Posts Tagged ‘The Body Beautiful’


Getting Clean

July 13, 2012


The bathing suit was not so racy. It was a black tank suit, but I liked it because it had rainbow stripes around the neckline, and at 13 years old, I loved rainbows.  I was exiting the low end of our town’s swimming pool, pulling myself up the ladder while the weight of the water pulled the top of my suit down, just low enough to expose what should have been a woman’s cleavage. At 13, I was already a very full B cup. As I exited the water, an older boy I didn’t know – maybe 16 years old – stood at the pool’s edge and watched my chest. When I had both feet on the cement he breathed at my chest, “Holy Fuck.”

Years later, “Yes, you were Shelley Collins, the girl with the big tits.”  – a revelation that had come from a guy from my high school with whom I became very close friends after graduation. In high school, I believed I was known as a “brain” – someone who always got too high grades to be cool.  I was also a really great public speaker, bad at sports, a bookworm, good with English and languages, and hopeless at Math. I was overwhelmingly optimistic, a hardcore Duran Duran fan, a “goodie goodie” , a bit of a weirdo and a loner, except for a small group of girls who straddled the line between the really cool girls and the losers, and who counted me as one of them. I was all that and more, and yet, none of the guys knew any of that. My identity began and ended with my breasts. I remember looking at my friend over my rum and coke that summer night, and thinking that the fact that I could be summed up in one sentence was both liberating and overwhelmingly frustrating.

When I had spent many years in Korea, a country where I have been groped more than any other (mostly by old women, curious and praising my ability to nurse babies), I had thought I had made peace with the  message my body sent out. I had been through the older men I had trusted who had assumed that a D cup meant I was horny, I had been through alternately embracing and reviling the sexual persona that seemed to precede every room I walked into, my breasts the first part of me to round any corner. I had been through being called a slut, because I looked that way. I also had been through men who had really, really loved me, who saw me as a whole, incredible being. I had been through and beyond the small town ideas about what defines a woman, what defines me. I had taught children who called me “camel teacher”, and mimed running up to me and bouncing back, and yet who would run to me with hurt elbows and feelings because a hug from me meant softness and warmth.  I had made peace with my body, I thought.

My first university teaching job, I was one of a very small handful of women. One night a staff party had extended beyond the usual barbecue meal and we continued on to a bar.   A male teacher from Australia and I were drinking Tanqueray together at the bar while the other guys played darts. AD and I had been good friends, and we had a little bit of an innocent office flirtation.  At the time, the TV show, Survivor, was really popular and we had an office pool going on who would win. Ad looked at me, drunk.

“ Shel, do you think you could play Survivor?”, he asked.

“ No way in hell. I like my comfort too much.”

“ If you were going to play, what would you wear?”

“ A tankini, I guess.”, I answered, not sure where the conversation was going.

“ Yeah, but, do you think you could run?”

“ What do you mean? Because of the tankini?”, I asked.

“ No, because of…… you know.”, he slurred and gestured to my now double D breasts.

“ Fuck off, AD, You’re drunk,” I shot back with a grin, slammed back my gin and walked out of the bar without saying goodbye to any of the guys, sat down on the sidewalk and cried like the 13 year old I still, deeply, was.

First they had been sexual, then maternal. Now they were a disability – a joke. I was deeply shamed.

Now, I’m a big woman, in a body that isn’t meant to be. I have one of the hardest bra sizes to fit – 36 DDD which means I have small bones. Most women of my cup size have much larger ribcages. I’ve managed to make my hips and belly proportionate, to my breasts and have an exaggerated hourglass figure.  I’ve eaten my way to the point where my breasts are not the first thing you notice about me.

 I am far too bright to think it is all as simple as that. I’ve read so many books, had so many conversations and breakthroughs, so many theories about why I am overweight.  There are layers there I’ll probably never get to in this lifetime. And yet, I believe the relationship of doing harm to myself, my own body, started right there, with a rainbow v-neckline and a hormonal 16-year old boy. How do you begin to forgive yourself for sending out a message you didn’t even recognize?

Recently, I had lunch with two female friends who are lovely and wise and have each dealt with body issues. It was supposed to be coffee and flea-market treasure hunting. It turned into multiple glasses of wine and girl-talk that took us far past the time we needed to make the flea market.

“Let’s take Shelley to the bathhouse”, said SS, knowing that in my 16 years in country, I had never been.

I am the ultimate bath-lover and until I moved, had spent the last 3 or 4 years in an apartment without a bathtub.  Yet, I never went to a bathhouse. In a country of mostly svelte women, I was sure that I would be stared at, talked about and perhaps even poked and prodded. In my clothes, with the right bra and a generous amount of black, I could look a little smaller than I really was.  Naked, I needed to be seen through loving eyes. As strong as my desire for hot, hot water was, I could never bring myself to strip down in front of strangers.

But that day, I was drunk, and buoyed by the confidence of my large-hearted, beautiful girlfriends. Plus, honestly, I have a bit of a 40-plus hormonal kick that makes me feel like a goddess in spite of it all and makes me not give such a damn.

Off we went, three drunk, white-skinned, wet women. SK taught me the rituals – how important it was to get really, really clean before getting in the pools. She pointed to the scrubbing area. The Korean women there were all shapes- some bigger than me. Yet, they were lovingly, carefully cleaning their bodies, spending long minutes on an inner knee or a patch of belly. The scrubbing was luxurious, slow. They gossiped and chatted and scrubbed each others’ backs.  I tried not to stare, but was taken by the simple beauty of getting clean – with no judgment, no shame, no stigma.

After dipping in the first pool, I forgot myself, and happily followed SK from pool to pool each one a different temperature. I was completely naked and particularly enjoying the transition from hot to cold and back again. I was taking care of my body in a way and a tradition that was so much older than me and my hang-ups.

Exiting each pool, I had to climb over a tile barrier to get into the next one. The water weighed my breasts down. Nobody looked. Nobody cared. I felt free.

I felt clean.

Note: For a better idea of what the Korean bathhouse experience is like, I suggest you read my talented friend Grace Smith’s blog post about her first time here.

and here.


The Cosmic Woman

February 11, 2012

I have a confession to make: I love to read women’s’ magazines. Be it Vogue or Woman’s Day, I find myself dreaming of a more domestic, sleek, pulled-together version of myself whenever I thumb through the pages. It’s like taking a vacation from my real self, the Shelley with messy, always a little too-long hair, the Shelley who burns eggs, cannot mix a proper cocktail, can never apply eyeliner without a shaking hand, and who has never thrown a dinner party in her life. The skill set that apparently every other woman in the world has eludes me. Reading a copy of Good Housekeeping makes me feel like it is still attainable in my lifetime.

I’ve always had this love affair with magazines. When I was a pre-teen, I devoured copies of Seventeen and Teen. Then when I hit my late teens, I turned my attention to Cosmopolitan. In that internet-less age, Cosmopolitan was the Google of everything sexy. The cover photos never featured a model in a cute sundress, or a business suit – always the cover model was the personification of luscious, teased va-va-voom, leaving no mistake about what kind of womanly tricks and bedroom advice was inside.

Of course, at 17 years old, sitting in the back of Geography class doing the “Cosmo Quiz”, hypothetically answering questions about activities and experiences of which I had no real-world knowledge, I felt a sense of empowerment. Cosmo laid bare and celebrated the sexuality that my small town, Catholic school circumstances wanted us girls to ignore.  Having been in a “Family Life” class (Catholic-speak for Sex Ed) that only briefly mentioned effective forms of birth control and spent hours teaching us the Rhythm method, and having watched every graduating class from my high school have at least one round-bellied girl in a taffeta dress on grad night, we needed Cosmopolitan to tell us the truth.

I have envied the younger generation of girls today, because they have so much knowledge, experience and community easily accessible to them. Perhaps they lose some of the sense of mystery that was so intoxicating to us, but they come into the world of being a woman with hard facts, discussion forums, and instructional videos. They are told everything they need to know and encouraged to decide for themselves when and how to use it. Yes, I see the impossible standards of air-brushed beauty and recognize the lining of sexism in song lyrics and advertising, but I also know that there is an equal wave of activism out there that is sane and aware. Parents and educators are raising these young women to look at all the things in front of them with a critical eye, keep what speaks the truth for them and let go of anything that doesn’t. This generation of girls knows better. Don’t they?

Last week, I made a trip to my favorite expat bookstore in Seoul to indulge in a little glossy fun fantasy time. One reason why I love this particular bookstore is that they package up bundles of back issues and sell them for a deeply discounted price. I picked up a couple of bundles, and was secretly delighted to find a copy of Cosmopolitan wedged in between the magazines I had wanted. I don’t buy Cosmopolitan any more. I have only to look at the article titled “ 4 ways 30 kicks 20’s Ass” to know that I am no longer their intended demographic. Still, I curled up with a cup of coffee and a kind of excitement to peek into the world of sexual empowerment and maybe learn a few new tricks that hadn’t been invented when I was still wearing Doc Martens and Flannel.

Here’s what I learned:

I put down the issue, a wave of sad sickness in my heart. Somehow, the empowerment and ownership of what I now know to be a woman’s rich, powerful, ever-evolving, truly female force, her sexuality, had been reduced to a crash course in “How to make yourself less you, and then maybe, just maybe, a boy will like you.”

I had hoped that the smart, sexy magazine I had once loved would still be telling the truth. It didn’t. So, here’s the truth, my own version of buried, unmarketable wisdom that I think every Cosmopolitan Girl needs to know:

A woman is sexy when she knows how to please herself, and has a comfortable relationship with the mirror.

Intelligence and good conversation is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and you wouldn’t want to sleep with any man for whom that isn’t true.

A man will never lose his erection when you take off your clothes to reveal you are a little ( or a lot ) pear-shaped.

 A woman’s sexuality flourishes and deepens well past 35, and so you needn’t be in a rush to see and do everything before 23. Save some stuff for later.

 When you truly are “the one”, and you’ve found the right man, he will call you – the next day.

There should never be games and strategies in a real affair of the heart – it’s difficult enough to make things work just using open, honest communication. Start weighing every word you say, and any genuine feeling is doomed.

You don’t really need to read about how to give a guy a perfect handjob. He’ll be more than happy to show you when you turn up in his bed in all your pear-shaped, offbeat, emotionally honest and smart glory.

You don’t need to dress a certain way, choose a certain kind of movie or have the sexual arsenal of a one-woman army to make your guy “hot”. He needs you. YOU make him hot.

Men are complex, beautiful, brilliant beings who are nowhere near as shallow as this magazine would have you believe. They have insecurities and confusion, just as we do. Corporations and advertisers make money from making men feel good about themselves. They also make money from exploiting women’s insecurities. Follow the money, and you will understand why GQ will never dedicate an issue to analyzing how every fashion and grooming choice, every movie pick affects the way women think of them.

I don’t know if I’m being naïve to think that the filter of time isn’t adding a layer of criticism here. It’s quite likely that the Cosmopolitan magazine of my time wasn’t  any different. Perhaps it was just as misguided and I, at my raw, easily molded age,  confused this kind of cheap man-centric advice with power. I could write a million blog posts about how much I needed male attention to feel validated. I had a heck of a lot of fun and an equal amount of heartache crossing that very long road. Am I now safely on the other side, oblivious to the male gaze? Hell, no. The male/female dynamic is forever compelling and mysterious in all the best ways – when it is recognized for its true nature – not as a way to sell a magazine.

I knew all this before I opened last November’s Cosmo. So, why was I so disappointed? I guess I thought that we had progressed beyond “What he really means when he says I love you” and “Seven ways to tell if your man is cheating.” I had thought that we were collectively engaged in a balanced dialogue about how to make ourselves and each other happy, I had thought we were trying to protect and nourish our young women. Yes, we still need to know how to apply mascara. We do not need to be told that a man’s love depends on whether or not you apply it correctly.

Yes, maybe Cosmopolitan was always this kind of magazine. I was once that kind of girl. So, what’s different? I am no longer a Cosmopolitan girl. I am a Cosmic Woman. And that is the sexy truth.