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body beautiful

February 14, 2012

Fashion Week is happening in New York City, and all the beautiful people have come out to play.

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As a young girl, I wanted to be one of those beautiful people, or at least be a part of their creation. I spent long hours studying magazines, getting lost in the fantasies depicted in the spreads. I dreamt of being a model (too short); or a designer (amateur at best); or someone famous enough (a pop star perhaps?) to score a front row seat at a runway show (didn’t make the cut). Like many little girls, I dressed up in high heels, stuffed two oranges in my t-shirt, sneaked into my mom’s makeup, cut out fake nails from Scotch tape, and crafted elaborate creations from aprons and lingerie. I learned how to sew and crochet at an early age, and as a seventh grader, I took lessons in fashion illustration from an artist who had married into the Capezio family (oh yeah, I wanted to be a dancer, too). I started collecting vintage clothes in high school, and my dream was to go to RISD then on to The Big Apple.

Even though I was blessed with incredibly supportive parents, I was socialized in a religious environment (church and school, both often taking place in the same building) that condemned artistic, self-expressive pursuits, especially those pertaining to the body, female sexuality, or the “frivolity” of fashion. With a graduate degree from URI, which everyone mistakes for RISD; a marriage on the brink of implosion; and little bit of luck (secular education, divorce, and superstition also condemned by said religion), I finally made it to New York at 30. I never did attend RISD, but I now teach at Parsons, so the scales seem balanced.

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I am in the fashion world, but not of it. As an adjunct fashion history professor and a part-time museum curator, I’ve chosen to sit on the sidelines as a critical observer more so than a participant, and I’ve had a subpar wardrobe and sense of style to boot. It’s turned into a love/hate relationship, and I feel I’ve become what Julie Cameron refers to in her book The Artist’s Way as the “shadow artist”: a creative who chooses a career that is close to the life they themselves desire, but are too afraid to pursue. I hadn’t realized until a few years and a couple of major life changes ago that I was scared, and that a significant part of the fear is the discomfort of not feeling at home in my own skin.

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I painfully remember the first time I felt self-conscious about my body. I was 11. I had been invited over to my older sister’s boyfriend’s house to go swimming with his sister. I wore a fuschia, turquoise, and white color-blocked one-piece with a halter tie-string. My hair was styled like Princess Diana’s, and my skin was pasty white. The boyfriend’s sister, who was a little older than me, and very tall and lean by comparison, had long, straight, black hair, an olive complexion, and wore a solid black one piece. Simple and chic. I remember standing at the top of the pool ladder, putting my hand on my abdomen and feeling sick: like my body was inadequate, like I had it all sartorially wrong. After jumping into the pool, I never wanted to get out, even though I knew my wet hair made me look like a bird. I felt weightless in the water, and its ripples distorted the lines of my figure.

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As a birthday gift to myself this year, I joined the YMCA around the corner. The facility is as nice as the private gyms I’ve belonged to in the past: a well-maintained track and swimming pool, updated machines, body wash in the showers and blow dryers at the sink. Although I signed up for a variety of health reasons (lose the last of the baby weight, get back into good shape, etc.), I did it mostly because the Y staff will watch my toddler for two hours a day, seven days a week, for $80 a month (thank you Parsons for the discount), until he is seven years old. They don’t care what I do for those two hours as long as I stay on the premises. Any stay-at-home mom, or any mother for that matter, will understand when I say that this has become the height of luxury in my day. My two-hour window looks something like this: exercise for 20-30 mins., then spend the remaining time meditating in the sauna or steam room, taking a long, hot shower (and shaving!), blowdrying and styling my hair, giving myself a facial, and leafing through fashion magazines in the members lounge. Next month I plan to sign up for massage therapy to round out the spa experience.

Being the new girl, I’ve had to learn the ropes. For instance, members are allowed two towels: the striped one is smaller and better for wrapping up my wet hair, while the solid one is a bit longer for my body, but it’s still really skimpy and barely covers me. It’s also best to use the little plastic stool provided in the showers to hold the curtain away so that it doesn’t cling to my wet body, although the water pressure is so wonderfully intense that if I angle the shower head just right, it’ll blow the curtain out of the way. However, this leaves me exposed like the skimpy towel, which brings me to my next point: there is SO much un-self-conscious nudity in this women’s lounge!

My previous experience with nudity in girls’ and women’s locker rooms has left me feeling one of two ways: ashamed, thanks to religious high school and undergrad, or painfully self-conscious like my 11-year-old self, particularly at private gyms where everyone already seems to be in immaculate shape. But at the Y: women 18 to 80, short to tall, sized XS to XXXL, taut, saggy, perky, droopy, hairy, smooth, ripply, wide, narrow, light, dark, spotty, ALL NAKED. Walking around, naked. Lounging in the steam room and sauna, naked. Blowdrying their hair, naked. Putting their make-up on, naked. Engaging in small talk, naked. Moving about easily and effortlessly naked, like children, all comfortable in their own skin.

It shocked me the first day, as I tip toed around, hunched over, trying to keep myself covered. By my third visit, I was naked with the best of them. Today it struck me how incredibly gorgeous we all are. I wish I could create a centerfold, especially of the ladies in the sauna.

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These are the beautiful people.

And I am one of them, and so are you.

So let’s just praise the lord.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2012 10:57 pm

    Amen sister. I became so less self-conscious after giving birth. I showed up in the spa naked when meeting two other friends. They wore bathing suits. They both have perfect little bodies. At first, I had a moment of pause. Then I’m like whatever, I gave birth. Wait until you do, your body means something so much more than your size. It’s a beautiful place to find.

    • February 14, 2012 11:01 pm

      Childbirth did it for me, too! It’s so refreshing to feel so liberated, to return back to that natural state our little ones enjoy everyday!

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