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On Tapers and Curves

A rebounding spray of water on bare skin, such innocent intimacy. Maintenance workers watering the softball field at a liberal arts college in March, Southern California; my father filling the paddling pool in July, Southern England. He’d stand with his weight on his left foot (a lingering football injury) and his hand on his right hip, the garden hose spewing tapers of water onto the sun-stiffened PVC. My childhood summers were flat colours: green grass, brown fences, yellow pool. Textureless, the sun retracted the colours into themselves and away from simile, from any redeeming romance of association. Grass green, fence brown, pool yellow. My flesh, alongside, was nauseatingly changeable. Ashen legs with swathes of lilac scar beneath both kneecaps. Flushing in sunless heat, never bold enough to flirt toward a golden tan, to blur the veins (turquoise hinting through chalk) and smooth the moles (raspberry seeds, toast crumbs). My thighs spread over the sparking pool rim, water inching up my calves, flesh pallid beneath the surface, untouchable, untouched. I’d look anywhere but my lap, the width of my limbs offensive, a seasonal discomfort.

I began to separate my flesh from myself aged seven. Before, my form was my function: my legs carried me to school and back again; my hands held others’ hands; my stomach grew full and then empty. Distinctly (perhaps inevitably) my dissonance grew from my hips. My hips, spreading my uniform-grey, polyester culottes. My hips, wider than I bargained for when I moved between the classroom chairs. My hips, their shape exposed whilst swimming every Friday. I had some subliminal association between my hips and the women on the television who wore them like shopping bags at their sides, who swung them before men as reminders of their self-possession. I would jut out a hip as I leaned on a classmate’s desk, rest my hand at the apex and marvel at its distance from my centre. The roundness of a premature puberty was hard to discern from puppy fat. One day, I thought, my body will make sense.

I first touched the Pacific in the flush of night’s descent. Staying with Z’s family in Santa Barbara, she and I drove to her neighbourhood’s private beach (password-gated), swiftly stripped, and waded out through the kelp. We were college roommates, our friendship fresh. We soaked our hair in the salt water once or twice, fists balled at our collarbones against the keen ocean breeze, and pointed out constellations not quite obscured by the industrial smoulder further down the coast. My body was not present for this occasion, was left at their house as I, I, ran in a bikini down the shore and into the silken sea. Later stepping out of the shower into a dimly-lit bathroom, I was winded (wounded) by my mirrored self. The flesh which had stood up to the Pacific just minutes before was now pockmarked as old milk and ragged around the edges. The light filled every slight depression, clarified every appalling asymmetrical divergence of flesh. I did not moisturise my skin that evening, let the innocent tingle of salt water retain my attention as I fell asleep.

In W’s (lavender, eucalyptus, chai) single room, there were five queer women and me. It was Halloween and we were going ‘out’ – of the residence hall, not on the town, as I would at home. The idea was to wear W’s clothing, for the group to dress as variations on her theme. This is, in fact, exactly what binds this group of women, but I swallowed that observation. Living with two roommates, my inhibitions were low. I wiped off the thin white t-shirt I’d been wearing without underwear (when in California) before I noticed everyone else’s modesty. I have never wanted more to cover myself, to smooth and flatten. Weeks ago, I had comfortably spoken with a male neighbour whilst wearing merely a bralette; displaying my softened nipples to these women felt acutely, indescribably, wrong.

Sifting through my wardrobe for an ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt, I balanced with one foot on the lower shelf. I wore just a thong, a term which slightly turns my stomach if I associate it with myself for too long. Z noted my resemblance to a Renaissance painting; I laughed generously as I (internally) finely raked her comment. A lifetime spent analysing every female body which crosses my path had given me a decent idea of what she meant. In my just-adulthood my body has capacity, has waves of prominence. There is a type of woman who men liked to paint – women with curved cream expanses, with pillowy excesses neatened by delicate joints, with rippling edges. Holding the t-shirt against my front, I could feel the twin hemispheres of my hips uncovered by the rectangle of fabric. I only used to wear it after sex. No longer sleeping with a man meant I no longer had to wear his masculine-cut t-shirts to accentuate my feminine form.

Z tells me how one of her teammates noticed my ‘fat ass’. She tells me the team culture is not quite like the rest of society, that they spend so much time nearly naked around each other that body commentary is more acceptable. I wonder if she’s forgotten how we’ve spoken before about the toxicity of her sport, of how it is seemingly only played by tanned and lithe California girls, how their hours of water polo practice accelerate eating disorders. I am meant to take it as a compliment, I think, but Z still won’t tell me who said it.

Shadebathing with Z by the softball field, stretched out beneath an ageing palm tree, her lean swimmer’s legs reflecting the rays in the way mine (lilac-tinged, heavier) never will. The British politesse is easily shrugged off upon crossing the Atlantic: I tug up my mesh midi skirt and let my bare toes meet the earth. I am grateful to the man watering the field for veering so close, for the slight drizzle landing on my calves.

The sun pours uninterrupted into the village swimming pool as W tells me her body image has been awful lately. I feel my own instantly conforming. How else could it be? We are au-pairing in the south of France, working together to cook, clean, and care for a family of four. We assimilate. We would never snack solo: if one doesn’t deem a slice of bread with almond butter necessary, the other certainly will not eat it. The rules are unspoken, but we think too similarly about the food-body complex to not erect the same structures. We have the same body, more or less, which makes things both better and worse. Better, as W can read pieces such as this and leave validating comments. Worse, as I dwell constantly in our slight discrepancies – I have the narrower shoulders, she the slenderer ankles. Squinting at each other in the afternoon glare, we trade body image anecdotes. I tell W about how I press the inch at the top of my thigh, just below my butt, every time I take a shower. It’s not too unhealthy, I tell her, as if you exercise just a little more you can feel the resulting firmness in this region. It’s comforting, I lie to her. She started to do it too, of course. I wonder if she still does.

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