AUGUST ISSUE: Size & Shape

Image from author’s collection: Book of Life – The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia

Welcome to the sixth issue in Season One of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This month’s invitation to write concerns size and shape: what it takes to arrive at a sense of right fit in our skin, our circumstances. How it feels to be without that. Here is where responses are curated.

Sheila Knell

I started out feeling OK about my body…

*

I had the usual questions about my appearance, the usual insecurities, but in retrospect I approached the world as attractive people do, with the understanding that with a little effort, people could be charmed.

When I was 42 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next year, my body was transformed. Before that, I was looking good – I was happy with my body shape, I was happy with my face. I had thick dark hair, I had heavy eyebrows, long eyelashes. I had a cleavage.

I am now almost unrecognisable. It’s 14 years on, and some of those changes would have happened anyway, I guess – but it all happened so quickly. Over the next year I aged – what? 10 years? 20? – I had my oestrogen stripped away. I lost my hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows. I lost a breast. I gained weight (yeah, steroids). Over the next few years I had a reconstruction, then lost my other breast. The hair came back – thinner, grey. The eyebrows never came back. Even my hands are different. The veins have gone. One is puffier than the other.

I’m now a woman with thin, white hair, with no eyebrows, with stumpy little eyelashes. I’m, frankly, chubby. I’m back on chemo. I have new scars. I have old scars. There are patches of my body with no sensation whatsoever. I don’t look at myself in mirrors any more – a quick glance at the start of the day to make sure I’m respectable – but other than that? No, not really. I have become invisible.

These days, I think of my body in terms of verbs. If I can walk up that hill, that’s great. If I can enjoy the sun on my face, that’s wonderful. If I can eat that peach and really relish it, that’s fantastic. If I can walk into that cold, cold water and be cleansed by it, that’s a miracle.

Sarah Connor

My skin

*

For the first time I recognised myself. There was relief, pleasure, excitement. A sense of being comfortable in my own skin. This is who I am. Contemplator. I think about things and sometimes I write my thinking down. I am interested in many things. I’m interested in, well, everything.

Unchecked, this led to unfinished crafts, hobbies, and a myriad of lines of pursuit, until the next interesting thing came along. I was a prime candidate for PNF (projects not finished).

Unchecked, I rarely finished anything well. I started, started well. I didn’t lose interest but there was always something a bit more interesting.

But this is the nature of the Contemplator. Life fascinates them. People fascinate them. And that was OK. A relief. A positive not a negative.

Now I am learning to add a little discipline. To recognise myself.

Before: ‘You never finish anything.’ Now? ‘Yes, that looks fun – but I’m just going to enjoy someone else pursuing it.’ Because I am not pursuing ‘several lines of enquiry’ but living more intentionally. Choosing more deliberately. There is not time to do everything. There is time to do some things well.

jean wilson

To thine own self

*

The unstable balance which existed in my tiny world and my growing sense of self was cruelly upended in 1973 when I was fourteen. The loss of a loving parent was also the loss of my internal compass and the beginning of decades of trying to fill that void with people, places and things, which became like trying to put two magnets together, the repulsion being me. I constantly looked for myself in the eyes of others. I tried to please the unpleasable, to attract the unavailable and travelled to far flung places to try and leave myself behind. I lived with a sense of being less, of being stupid, and later this morphed into the imposter syndrome. I could not own my true self.

When I had my children in my thirties, the blurry barrier started to lift and I glimpsed myself in their eyes: the purity of real love, mine and theirs. Being a mother was the first true expression and unconditional state of being since before the loss of a father.

The other path to reclaiming myself was my creative expression. As a mature student one of my tutors nurtured that shoot she saw in me – something I could not – and a belief in my abilities and expression started to bear fruit. Slowly a wholeness was forming, flaws and all. Over time I worked on those, throwing one stick away at a time until now I walk unaided, I limp and fall but get back up and stay on my own path which is rich and lush. I look to nature and the sea to nurture my soul and the company of like minded people. My children and grandchildren are my sun the land I inhabit.

louise newman

It all seemed to start…

…with dreams of big headed, small bodied people I had as a kid. They felt strange and unmentionable. What could I say? I never heard of anyone else having these dreams, seeing these odd figures. So was I odd? What did other people’s dreams look like?

Now, days and years and moments take shape in my head, fill my thoughts. They float in or tumble around. When writing in my diary I always put the day at the top of the page, not just because you did that at school on a Monday when you wrote your ‘news’, but because it reminds me of the feel of time, a little flag of the possible mood.

I run and when I do I measure time by the feel of a night shift. The ones I work through as a children’s nurse. The first part of the run matches the busy section of the night, the beginning where you meet patients and their family. You meet their fear, their joy at recovery or their deep despair at life-changing diagnoses. Then there’s the middle section – you’ve travelled some distance, you have a rhythm, know where you’re heading. But home and sleep feels far away. Will you make it in one piece? At last there’s an uplift, it’s 5.30 and you can begin to feel the end of the night, the start of the day. You can almost smell the freshness of the next shift, the perfume, the recently showered and the clear heads ready to problem solve. To send the well home. The run is nearly over.

So is this size and shape of time universal? Did those odd people walking in my dreams ever visit anyone else? I don’t mind sharing so much now, in fact I’m intrigued by others head spaces , not scared of my own or theirs anymore.

Louise stead

Basta!

My husband found me sobbing on the bathroom chair. The window was wide open and the bathroom scales were on the ground in the garden, next to a Philadelphus bush.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I’m fucking fifteen and a half fucking stone. I look like Humpty Dumpty!’

For forty-five years I have stood on scales. Morning and evening, naked, leaning more weight on the left leg than the right, hoping I’d got away with the previous day’s binge or to see if the latest diet was working. Mondays, new school terms, new year, new months were always a chance to ‘GAG’ (get a grip). With every new diet, there was always the hope that this time, I’d succeed. The shame I felt when the weight piled back on – and then went up some more – was crippling.

The Italians have a word: Basta! It means: that’s enough. Said with venom, I find it empowering.

On International Women’s Day on 8th March 2021, aged fifty-nine, I ditched the scales. I have not weighed myself since and I can no longer tell you what I weigh. I see this as a revolutionary act.

I wrote on my social media pages:

‘On this International Woman’s Day, I choose to challenge discrimination around weight, fatphobia and the diet industry, mainly aimed at women. I wish someone had shown this young girl she was good enough, perfect as she was. She didn’t need to start her first diet at 18. In an act of rebellion this week I have thrown away my bathroom scales. I refuse to be weighed and measured anymore. I am fed up with the shame I feel about my body. May we be very careful around the messages we give our children and grandchildren about food and weight.’

Sue Reed

False Identity

My skin hung like an uncomfortable coat, buttoned up with unimaginative, beige indifference. A trick of nature had trapped me inside, sealed me up and confined me to my lineage. I needed someone to sit by me and feed me with the ambrosia from books, surfeit my appetite and glut me with words.

Five years of forcing my fingerprints on steel lie ahead. The clink and clank of metal on metal beckoned me from afar. I had already beaten out my second-rate, secondary-school mask ready for my five year betrothal.

Three years into my marriage of convenience, I had forged a ship-strength chain that held me fast, docked me in a foreign harbour and forced me to feed on steel. Fodder for the factory. These shackles defined who I was, my strain, my brand; graded the perception of myself and ranked me to fit the shape of my breed. I felt emasculated by a poverty of words.

My identity was false. I lived with fake documents and became an imposter in my skin. I had been pre-cut, shaped and structured to fit neatly in-line. No freedom to roam. I stalled and stuttered, lapsed into inertia and froze until an epiphany blew in on a warm south westerly, high up on the White Horse Downs along a road running through time. The Ridgeway air was cleansing, full of integrity as it scoured out my doubts, emptied me of fear and blew away the now fragile husk that trapped my aspirations. I walked out of myself; the imago that first trembled at the thought of change now flooded with a clarity that seeped into my blood and awakened the sleeping poet within.

Steve harrison

SUB FUSC – St Hugh’s College, Oxford, October 1977

I felt preposterous in my black and white plumage. My silly little pretend mortar board, my velvet length of ribbon looped over my shirt collar, dark tights already slipping down, the gown that came down to my waist. I had walked the streets for ages gathering the courage to go into the shop to purchase it. There had been no handout, no typed sheet sent in advance to warn of its purpose, necessity and cost. If you didn’t know, if you had to worry about the expense, you didn’t belong. If you belonged, you asked no questions. But I had many. and lacked only the courage to tell my truth, that a streak of skepticism born in the terraces of Lancashire wanted to snort with laughter at the whole idea of dressing up like this.

The only thing I could cling onto on this surreal morning of Matriculation was that for once everyone would be on foot. I wouldn’t have to walk alone because I couldn’t ride a bike. God knows I’d tried, all through that summer, but my hands and feet stubbornly went their separate ways, and my lack of balance on two wheels excluded me from far more than my accent did. Today, for the first time in the last ten days, I would appear to fit into the crowd. And appearance was all I asked. Nobody needed to know about the reality, that I was floating in a helium balloon far above all this, dizzy from all the meals I’d been unable to face, watching it happen to someone other than myself.

As we crocodiled down the Banbury Road we were joined by chattering penguins from other colleges, gradually becoming louder and more pompous as we neared Broad Street. Eventually we became numerous enough to constitute our own reality, part of the glass bubble that surrounded Oxford in my mind. Two feelings tugged me apart – one that there had to be more to this glittering prize than a cold room in a spartan hall with oilcloth on the floor and a bathroom where rusty water came out of the pipes, and the other that all this was far too grand and refined a place for a provincial Northerner like me, that there had been some mistake, that my silence in social situations would be noted any day now and mark me out as an interloper, who had no conception of years of boarding school and a world where parents provided things like smart shoes. Others could effortlessly unravel the linguistic code that called exams Collections and a silly little robe ‘sub fusc’. And what they didn’t know, they would dare to ask, from generations of fathers and elder brothers. It seemed to me that the facade was deliberate, designed to frighten and silence the uninitiated. In many ways I already loathed the place, found its customs ridiculous, felt no desire to be a part of it. But I remembered my English teacher throwing her arms around me after the news reached my school, and talking about the lovely years ahead of me, as if there would be no work, no anxiety, no throwing up in the morning after breakfast, just an idyll of punting and champagne. It never occurred to me at the time that my instinct was right, and hers was wrong.

Miranda R waterton

I was born female shaped.

Clothed in painstakingly-sewn matching dresses and knickers. Brought up to be clean and tidy at all times; quiet too. No room for questions about why this must be so. My younger brother had the freedom to get dirty, and to play with knives and candles – which is how our house burned down on my thirteenth birthday.

At family gatherings I was withdrawn. Not because I was trying to be feminine, but through being overwhelmed by the noise and expectation to be sociable. Girls love to chatter, you know. Or so I was told. Usually far too inquisitive and boisterous for my parents’ liking, I was suddenly too silent. I was simultaneously too loud and too quiet. Taking up too much space and not enough.

‘Stand up straight, dear!’ They exclaimed. ‘You’ve a lovely figure, you should show it off.’ I stood, round-shouldered, trying to hide my developing breasts.

Pretending to be grateful for presents of slippery lace underwear from my grandmother and her sister for my fourteenth birthday. ‘We saw it, dear, and thought it was so you,’ they cried in delight. I buried my shame and disappointment deep, deep down. I’d have loved a pump for my long-saved-up-for racing bike.

How invisible I felt.

Decades later, having spent (wasted?) too many years squeezing and squashing myself into deformed shapes demanded by family, jobs, husbands and their families, I have finally called time on the whole ridiculous charade. I am non-binary; I am neither female nor male. We all need the freedom to take up our own uniquely-shaped space. Gently guiding and encouraging less certain souls to claim theirs too. We are all worthy of being valued, whatever shape and size we are.

Rowan Ambrose

First, an apology

…for all the times that I have made fun of you, hidden you, kept you in the dark, starved you, stuffed you, forced you to hold all of my feelings in, stared at you in the mirror, looking for nothing but faults.

For all of the times I compared you to others and found you lacking. For the times I wanted to alter you surgically. For the times I floated you full of alcohol. For the times I didn’t keep the boundaries around you safe and for the times I kept them too rigid. For Slimfast, diet pills, Diet Pepsi, Marlboro Lights. For covering you in baby oil and baking you in the sun. For making it hard for you to breathe because I sucked my stomach in tight. For wishing you were faster, stronger, thinner, different. For pushing you onto the scale. For keeping you stiff when you really wanted to dance. For making you stay angry when it was really sorrow. For not even trying to like you.

And then, a thank you. 

For carrying my babies, soft, plump, healthy babies, giving me the power to birth them and love them. For feeding chickens and walking dogs and picking berries. For jogging and yoga, the joy of movement. For hugging people as they enter our house. For rolling out pizza dough, chopping vegetables and shredding cheese and dinners on the porch. For creating courage, allowing me to write. For riding bikes and playing soccer and deck hockey and sled-riding and hide-and-seek and skipping rocks and woodland explores. For blowing out candles on birthday cakes. For watering plants. For reading. For finding snail shells and watching clouds and drawing me down by the creek to listen to the water flow. For planting willows and daisies and lilies and peonies. For planting kale and tomatoes and basil and pulling weeds. For lighting candles. For snow angels. For being amazed by moss. For making cookies and pouring milk. For baking bread and slathering with butter. For slicing cheese and pouring wine. For gathering eggs and picking phlox for birthdays. For terrible French braids and testing foreheads for fevers. For sweeping porches. For easy laughter, salty tears.

And orgasms.

sheila Knell
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