I really had no intention of bursting into tears in the drive-thru carline that rainy November evening. Honestly. I was just picking up some take-out for school spirit night at our local Chickfila.
But it had been a long day. Work was an endless mass of papers to grade, the kids had been bickering all afternoon, my husband wouldn’t be home from his night class for several more hours, and I had a headache. Again.
From the backseat, my daughters were heatedly discussing the rightful ownership of a toy that had been rolling around in the floorboard all week and my four-year-old son was trying to weigh in on the matter, loudly interjecting “Mine!” or “Not it’s not!” whenever he felt there was a lag in the conversation.
I turned on the radio, hoping a musical interlude would divert their attention away from their proprietary debate. No such luck, I thought as the broadcast station launched into a news report.
“Next up,” the announcer began, “a new video shows how fifty people responded to just one question: If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?”
I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud.
What would I change about my body?
Just one thing?
Let me count the ways. Eyes. Hands. Horsey smile. Hips like the Himalayas. Stomach, stomach, stomach.
The unabridged catalog of my nominees for bodily imperfection is long and all-encompassing. In fact, I’d be doing well to limit them to just the categories of form and function.
This question was especially sensitive for me coming as it was at a time when not only I had been experiencing a myriad of health problems but was also still in the midst of what I call my “accordion years”—the better part of decade when my body was a continual state of flux, ever expanding and contracting to accommodate the carrying and birthing of my three wonderful children, who were then so spiritedly populating the backseat of the car.
As the radio announcer rolled the audio track, it quickly became clear that I was not the only one with an index of insecurities. The adult participants for this interview project were all quick to reveal at least one area of dissatisfaction, no mulling period required, no follow-up clarification needed.
Listening to their responses, I could feel my throat closing up a little more with the airing of each grievance, an array of perceived flaws, head to toe.
What would adults change about their bodies if they could?
I’d like to be taller.
One respondent laughed and queried: Just one?
Which is, of course, precisely what I had just been thinking about myself.
That is when the first tears started.
Because who among us does not have some notion of what it takes to be beautiful—and a very keen understanding of how we don’t measure up?
Who among us really feels beautiful, really feels complete, really feels comfortable in our own skin?
We grown-ups are well acquainted with our weaknesses, keeping our faults close at hand and our failings ever before us. When asked about those, we know whereof we speak. And we have a ready answer.
But adults numbered only half of those interviewed. Children made up the other half, and their answers were very different.
What would children change about their bodies if they could?
Just one thing?
A shark’s mouth. To eat a lot.
Extra pointy ears.
Legs to run fast like a cheetah.
A mermaid’s tail.
One child laughed and said: I don’t think there’s anything to change. Another responded, I like my body actually.
And upon hearing those answers—the fanciful enhancement, the innocent contentment, the happy satisfaction—that is when I really let loose with the tears, right there in the drive-thru, bawling to beat the band.
Because who among us would tell these children any differently?
Are they not fearfully and wonderfully made? Are they not dazzling creatures, just as they are, confident and radiant and unashamed, a many-splendored wonder of unique design?
Are they not the very portrait of unabashed beauty?
Are not we also?
We, the self-same individuals, who as teachers, neighbors, parents, tell our children that they are indeed beautiful, that they are indeed loved, that they are indeed whole, just as they are, nothing added, nothing changed, nothing taken away.
We who tell our children that everyone is different and that everyone is beautiful and strong in their own way, in their own time.
We who marvel when they believe us.
What is it we are telling ourselves?
Unlike the grown-ups, the children did not have a ready answer for how they would change their bodies. Even after giving the question a few moments of contemplation, their answers did not indicate an assessment of shortcomings or a comparison of themselves to other children.
They did not wish to change or discard any feature they already had. They responded with embellishments, wanting only to add on to what was already theirs. A way to make the satisfactory extraordinary.
To do so they did not even look to humankind at all. They looked instead to the realm of the wild or the fantastic. Wings. A shark’s mouth. Extra pointy ears.
We are told—and tell ourselves—dozens of things about beauty: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Pretty is as pretty does. Beauty is only skin-deep. The Lord makes all things beautiful in His time.
Of course we hear those things and think, Yeah, right—pity the beholder. I wonder what exactly it is that pretty does anyway? It’s probably more fun than what I’m doing. Skin deep goes pretty far in this small town. And, any day now, Lord. Any day.
I admit I am nowhere close to meeting any idealized standard of beauty, and I’m certainly a long way from calling myself beautiful, especially when I’m sobbing in the driver’s seat of a mini-van.
But I am ready for good enough. I’m ready for satisfactory and the extraordinary.
I’m ready for a better answer.
If I could change one thing about my body, what would it be?
Just one thing?
A mermaid’s tail.
Comfortable, short film by the Jubilee Project;
of the 50 subjects interviewed,
a smaller group is shown in the video.
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[photograph of an illustration published in skirt! magazine, November 2014]
unless otherwise noted * graphics, photographs, text © 2014/2015 hilary hall