong.
In any event, while I can’t declare an absolute immunity to vanity, I learned early on that I would have to get by on my nerditude. I was pushed further from dreams of perfection when my transition to womanhood corresponded with advances in photoshop and an increasing popularity of plastic surgery, such that even the naturally good-looking girls at my school would, in just a few short years, no longer be able to hold a candle to their good-looking counterparts who could also afford a personal trainer and sketchy doctors willing to surgically disappear the unwanted parts of themselves. These days, being ‘perfect’ is attainable to virtually everyone, if they can afford it, and so to virtually no one.
In my own life, in the struggle between vanity and baked goods, vanity inevitably loses. Anyway, if it’s not the body, it’s the face. If it’s not the face, it’s the hair. If it’s not the hair, it’s the height. If Tyra Banks has taught me nothing else, it is this.
But isn’t it odd, I wonder, that our collective increase in self-centeredness doesn’t come with an increased appreciation of our physical diversity? We must all be unique turkey feathers, but only within the boundaries of button noses, wasp waists, and a shining carpet of princess hair. I get the feeling that both loving our bodies as they are and, in life, giving occasional fealty in our interests to those of others is the dissent of the current age.
In pursuit of the former, we have good models in children. I look to Ed. She lives so unabashedly. Not afraid to get her hands in the dirt. And then into the gray puddle on the side of the road. The one swimming with dog droppings and engine fluid. Verily, she is not afraid to stick them in its depths. Nor afterwards to hurry them into her mouth, before her mother, screaming inexplicably, can stop her. She cares not if her hair is a bird’s nest of tangles, so long as that means mamma won’t brush it. She lives without shame even for her bodily functions. On that same afternoon, as we were walking home from the park, she greeted a well-dressed, middle-aged woman passing by:
Ciao! –She cried. The woman didn’t look.
Ciao!!! She insisted.
This time the woman looked up and replied, “Ciao.”
Ho fatto caca!! (I made a poop!!)
The woman smiled weakly. I thought of adding that she could smell it too, if she just stepped a bit closer.
Yep. In the end, as long as none of it is broken or being washed, Ed is pretty happy with her body. I think part of what religions counsel, when they suggest that we become like children, is the necessity of abandoning self-conscious scrutiny in the interest of appreciating ourselves and our lives as they are, in the here and now.
These days I am Um Ed. Before that I was a grad student. Before that a run-of-the-mill weirdo with the face of a horse and a nose like a tuber. The primacy of these other identities has kept me on good terms with the full-length mirror. My trips to see her are rarely extended and never revelatory. Awash in female laments about ‘problem areas’ (inevitably and obnoxiously from women without actual problem areas), I find myself shrugging and changing the subject.
My daughter believes we are analogous to flowers. Albeit talking flowers, whose biggest concern is when papa will get home. But after another glorious, exhausting afternoon in the park, I tend to agree.