Remember when it was all the rage to sit on the floor of the campus gym sans pants, whip out your compact, and examine your vagina? No weewees, no woohoos, no girliebits; we were hot to call a vagina a vagina, and we were determined to get up close and personal enough to be on a first name basis. Our Bodies, Our Selves was the handbook, although I seem to remember the 70’s bearing a rather unbalanced focus on the Bodies half of the equation. Frankly, it was a whole lot easier to find a group of women ready to shed their clothes for Enlightenment than to find one who actually carried (or owned) an actual compact. Makeup was for sissy girls.
We were a Gung Ho sort, and even if we read our Sartre naked in the bathtub with a guy we’d met at the falafel house only an hour earlier, we were hungry to know it all, do it all, feel it all, read it all, live it all, conquer it all, save the world, free women from centuries of silence, get it out there, and live it real. We were ready and primed to Make Life Our Bitch. We all looked like Ali McGraw, and we were determined to be taken as seriously as Gloria Steinem. We brought womanhood, for a time, from darkness into light, and it all started with a fierce determination to know ourselves, vaginas and all.
When did we lose touch?
A year ago today I sat in my kitchen with a close friend that I see only twice a year. She was waiting for test results from a biopsy, which would be positive. I had cancer too but didn’t know it — didn’t suspect — and wouldn’t until much later that spring. When did we move from living our lives armed with mirrors and books and knowledge and experimentation to living our lives with long and mostly irrelevant To Do lists, blindfolded against our innermost secrets? When did answers become written in water, and taking care of Our Selves become a second fiddle melody? When did we move from Knowing to Not Knowing, because Knowing has become so damn hard?
Contrary to popular belief, Our Bodies Our Selves was not about sexual liberation, even though most of us seemed to read it that way. In fact, it was about women learning to care for their own health. Forty-ish years later, we pretty much take care of others instead.
We march; we speak out; we advocate for free mammograms; we rally; we sit with each other and shave our heads in sisterhood; we refuse to be talked down to; we have each other’s backs. But we still never quite know what’s inside us at any given moment — a sobering reminder to seize the day.
In many ways, 18 was bliss, wasn’t it? Knowing our bodies was largely a pursuit of pleasure: learning to kiss, trying exotic new tastes from multicultural gems near college campuses, teaching our muscles to scale mountains on weekends with adventurous new friends, getting silly with markers or grimacing under tattoo needles. At 56, knowing my body means something else entirely, and mostly what it means is discovering how much of what I’ve learned to love is now on the list of things that I’m forced to un-love (exotic tastes and climbing mountains high on the list). Making peace with the woohoo was a hell of a lot easier than making peace with organs that mutate in silence, and oh, how much more fun!
And so these later days reprise that urge to know, deep down; to feel, deep down; to live, deep down. If there is no magic mirror to show me what monsters lurk inside or to predict which cures will simply kill me another way on another day, I need to be in tune enough with my spirit to hear the longings of the body I yearn to heal: feed me; love me; take me out dancing; sing me a song; let me spend the afternoon painting my body with daisies and then giggle loud and long enough to wake the neighbors; or linger in a field of wildflowers way past time for dinner. Feed me a daily moment of bliss. Or three.
P.S. Dedicated to Carol, Susan, the MoHos, Jeanne Beanie, Carol H, the Duke Forestry School, my Love, my family