What made Marilyn Monroe so alluring? While you may say it was her tousled blond locks or pouty red lips, science stacks it up to her curvaceous, hourglass body shape. Your body shape acts as an unconscious cue to others, signaling health, fitness and fertility levels.
—You Beauty: The Science of a Beautiful You
As a child in confirmation class, I am instructed in the holy math. “Seven is the number of completion,” our pastor says. “It took seven days for God to make the world, so seven days became the length of our earthly week.” He speaks to us as a single mass, the cloud and not the snowflakes, separate and unique.
“But you know that a seven can be made by adding together other numbers. One and six. Two and five. From God’s perspective, the most important of these are three and four.” Pastor John writes 3+4=7 on the green chalkboard; I copy this problem on the first page of my standard-issue St. Paul’s of Shorewood Lutheran Bible. “Three is a heavenly number,” the pastor says. “God is especially partial to three because God exists in three forms. Who are the three members of the Trinity?”
“God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost,” we recite in unison. No wonder he thinks of us as a single person.
“Good! Three represents Heaven, and four represents Earth. When you add them together, they equal all there is.”
Waving my hand, I ask him, “Why is four the number for Earth?”
“Think about it,” the pastor says. “There are four directions on the compass: north, south, east, west. There are four corners in a room. We have four limbs to balance our bodies—two arms and two legs. We even have four chambers in our hearts.”
That now was then. This now is later. Every magazine I open, every screen I scroll down, makes similar promises. At YouBeauty.com: Take this quiz to determine your contours. You’ll get specific health, eating, and exercise advice, plus fashion tips to flatter your figure. The human snowflake, it seems, also comes in four forms. Using a science-based tool, created by YouBeauty and reviewed by our experts, discover whether you are an apple, a spoon, a ruler, or an hourglass. And all this time I had been thinking I was a woman.
In ninth grade, I start Catholic school where books are bought instead of borrowed. One of the sisters instructs me to stand in the far line by the window. “You’ll need to purchase a Bible,” she says.
“But I have a Bible, several Bibles. NIV, King James—”
“You’re Protestant,” she decrees. How did she know? How could she tell? If I protest, I will only confirm her claim. “At Holy Names, we require a Catholic Bible.”
The first afternoon, outside on the lawn, I open my new Bible, compare it to the old. There are seven more books in the Catholic Old Testament—what we will come to call “Easter eggs” in the era of DVDs. For now, they are a bonus track at the end of a tape, extra footage after the final credits roll. I circle their titles: Tobit, Judith, The Book of Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees. I will have to inquire about these tomorrow.
Sister Ann Cornelia is our school librarian. I figure she is the best one to ask, since her spiritual vocation and her earthly occupation both involve books—notably, the Bible.
“You’re thinking like a Protestant,” she says, hands folded on her broad desk, face like a freckled child’s despite her chimney-smoke puff of white hair.
“What do you mean?”
“Listen to the difference. A Protestant asks, ‘Why are there extra books in this Bible?’ A Catholic asks, ‘Why have these books been omitted from other Bibles?'”
“Well?” I prod.
“Isn’t it the same answer either way?”
“Oh, no,” she says. “The way you phrase a question determines entirely the type of answer you’ll get.”
FOR THE APPLE: You are, by definition, round. You have the body people want to cuddle up to. You are not easy to dress, but have pillow-soft breasts and divinely sculpted ankles. For you, it’s all about bringing focus to the top half, up and away from your tummy. Start by loving yourself enough to invest in a decent bra. Cap sleeves help to broaden your shoulders. Look out for tailored trousers that have no bulky pockets or protruding zips. Avoid clunky shoes—your body shape sits well atop a dainty wedge.
The encyclopedia is a way to avoid phrasing questions, to skip instead directly to answers—or at least to information. More and more I see how the attribution of meaning will come to rest with the reader. In this way, among others, I am becoming a Post-Modernist.
From dictionaries and encyclopedias I piece together a brief history of the Old Testament: The Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches all recognize the same 27 books that make up the New Testament. There is a disagreement, however, concerning the books that constitute the Old Testament. The Catholic Bible has seven books and parts of two others in the Old Testament that are not found in Protestant Bibles. Catholics refer to these books as Deutercanonical while Protestants refer to them as apocryphal.
Deutercanonical v. apocryphal, I sketch in my notebook. A Catholic answer and a Protestant answer. Both can be right, and both can be insufficient at the same time, I marvel. Without the seven chapters the Catholic Bible adds to the Book of Esther, it bears the distinction of being the only book in the Protestant Bible that never mentions God—not even once. And one of the Catholic chapters in the Book of Daniel includes a dragon, which I think we all know opens the door to fairies and unicorns.
FOR THE SPOON: Your woes lie around your saddlebags. But your top half is hard to fault. The name of the game is broadening your shoulders to balance those saddlebags. You are relatively flat-chested so you can get away with higher-cut tops. A slashed neckline helps to give the impression of coat hanger shoulders. Or use puffed sleeves to add vital inches. Your legs are short in comparison to your body. Wearing trouser hemlines to the floor is essential to maximize leg extension. A strapless dress is a wonderful thing for a Spoon. The stiff, flared skirt does an excellent job of disguising wide hips.
“Hello, Sister,” I say, finding her on a stepstool dusting the shelves. She has cheesecloth in one hand, furniture polish in the other.
“How are you today?”
“We both know that’s not the question you want to ask.” There is something both vexing and admirable about her ability to read my mind.
“What is the difference between Deutercanonical and apocryphal?”
She corrects my pronunciation and then replies: “Catholics believe the omitted texts from the Protestant Bible comprise a ‘second canon’—that they are Deutercanonical. Protestants believe the texts added to the Catholic Bible contain valuable, historical information but are not divinely inspired; as a result, they cannot be considered part of the canon.”
After a pause, what in poetry I will learn to call a caesura: “What do you believe, Sister Ann Cornelia?” It is a risky question, as I am sure nuns are expected to uphold the party line.
She looks down at me, a sly smile parting the plump flesh of her cheeks: “I tend to favor more information,” she says. “Not less.”
“Even if it’s controversial?” I press.
“If you think about it, really think about it, what information isn’t?”
FOR THE RULER: You might find it difficult to find enough length in a sleeve or trouser leg, but being mostly tall, Rulers can carry clothes well. You have lovely long legs, lithe arms, and not too much flab around your girth—your only downfall is your need for shape. The most useful way to counter that is to break up your outline. A single button jacket will always concentrate eyes on the center of your torso. A long A-line skirt pushes your waist upward, giving you a more womanly shape. Kitten heels add delicacy and curve to your straight figure.
At the first mass of the new school year, I am intercepted on my way to communion. “It’s OK,” I whisper to Sister Mary Annette. “I’ve already been confirmed.”
“Not in the Catholic tradition, you haven’t,” she replies. I stare into her face, the spider webs around her eyes. “Protestants don’t believe in transubstantiation.” My lip quivers at the sound of the unfamiliar word, another piece of a rapidly enlarging puzzle.
The other girls move past me now, their ponytails swishing.
“The bread and wine carry different significance for Catholics,” Sister explains, one hand pressing down on my shoulder, holding me sessile as a plant—a word we have just learned in biology class.
“What should I do?” I whimper.
The other girls stand before the priest. He places the small moon of the wafer directly onto their tongues instead of laying it, Protestant-style, in the center of their open palms.
“There are two choices,” she says. “You can cross your hands over your heart, and the priest will bestow a blessing. Or—if you prefer—you can simply kneel at your pew while the others go forth to receive the Eucharist.”
The other girls remain before the priest. He lifts a giant, silver goblet—a chalice I think it is called—and they sip from it, each after the one before her, as if they were not afraid of germs, as if they had never even heard of them. No one chooses her own small glass from the wheel of glasses, the round tray passed from penitent to penitent. The priest wipes the common cup with a white cloth, which is bound to stain. Later, I learn this is real wine and not grape juice, making them under-age drinkers, every one.
“Eucharist,” she repeats. “This is a sacrament in our faith. In yours, it is only a ritual.”
Now the other girls step aside and pause (caesurize) before the altar. They cross themselves before the twin statues of Jesus and Mary. But then I realize—I am the other girl. They are not the others. They are the ones, the chosen ones, who know the words without even looking at their songbooks, who know as if by instinct when to stand, where to sit, and when to drop to their knees in synchronized supplication.
A brief history of the Eucharist: For Catholics, the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist, involves transubstantiation, meaning the substance, or essence, of the bread and wine changes—in a real, fundamental, ontological way—into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The word transubstantiation means that this change of substance is complete: The Body and Blood of Christ are not contained in the bread and wine, nor do they exist side by side with the bread and wine, as in consubstantial doctrines. The bread and wine are gone, completely replaced by the Body and Blood of Jesus. For Protestants, who most often adhere to the doctrine of consubstantiation, the bread and wine are symbolically, rather than literally, transformed by The Words of Institution.
Transubstantiation v. consubstantiation, I sketch in my notebook. A Catholic story and a Protestant story. Could they both be right? Could they both be insufficient? I had taken communion since I was eleven, never considering there might be different interpretations of what we were doing at the altar. Confirmation was the affirmation of baptism. This meant that, since I couldn’t remember being baptized as a baby, I had consented of my own preadolescent volition to become a dutiful disciple of Christ. The perks were wafers and grape juice during Sunday service and my own personalized offering envelopes, which came in the mail for all official members of the Church.
FOR THE HOURGLASS: Your body is the very essence of what makes a woman womanly. The key is to show it off. It is always difficult for an hourglass to look convincing in weekend clothes. Your shape is too ultra-feminine for trousers. Every item in your wardrobe should work clearly to define your curvy silhouette. Your waist is short and your crotch is long. The bluffer’s way to longer legs is to find a top that is long enough to stop just below your crotch, fooling our eyes into not knowing where your legs end and your butt begins. Beware big loose bat wings or kimonos that will merge your chest and arms into a solid mass.
At my grandmother’s house, my father and his sister are playing cribbage while my grandmother prepares a stew.
“I have a question for you,” I announce, folding my hands on the table to convey the seriousness of the matter.
“Oh, no,” my father jokes. “How much is this going to cost me?”
“It’s nothing like that. It’s about religion.”
My grandmother, knowingly, over her shoulder: “What did I tell you would happen when you sent her to Catholic school? First come the questions, then come the doubts.”
But I already had doubts! They had been with me long before Catholic school. If I was honest, they had been with me long before my first communion.
“Julie, don’t believe a thing you hear at Mass,” my Aunt Linda instructs. “All that pomp and circumstance violates the First Commandment.”
“Well, I wanted to take communion at Mass—”
“Oh, God no!” my father exclaims. “That common cup alone is an invitation to the Plague!”
“They wouldn’t let me,” I murmur.
“Good. We don’t need them. We have our own communion on Sundays.”
“But here’s the question,” I say, feeling my frustration pooling in my palms. “When you take communion—each of you—what are you doing?”
“What do you mean what are we doing?” Aunt Linda leans in close to me, her green eyes narrowing.
“What do you believe it means when you eat the wafer and drink the juice?” I don’t know how much more plainly I can state the question, and my feet tap the floor impatiently beneath me as I wait.
“We believe we’re receiving Christ’s body and blood,” my grandmother says. She wipes her hands on her apron and turns to face us at the table.
“Literally, or metaphorically?”
“Well, it’s not literal,” my father says. “We’re not cannibals.”
“See, Julie dear, it’s a ritual.” My grandmother pats my head. “We’re remembering the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the cross.”
“That’s just what Sister Mary Annette said. She said Protestants believe it’s a ritual, but Catholics believe it’s a sacrament.”
“It’s a sacrament for us, too,” Aunt Linda replies, her voice soft now, slow and deliberate. “Martin Luther named only two sacraments for Lutherans, as opposed to however many they’re concerned.” I frown to convey that this detour isn’t useful to me.
“What are they?” I press. “The sacraments?”
“Baptism and Communion. These are holy events in a person’s life—and they are literal,” she says.
My father sighs. “C’mon, Linda, what are you talking about? You’re just going to confuse her.”
“I believe that the bread and wine are altered when the minister blesses them. I believe the Holy Spirit comes into them and changes them so they are no longer ordinary bread and wine.”
“You mean to tell me—” he leans forward now and pushes the cribbage board away. “You mean to tell me that you believe we’re eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ? That’s ludicrous, Linda! The minister can bless it all till Kingdom Come, but put it under a microscope, and you’ll see that nothing’s different. Nothing’s altered.”
“Linda,” my grandmother murmurs, “where in the world did you get such a notion?”
“It’s what I’ve always believed,” she replies, rising to her feet and pushing in her chair. “Faith doesn’t look through a microscope, Bill. Faith defies the laws of science. And now, if you’ll excuse me…” She disappears into the hallway, and in a moment, we hear the door to her bedroom close.
“Well,” I say, to no one in particular. “If Aunt Linda wanted to take communion at Catholic church, I don’t think anyone would have any reason to intervene.”
In World Cultures class, Ms. Curran prints the word CATHOLIC on the green chalkboard, then underlines it once for emphasis. “Who can tell me what this word means?” she inquires.
The room falls silent. A few girls turn to each other, arch eyebrows, shrug shoulders.
“OK. Let’s try it this way. How many of you in this room identify as Catholic?”
All the girls except the tall one in the corner, the one with chlorine streaks in her curls and a bottom lip prone to quiver, raise their hands. “So—Erin, Emily, Somebody—tell me: what does Catholic mean to you? You must know what it means if you’re going to claim it as part of your self-definition.”
Ms. Curran is not a nun. Ms. Curran is a married woman who chose not to take her husband’s name, who also chose not to have children. She represents to me a small fork along the monolithic path of possibility, that which is rarely mentioned when a girl is assigned her uniform and the first draft of her life itinerary. Perhaps Ms. Curran too felt like an other, slicing her coffee cake in the faculty lounge between the long line of sisters, wedded to Jesus, and the short line of Mrs. So-and-Sos with their many babies and their battered mini-vans.
“Do you mean…like…Roman Catholic?” Emily clarifies.
“Well, that’s a good point, Emily.” Ms. Curran is invested in the snowflake view. To her, we are never just a cloud. “Roman Catholic implies a certain set of convictions, of religious beliefs, doesn’t it? But the word catholic all by itself, uncapitalized—it’s an adjective. Does anybody know?”
I shake my head, but my notebook is open, my pen is poised.
“It means universal, or inclusive, or all-embracing,” she says, mingling among us, passing slowly up and down the aisles. “In some translations, it simply means whole.”
“Is that because everybody’s supposed to be Catholic?” Colleen asks, but when she glances in my direction, she blushes and turns quickly away.
“You probably all know that the Roman Catholic Church was the first Christian church, so at one time, if you were catholic, you were part of the whole of Christianity. That isn’t true anymore. You can be Christian but not Catholic. The challenge for those of us who identify as Catholic is not to forget that spirit of inclusiveness, not to treat other Christians as—”she studies the red maple outside our window, searching for the right word—”as ersatz Christians.”
“What does that mean?” Erin wants to know.
“Imitation,” I say, clearing my throat. “Like a poor copy of an original.”
That now was then. This now is later. I remember Ms. Curran with gratitude, her sincere desire to honor all traditions—she who taught the theology credit that no one else had wanted to teach. World Cultures was code for all the others of the world, all the other ways of knowing, and coming to terms with the unknowable, that had been dismissed, that had been considered ersatz, less than.
How hard it is not to hold humanity to one standard, in all respects—religion, family, beauty. Catholic is a linguistic door that swings two ways: an impulse to include and an impulse to convert, depending on your interpretation of its meaning. The fraught imperative to accept yourself exactly as you are—whole, complete—and to do your best to conform to exactly what is expected of you—universal.
From “Slim Waist Holds Sway in History” at the BBC news website: The common historical assumption in the social sciences has been that the standards of beauty are arbitrary, socially determined and in the eye of the beholder. The finding that the writers describe a small waist as beautiful suggests that this body part—a known marker of health and fertility—is a core feature of feminine beauty that transcends ethnic difference and cultures.
Sophomore year we take Art Appreciation with Sister Janice. She is Catholic, as in Roman, but not lower-case catholic, not like everyone else. She even belongs to a different order. Sister Janice is what might be termed sui generis, a Latin expression meaning “of its own kind,” unique in its characteristics. She is the only Dominican sister at Holy Names, the Snowflake’s Snowflake, the Oddball Extraordinaire.
I like Sister Janice on principle: her rosy, age-defying face, her close-cropped, peppery gray hair. She is a no-frills, no-gimmicks kind of woman, a fast talker, fast walker, ambidextrous artist and calligrapher. She also doesn’t own any dresses, as far as I can tell, only white knee-high socks, colorful Capri pants, and Hawaiian shirts that billow at their too-big sleeves.
“The goal of this class isn’t to teach you what to think about art,” she says, skittering across the room like a stray marble. “It’s to teach you how to think about art, questions you can ask, methods you can use.”
Most of the students don’t take Sister Janice seriously. They yawn and laugh, pass notes under the art room table. She is all whimsy on the surface, true, but I sense that sadness fuels her restlessness, that loneliness lies behind the neon flash of her smile.
“How many of you have seen this painting before? Show of hands?” She projects a painting of three women standing naked together in a circle, their arms linked in partial embrace. All around the room: small eruptions of nervous laughter.
“None of you? None of you have seen this painting—by Peter Paul Rubens, the Peter Paul Rubens.” Sister Janice uses italics in her speech just as I do. “The great Flemish Baroque master?”
Finally, a few girls concede, nodding: “Yes, we’ve seen it,” Therese sighs, speaking on behalf of her friends.
“Observations? Remember: art history, art analysis, and art appreciation all come from the same place. They all start with seeing more clearly what is right before our eyes. And—”she whirls around—”being able to articulate what it is that we see.”
I raise my hand and watch her face come to life like a candle flame. I start to say, “They aren’t wearing any clothes”—which is the first thing I notice—but am superseded by Katie, who declares in a loud, exasperated voice: “They’re fat!” Now her whole corner of the room rocks and roars with laughter. “What?” she snaps. “They are.”
Sister Janice looks crestfallen, but she recovers by pacing to and fro in front of the open window, fingers laced behind her. “Well, fat is a pretty subjective term. What one person calls fat someone else might call robust, hearty—winsome even.”
“They have big, dimpled butts,” Therese says, emboldened by her friend’s candor. “And rolls of flab.”
“And cellulite,” echoes a tiny voice in the back.
“Our task here is to try to understand what Rubens was doing, why he wanted to depict these subjects the way he did.”
“I guess he liked big butts, and he couldn’t lie,” a transfer student whispers behind me.
“It’s quite easy,” Sister Janice continues, “for us to confuse observation and interpretation. The brain, almost as soon as it registers an image, begins to interpret that image, and all interpretations contain judgments. We bring a lot of baggage to our interpretations, ideas about what our culture has taught us is beautiful.”
When no one responds, Sister Janice projects a second image on the screen. “This is a painting by Renoir. It was completed more than two centuries after the painting by Rubens. What do you notice?”
She is so hopeful, her body swaying from side to side, her eyes scanning the room for some sign of engagement: hands about to raise, lips about to part. “Anyone?”
I want to offer an insight. I want to make Sister Janice jump with joy and send her, like a wind-up toy, spinning around the classroom. But my tongue turns to sawdust in my mouth, and my ears burn red at the sight of so many bodies.
“The woman in this painting is less fat,” Katie sighs. “Her skin is smooth by comparison—but she still has enormous thighs.”
“Slim Waist Holds Sway in History”: Dr. Singh, from the University of Texas, has spent years examining representations of women through history—in one study, he measured the waist-hip ratio of hundreds of statues from different eras. In the most recent research, he looked at how “attractive” women were depicted in literature, analyzing more than 345,000 texts, mainly from the 16th to 18th centuries. There was a trend for slightly larger women in the 17th and 18th centuries—a trend typified by the paintings of Rubens—but demand for a slimmer waist was generally constant throughout the centuries.
Thinking is long, and knowing is slow. This is what I have come to realize. Over the next two years, I return often to the distinction Sister Janice made between observation and interpretation. It was hard to have a pure thought. It was harder still to describe something without evaluating it. Looking at paintings in art class wasn’t so different from flipping through Allure or Vogue or Marie Claire. Art and advertising were rife with women’s bodies—all of them in varying states of undress. The viewer’s eyes were reliably drawn to their cleavage, their midriffs, or their long, supple legs. Faces were rarely the focus, as portraits were less important than studies of physical form.
“Niki Taylor is everywhere,” Jasmine complains, back pressed against her locker, studying the newest issue of Elle like there will be a rest tomorrow. “I swear.”
“Don’t you like her?” I ask.
“She’s just so boring: blond hair, blue eyes, slender body, beauty mark…blah, blah, blah. We get it, you know. We’ve seen it all before. If you want to be really beautiful, try being a little different, a little less cliche.”
This was the old snowflake theory, but it seemed safer to me to stay in the cloud. “Tell me something,” I say. “Doesn’t it strike you as strange that girls spend so much time looking at pictures of other girls? I never see anyone with a men’s magazine—not even men—but everyone stares at Cosmo in the check-out line.”
“I’m not gay, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Jasmine replies, sliding the magazine back in her bag.
“I didn’t say that. I didn’t mean that.” Why was everyone so defensive these days? “I’m not even sure we’re meant to look at all these women in a positive way.”
Jasmine frowned at me. “Are you going to get all valedictorian about this and have to scrutinize it from every angle—because you know that gets on my nerves.”
“I know. But—” she raises her eyebrows, as if to say this better be good—”just think about it: don’t we mostly look at magazines to cut women down, to find the thing that’s wrong with them? She’s too this, or she’s too that, or not enough of this, or enough of that—it’s all I ever hear.”
Jasmine takes out her Walkman, slides her earphones into her ears. This is her way of letting me know the conversation is over. “It’s like a Where’s Waldo game,” I insist, “and we’re always looking for the flaw.”
Mrs. Korkowski is our math teacher. She is a tall woman shaped like a bell with beady black eyes, pallid cheeks, and a large, braided bun balanced atop her head like a knitting basket. Once a year, on Halloween, she lets her bun down, but the hair is so coarse and snarled and gray that everyone wishes she would pin it back up again.
Though she is a wife and mother and not a nun, Mrs. Korkowski is one of the few women I have ever met who seems entirely unconcerned with appearance. I suspect that even in the check-out line, she would be too consumed with quadratic equations or analytic geometry—whatever problem she was solving in her mind—to even consider which newest bathing beauty graced the cover of what glossy magazine.
I like numbers, but I have a hard time with math. Unlike words, I don’t relate to their practical applications.
“That’s nonsense,” Mrs. Korkowski says in our one-on-one review session. “You count every day, don’t you? You measure things without even thinking. You follow recipes. You divvy up space in a drawer. Math,” she repeats.
“But that’s easy math. I’m talking about the hard stuff.”
“It’s all hard to begin with,” she replies in her cut-and-dry way. “But once you know it, you know it, and there’s power in that.”
“I do like the language of math,” I tell her cautiously.
“Well, this word asymptote. I like the sound of it.”
“Me too,” Mrs. Korkowski says. “There’s a poetry to math that most people miss entirely. Now tell me what the asymptote is.”
“A line which is tangent to a curve at infinity,” I repeat.
“Yes, yes, you’re very good at memorizing, but what does that mean?”
Haltingly, I confess: “I think that’s what I’m here to find out.”
Now Mrs. Korkowski makes a snorting sound that is either a laugh or a sneeze. “Well, then. Let’s try to get a handle on this, shall we? Let’s interrogate the asymptote, figure out what purpose it serves. Any idea?” I want to say, to make my life more difficult, but instead I hold my tongue and shake my head. “All right. Try this: asymptotes convey information about the behavior of curves. We use them to assess the nature of a curve.”
This I understand. This I can grasp like a rock-climbing hold on the treacherous cliff of calculus.
“So, break it down. What do we know about curves?”
That they’re beautiful. That they’re feminine. That you need them—but not too many or too much—for men to fall in love with you.
I flip through my notes. “That a curve can come close to a line without actually touching it?”
“Quite right—and you’ll like this,” Mrs. Korkowski says, with an almost-smile. “Asymptote is from the Greek for ‘not falling together.’ We assume that eventually the line and the curve will merge, but it’s important to remember that in this context, the line and curve are idealized concepts.” Aren’t they always? “Their width is zero.”
I write this down. “You know what other word I like? Parabola.”
“No tangents, please!” But then she laughs, in spite of herself.
“Slim Waist Holds Sway in History”: Dr. Piers Cornelissen, a psychologist at York University, says that the sexual attractiveness of the curve between slim waist and hips may be due to a liking for well-fed women rather than a subtle sign of fertility. His work uses mathematical equations to separate the amount of “curve” between waist and hip which is due to simple fat deposition, and that due to other factors such as bone structure and the effects of sex hormones. He said: “When we break apart that ‘curviness,’ it is almost impossible to find an effect for waist-hip ratio that is independent of effects such as body fat percentage.”
That now was then. This now is later. I have passed calculus, as in earned a grade above failing and also moved beyond it. (Or so I thought.) In my grown life, I have become an asymptote of sorts, one who appraises the function of curves: curve balls in baseball, learning curves in classrooms. I live now in the era of Curves, the largest fitness franchise in the world, with machines designed especially for women.
A curve was once called a curved line. At some point in time the curve and the line became separate, unique, making the curved line an oxymoron. Like gay straight—a contradiction in terms, an expression you never hear. I wonder about the place where a curve becomes a swerve: to turn or be turned aside from a straight course. I know what it means to swerve, suddenly, at the last possible moment—to avoid a collision (two or more moving bodies exerting forces on each other for a relatively short time). In other words, men and I have not fallen easily together. Tangentially, Curve is the nation’s best-selling lesbian magazine.
From Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking”: My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still, / And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill / Beside it, and there may be two or three/ Apples that I didn’t pick upon some bough. / But I am done with apple-picking now.
We are not done, no matter what we tell ourselves. Not with diets, not with counting calories or measuring with spoons. Quotidian math: the math of preparation, proportion. Prufrock measured out his life with coffee spoons. We measure ours with artificial sweeteners: Splenda (as in splendid), Whey Low (as in weigh low!)
From Denise Duhamel’s “Spoon”: John Updike’s image stays with me—his male character admires a slender / young woman whose collarbones strain toward each other and almost meet / in a dip where he envisions placing a teaspoon. I can’t help but think / that this lovely girl could not let herself eat whatever was once in that spoon / on the spoon rest of her throat, whatever was cooking in her body that became / a willowy stove.
I want to be the apple of your eye. But really, I want to be the spoon that rests between your collarbones. (Watch out for those dreaded saddlebags!) But really, I want to be the equal in your life—or at the very least, the Equal in your coffee, your tea. I want to be the fruit of your fall, Eden worth forfeiting for me. I will spoon-feed you the best of my shiny red heart. I will be golden and delicious. But really, I want you to love my ass—or at the very least, to love my aspartame.
From Chris Albani’s “Unholy Women”: But of course these poems are / about men, / which we become by defining how / we are not women / and / so becoming / a shadow devouring the light to find the limits.
But really, I want to be your asymptote—to graph the function of y=f(x)—in which y=man and x=woman and f=faith that something will change. As things stand, a man equals a woman and then some. Plato says, The measure of man is what he does with power. What kind of ruler will he be? (She: a Ruler who carries clothes well.) But really, a ruler is a stick made of numbers and lines. If sticks and stones will break my bones, what will words do to me?
FROST: For I have had too much / Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.
DUHAMEL: No matter how much I suck air into my throat, I can’t / make a hollow place for a spoon on my neck.
ABANI: And of course there is God / and its problematic relationship to light / not to mention the question of permission / who builds the box, the shape?
Time has a shape. It is an hourglass. Beauty has a shape. It is an hourglass. (Or is it?) Her skin is smooth by comparison, but she still has enormous thighs.
Women had power in Catholic school. They were our teachers, our principal and deans, our former graduates who came back to brag about their good jobs on Alumnae Day. They comprised our student body. When we chose a leader, it was a given that it would be a girl.
Women were also our intercessors. In Lutheran church, you could only pray to God in his various forms, but in Catholic church, you could pray to all the saints, many of whom were women, and the most important of whom was Mary (Holy Mary, Mother of God). True, Mary did become a saint for reasons that seemed mostly beneficial to men mostly beyond her control. For instance, I wasn’t impressed that a twelve-year-old girl had managed to remain a virgin. God could have singled out any number of girls with compliant natures and unoccupied wombs to give birth to his son, but I did wonder why he chose to separate this snowflake in particular from the cloud.
On March 25 each year, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation, in honor of the day the angel Gabriel appeared to the virgin Mary and told her that she would conceive a child who would become the Savior of the world. The event was sometimes called “Lady Day,” and every girl wore a floral dress and brought her favorite kind of flowers to place before the statue of Mary at the altar. Even Protestants were allowed to participate.
“You want to do what now?” my mother asks. Now she’s studying her JCPenney catalog like there will be a test tomorrow. Before I can answer, she holds up a picture of a woman in a long, low-waisted dress with frill sleeves and a sash trailing off to the side. “What do you think of this? Do you think I’m the right body type to pull this off?”
Aware of the thin ice beneath me, I tell her cautiously: “I think you should wear whatever you like, whatever feels comfortable.”
My mother laughs wryly. “The two do not always go together.” Asymptote, I muse—beauty and comfort, a line and a curve.
“It’s the Feast of the Annunciation today,” I say, clearing my throat, “so I need to bring flowers to school. I was hoping I could cut some lilacs from the side of the house. They’re so beautiful, and they always smell so good.”
“What’s this Annunciation business all about?” she demands, suddenly suspicious.
“It’s just a holy day at school. We have it every year. Remember?”
I follow her into the kitchen where she rummages through a drawer for her gardening shears—the small set with electric-orange handles. Unlocking the back door and stepping out into the sun, my mother squints as she begins to snip the fragrant lilacs from their boughs. “You’re not getting in too deep with this Catholic crowd, are you? I hope your father and I have made it clear that their entire religion is based on superstition and blasphemy, and their interpretation of the Scriptures is not to be trusted.”
“I like mass,” I say softly. In a weak and perhaps also a shallow moment, I confess it: “Mass is prettier than Lutheran church. The singing, the language, the look of things—it’s almost magical.”
Now my mother holds the lilacs in her hands, not quick to surrender them to me. “Beware the seduction of beautiful things,” she warns. Who was she kidding? “So often they are not what they seem.”
“But what are they then?” I have felt excluded at Mass before, restricted to my pew, resigned to my blessing, but I have never felt, even a little, deceived.
“What do you mean?”
“If things aren’t what they seem, then what are they? What is it you think is going on?”
“Oh, come off it, Julie! All that hocus pocus with the priest and his ball of smelling salts. Not to mention—praying to women, worshipping Mary.”
“It isn’t worship exactly,” I reply. “It’s recognizing that we can learn from other people’s experiences, that they might be able to help us along the way.”
“They’re dead!” my mother snaps, letting the screen door slam shut behind her. “They can’t help you. Only Jesus can. The very idea…” And her voice trails off as she soaks a paper towel and begins to wrap it around the lilac stems, after which she will add a layer of foil.
Today I am feeling the opposite of Mary, not compliant at all—defiant, bold in my new opinions. “How is it any different—” I argue “this so-called worshipping of women we do in Catholic church—from the way we praise famous women every day?” My mother turns to look at me like I am a prophet bearing ominous news. “The secular culture worships women, too, and mostly for their bodies alone. Not even taking into account their virtues.”
“How much more of this am I supposed to take?” Her cheeks crimson, her eyes filling with tears. “On top of everything else, are you going to tell me you’re a Catholic now?”
“No. But I do say the ‘Hail Mary,’ not just the ‘Our Father.’ And I like the idea that women are though of highly enough to be worth talking to. It isn’t only about the men.”
Now my mother—the most powerful person in our family, the clear matriarch—throws the lilacs into our cereal bowls and runs screeching through the house, calling for my father. “Bill! Your daughter has gone over to the dark side!”
But in mass, my uncertainty resumes, grows back again like a weed or a flower—depending how you interpret it. Women couldn’t be popes or bishops or priests; they couldn’t pronounce the blessing over the bread and wine that may or may not become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus. Tabloids reduced women to their bodies. It was true, I reasoned, not just an interpretation: Julia Roberts stuns in gown with plunging neckline! Cameron Diaz looking svelte in designer bikini on romantic getaway! Madonna fans will be dazzled by her post-pregnancy weight loss glam! But when I thought about the women revered in Catholic church—really thought about them—weren’t the most virtuous ones those who guarded their bodies like treasure? And almost as virtuous as nuns were the ones who surrendered their bodies to men and gave them children who bore their fathers’ names? In Mary’s case, she was a surrogate, a means for God to accomplish something he wanted, not truly an end in herself.
As my mother sometimes crassly said: “For men, having a child is ten minutes of fun; for a woman, a lifetime of pain and varicose veins.”
Now the priest reads to us from the Book of Luke: “And in the sixth month the Angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came unto her, and said, ‘Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying…”
I pictured her there, a dreamy girl, tall and sturdy with dark brown hair and a bottom lip prone to quiver; a smart seventh grader with no high school in sight, whose marriage to Joseph had already been arranged. But what if she didn’t want it, any of it? What if she was a poet in her secret heart—the words falling on her tongue like the first soft flakes of winter snow—falling all the while as she scrubbed the floors, ironed the clothes, helped her mother prepare a meal? (Holy Mary, the artist, the prodigy, or was she always destined to be—Holy Mary, the little Ash Girl?) What if she later scribbled those words on the Stenopad beneath her bedside table, read them back to herself late in the night while a lone candle continued to burn?
But now here’s this angel, intruding on her solitude, cutting into the few quiet hours of her time between school and supper: “Fear not, Mary, for thou hath found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be called great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest…”
What if she had simply said No thank you and gone back to her chores? What if she had told the angel the name of another girl just down the road who had been saying how much she’d love to have a baby—someone who actually aspired to be a teen mom?
Instead, Mary acquiesced. She did as she was told. I thought of her leaning into that curve, turning, being turned, from her course.
Was canonization really worth it? Was intercession simply another chore? Think of the poems Mary could have written if she dared.
Soon, Sister Rosemary beckons to me. “It’s your turn, dear—to take your flowers to the altar.”
I clasp the lilacs tightly in my palms and will not release them.
That now was then. This now is later. A morning. A library book with an ominous name: The Dead and the Living. “Death of Marilyn Monroe” by Sharon Olds begins with the “ambulance men” who carried Monroe’s body from her apartment. Olds imagines how the fantasy lives of these men likewise came to an end with her death. They seemed to marvel that anyone so beautiful could die. They seemed to marvel that anyone so beautiful could relinquish so much of her beauty in death—could be “flattened by gravity,” could become “ordinary” at last. As a consequence, Olds tells us, “These men were never the same.”
Their lives took
a turn—one had nightmares, strange
pains, impotence, depression. One did not
like his work, his wife looked
different, his kids. Even death
seemed different to him—a place where she
would be waiting.
And one found himself standing at night
in the doorway to a room of sleep, listening to a
woman breathing, just an ordinary
The poem is an elegy. In reading, I reflexively bow my head. And when I raise it again and gaze out the window toward the red maples, I find I am thinking of Mary. It’s not such a great stretch, is it—from Mary to Marilyn? The women intersect, parabola of heavenly light and not enough time. There is no asymptote in the world that can save them.
From “Secrets of Marilyn Monroe’s Hourglass Figure Revealed in Receipts” at The Telegraph: As the world’s most famous sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe had to look after both her creamy complexion and her hourglass figure. Marilyn Monroe’s diet has been revealed in a clutch of grocery store and meat market receipts. One substantial delivery was made two days before her big even of singing “Happy Birthday” to JFK. It’s interesting to speculate why Monroe was buying so much food at this time, especially when she knew she had to be sewn into the gown she’d be wearing.
From “Mary—Her Beauty” at Catholic News Agency: Mary’s body never knew sexual pleasure because her soul excluded it for the love of God and mankind. She always exercised, as soon as her reason was able to understand, the virtue of chastity—that is a rational and voluntary control over her entire psychosomatic human sexuality. Through her chastity and virginity, Mary consecrated to her Creator, in a total and absolute way, her human sexuality. She recognized the supreme dominion of God’s absolute and eternal Being over her body, over the thoughts, desires, remembrances of her soul.
Two women, embodied—whose bodies were not their own.
When I read the poem again, several years later, I discover I have remembered it wrong. It begins with the men, the “ambulance men,” the ones Olds tells us are “never the same.” (Beautiful Marilyn, Mediatrix of All Grace! What was it they had needed you to be for them—so they could go on living in the old way?) To see her dead, to feel her four limbs heavy and cold, her breasts “flattened by gravity” was to see her becoming human again. (Your body is the very essence of what makes a woman womanly.)
There is no scriptural record of Mary’s last days on earth. Some traditions claim she went to Ephesus, where she met a peaceful, painless death (dormition). Others claim she remained in Jerusalem and was taken to heaven without succumbing to death (assumption). In 1950, Pope Pius XII declared this latter belief official Catholic dogma. Why? Because they could not bear to see her dead, not even in dormition. Because they did not want to bear the “nightmares, strange/pains, impotence, depression” that come after such a death.
y=f(x)—in which y=man and x=woman and f=faith that nothing will change
Bless them. Bless them to the four points of the compass, to the four corners of the room.
In an unfinished letter to Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe writes: “If I can only succeed in making you happy I will have succeeded in the biggest and most difficult thing there is—that is to make one person completely happy.”
Bless them, I say. Bless them to their beautiful, four-chambered hearts.
In response to the annunciation of the angel Gabriel, Mary says: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”
But bless her, most of all, for she is all of us: that ordinary woman breathing.
Art by Matt Monk
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