When I was in college, I worked for a large North Shore medical practice with nine doctors and (roughly speaking) 900 million wealthy patients. My task, in the great hive, was to answer some of the (no joke) 30 phone lines, which I did from a small, windowless room across the hall from Dr. Feingold, who specialized in eating disorders. When I wasn’t putting rich people on hold – or getting screamed at by rich people who were tired of being put on hold – I watched Dr. Feingold’s office door with nervous interest. Girls with eating disorders walked into that office with their families, with their arms crossed, with their faces screwed on tight. From behind the door, the staff could hear, intermittently, the radio of human misery: family fights, adolescent fury, screaming, sobbing, silence. Sometimes the girls walked out, and sometimes they had to be carried against their will, bound for hospitals where they would get calories through an IV. I have to imagine that it was harrowing to be Dr. Feingold. It could certainly be harrowing to sit across the hall from him.
Although eating disorders are among the most dramatic manifestations of body issues, the breadth of the thing can be as terrifying as the depths. Body issues aren’t like chicken pox, which some women get and some women don’t; they’re more like belly buttons. I went on my first diet in middle school. I looked like this.
How much would I give to look like that now, right? Or not. Because a) that hair; and b) I don’t really want to eat 900 calories a day while I swim (badly), run (badly), and chase a tennis ball around (badly!), perpetually humiliated that I can’t catch up to it.
As a mother, I’ve worked diligently to avoid passing on my personal body issues to my offspring, but really, who am I kidding? My body issues informed my entire personality, while that personality was forming. I can’t even keep my body issues out of my artwork.
One of the things people commission me to do is paint salt & pepper shakers of people they know. You might not have considered this, but wooden salt and pepper shakers aren’t shaped like the feminine body ideal. There is no 34-22-35 salt shaker. Hell, a lot of them are more like 22-24-38, besides which, they have ridges and bumps and rings. They bulge. When I started out, I used to send my clients paper sketches – outlines of the shakers with the people drawn inside – but I had to stop that practice because it was freaking people out. “She really has a very cute figure,” one client assured me, no doubt horrified by the sudden appearance of a spare tire around her slender friend’s middle.
Once the thing is painted, it doesn’t look like a spare tire anymore. The journey from two-dimensional paper sketch to three-dimensional piece eradicates those concerns, which is something I need to remember myself. When I sketched the woman I am currently painting, I almost had a panic attack. In real life, this woman is GORGEOUS, with a knockout figure, great hair, a beautiful face – the works. Once I put her on paper – once I got her face just the way I wanted it – I looked down at her hips and lost my mind. Because I was afraid she would lose her mind. For weeks, I was stalled there, paralyzed, terrified of traumatizing this woman and making her think she needs to go on a diet.
Although I don’t think that level of paralysis would help anyone accomplish anything, I do wish we could have a little more sensitivity toward each other, and a little more love, if only because we’re all insecure, and we’re all struggling. We aren’t all being turned into salt shakers, though, and that’s a little bit of a shame.
She’s still not quite finished, but I think she’s pretty darn cute.