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I don’t know what I look like.

I have to start there. It’s been floating around this past week repeatedly since I scheduled my photo shoot for The Embody Project. Erica just left after taking a generous amount of photographs while I hung around my living room unclothed, completely free to ponder myself in the flesh in front of a lens, and the fact remains…

I have no idea what my body really looks like.

Most of the thoughts that swirl through this awareness have an ambivalent, edgy, disloyal relationship with this thing I call “my body.” One moment it’s beautiful, sensual, feminine, miraculous. The next it’s too thick, soft, wrinkled, and undesirable. Which reminds me of the mythic shape-shifter, the trickster… in this case an experiential collection of sensations, images, and thoughts combining together in different formulations, different dreams, depending on the context, depending on the dreamer. All of which begs the follow up question, does my body “really” look like anything at all?

My mother once told me that when I was in my youth, I was the most beautiful person she had ever seen. I’ve never told anyone she said that, afraid it would sound like bragging. I’m touched by it though, in part, because I look so much like my mother and, in part, because I’m sure she didn’t see herself that way. The funny thing is she probably doesn’t recall ever having said or thought it now. It’s just a string of words hinged to nothing solid.

I’ll be fifty-four in two weeks. This body is aging. My breasts are less full, my flat ass is getting flatter, and my face looks tired even after a good night’s sleep. My right knee has recently felt stiff and I have saggy dimpled skin on my arms and thighs which was never quite like that before, but I can’t pretend that issues with my body are newly related to age. I need only root around my cache of memories to find a theatrical dark saga played out over decades of feeling self-conscious and confused in response to this collection of bone and flesh.and yet, I’m hesitant to drag them out here, onto the page, because they seem so old and frayed. The stories have lost most of their fascination and meaning now. And yet, to do this project, I’m going there at least this one last time, if only briefly.

Beginning in early childhood, I received inappropriate sexual attention and the pattern continued through high school and into my early twenties. Those experiences colored my sense of self, safety, and worth more than I realized for a very long time. About nine years old, inspired by stick thin fashion models, I went on my first diet. Innocence became purging, bingeing, hiding food, eating until I made myself sick, starving until I was lightheaded, hating the currency of my body, confusing love with need, sex with love, need with survival. I learned to smile, to never tell the truth, to cry and say I’m sorry instead of what in the world makes you think that’s an appropriate thing to do or say?

I’ve lost about twenty pounds over the last six months. I exercise regularly and eat with care. I’ve lost body fat and inches and my clothes fit looser, yet every morning I get up and look in the mirror and I have no idea how those numbers translate. Nothing seems definitive or settled about it. Just like my age. Just like everything, really. None of it is who I am.

In a certain way, getting older is a relief. And in another way, it can feel like a betrayal. I think about it differently all the time. Sometimes I’m shocked to remember my age or to see my face or my arms or my thighs in a certain light. And sometimes I love this aging process, and I’m fascinated by it. There is nothing to hold onto, not even stories of the past. Everything that used to define me becomes more and more transparent, slippery, unreal, like a house of cards I thought I lived inside of but now, well…

I have no idea what I really look like… or if I really look like anything at all.