Your butt is not the problem

poem is on tree near the base; mom bodies not pictured

 

Ode

by Elizabeth Alexander

 

I love all the mom bodies at this beach,

the tummies, the one-piece bathing suits,

the bosoms that slope, the wide nice bottoms,

thigh flesh shirred as gentle wind shirrs a pond.

 

So many sensible haircuts and ponytails!

These bodies show they have grown babies, then

nourished them, woken to their cries, fretted

at their fevers. Biceps have lifted and toted

 

the babies now printed on their mothers.

“If you lined up a hundred vaginas,

I could tell you which ones have borne children,”

the midwife says. In the secret place or

 

In sunlight at the beach, our bodies say

This is who we are, no, This is what

we have done and continue to do.

We labor in love. We do it. We mother.

 

 

Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ode” to mom bodies comes a little early for Mother’s Day but just in time for those ready to emerge from isolation. As we subject our swathed-in-sweatpants, bulked-up-on-stress-eating bodies to the gaze of other people, Alexander reminds us to look on un-svelte shapes with sympathy and respect. That loose or dimpled flesh in the mirror ties you to beauty in the natural world—

thigh flesh shirred as gentle wind shirrs a pond

—and secures you a place of honor in the cycle of human reproduction.

 

Alexander’s ode is to mothers, but perhaps everyone needs to hear these lines:

. . . our bodies say

This is who we are, no, This is what

we have done and continue to do.

We labor in love. We do it.

 

If that is not what your body is saying to you, the fault lies not in the expanse of your behind but in the limits of your loving.

 

Lest you think I’ve fallen to lecturing you, dear readers, let me be clear:  I’m scolding  myself.

 

I’m in good shape and of reasonable size for my age, but not a day goes by that I don’t fret over a small roll or compare my body as it was in its heyday to what it is now. Just so you know how silly this is—I’m talking about an extra three pounds and the normal sag of aging skin.

 

My mother had eleven children and kept a girlish figure till she gave up smoking in her sixties. For that she blamed the smallish tummy she developed. It irked her. I’m getting FAT, she’d say in her comical way. We’d reassure her that she looked fantastic, especially given the fact that she birthed ELEVEN children for Pete’s sake. The obstetricians of her day had mothers monitoring their weight like high school wrestlers. Pregnant women would starve themselves for weigh-ins and gorge on milkshakes after appointments. Though I was never subjected to such misguided medical treatment, I did have an endocrinologist whose primary concern in treating my Graves disease was that I didn’t gain weight after he nuked my thyroid.

 

The message that the only good woman’s body is a thin body is so deeply ingrained in me, I’m not sure I’ll ever lose it. I know it’s not right. I know it’s limiting and harming. But I also don’t know a woman alive my age who is completely at peace with her body.

 

I came across some relevant lines in a Hilary Mantel essay on anorexics. Mantel herself has struggled with body image, having watched her shape and even her face change dramatically because of illness and medication. In this excerpt she’s talking about Western culture’s changing tastes in women’s bodies, from the time when “thin was in” to present day:

 

The deciding factor seemed to be economic:  could she earn a living by anorexia? If so, make her a cover girl; if not, hospitalise her. The case is now altered. The ideal body is attainable only by plastic surgery. The ideal woman has the earning powers of a CEO, breasts like an inflatable doll, no hips at all and the tidy, hairless labia of an unviolated six-year-old. The world gets harder and harder. There’s no pleasing it. No wonder some girls want out.

 

If we are to ever outgrow our body obsession, we—correction, I—I need to look on all bodies with appreciation and with love. Alexander shows the way in this heartfelt and wise little poem.

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Here’s a bio of Alexander from a previous post:

Poet, essayist and playwright Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem but was raised in Washington , D.C. There her father, Clifford Alexander, Jr., served as Chairman of the Equal Opportunity Commission under President Johnson and Secretary of the Army for the Carter administration. Her mother was a writer and professor of African-American women’s history at George Washington University.

 

Alexander graduated from Yale and then earned her Master’s at Boston University and her PhD at University of Pennsylvania.

 

She worked as a reporter for the Washington Post for a year, but left to teach at the University of Chicago. There she met Barack Obama who was a senior lecture at the law school. When he was elected president, he asked her to compose and deliver the inaugural poem. You can read “Praise Song for the Day” here.

 

She also taught at Smith College and currently at Yale University, where she chairs the African American Studies department. She’s a founding member of Cave Canem, a recipient of an NEA grant, a Guggenheim fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes, among many other awards.

 

A widow, she lives with her two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.

 

Fun fact: the PBS miniseries “Faces of America” revealed that Alexander is distantly related to comedian Stephen Colbert. Coincidentally she had appeared on the Colbert Report a year before that connection came out. It’s a really funny interview in which she answers the question, “What is the difference between a metaphor and . . . A LIE?”  Watch here.

 

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