Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Chasing Lovely

"Oh my god, did you see that woman in the gingham swimsuit?" My friend and I are sitting in the kiddie pool at the water park watching our little ones. What started out as a conversation about suits we like has become a critique of the bodies filling the swimsuits and I am becoming uncomfortable. She is three months pregnant and looks more svelte than I. I suck in my stomach a little to try to shrink the roll around my middle and simply say, "Yeah, I don't really like that suit." A woman in what looks like a knee-length sundress made of Lycra swimsuit fabric crosses our line of vision. "Now that I like," I quip, pointing her direction. "Lots of coverage. I wonder if it comes in floor length...with long sleeves...and a turtle neck." She laughs at my obvious self-deprecating joke and the conversation takes a turn elsewhere.

I am not a small girl. In fact, one could argue that, on the cusp of my 35th birthday, I am not a girl at all. But since I am being frank about the matter of size, I should be allowed the kindness of lying to myself about my age. So, let's pretend I am a "girl". The truth is, I have never been small. Not even at my smallest have I been considered small by our freakishly waif-obsessed society. And now, let's just say I am not at my smallest. I spent the first seven years of motherhood hiding somewhere on the fringe of the confident-in-a-swimsuit crowd, never getting in the pool, sometimes donning shorts and a T-shirt if necessity required. I mean, I didn't even think about a swimsuit. But somewhere along the way, I grew some wisdom with my gray hairs and I finally decided I wasn't going to let my insecurities ruin the fun I could be having, especially with my children. So when it came time to suit up last year, I actually shopped for a swimsuit. I bought the cutest suit I could find - sort of conservative with a little bit of sexy - and jumped in. This year, I didn't even flinch. At times I've even felt myself feeling - dare I say it? - confident. Dimply thighs and all. After all, who is anyone else to tell me I can't be beautiful the way I am? For crying out loud, it's the kiddie pool, not Miss America.

So, back to the kiddie pool. My friend begins telling me about a conversation between her and a mutual acquaintance. This particular acquaintance - I will call her Marni - has been divorced for several years and was sharing with my friend about how much she would love to be married again. "Of course I didn't say this to her," she says, "but I was thinking that if she really wanted to, she could do something to make herself more...well, you know...fix herself up a little."

I feel a hot flash completely unrelated to the summer heat rise up the base of my neck to my ears and pound inside my head. I hold back the anger that is my initial response. I am pretty sure I know what she means, but I ask anyway, innocuously. "What do you mean?"

"Well, she just dresses so old and looks much older than she really is. She could change some of that if she really wanted to meet someone."

I ponder for a split second that perhaps I should just sit in silence or make a joke that might distract her again, but the words are coming out of my mouth before I can even think about what I really want to say. "Well, that's where I just feel like she should probably wait for someone who loves her the way she is."

"Yeah, but even you fix your hair and makeup before you go out with your husband."

Then my little one needed a minor rescue and the conversation was left dangling. But it ate at me the rest of the day and into the next. She was right. I do spend extra time on my appearance when I go out with my husband. But that somehow seemed unrelated to undergoing a makeover to land a man.

And I left there feeling as if there were whispering going on behind my back. You know, that Supermom would be so pretty if she just lost some weight. Look at her thighs!

Why this preoccupation with appearance?

I want to say that any effort I put into the way I look is just for my own sense of self esteem and has nothing to do with anyone else.

But I can't.

Ultimately, I want to be admired, by my husband and yes, by others.

I'm not saying that is necessarily bad. I believe we were created to work that way. It is called Survival of the Species.

But why is there still this association that beautiful equals good? I read an article once that went so far as to say pretty babies get better care from their mothers. I have no personal experience on which to base this because all my babies were heart-stoppingly, breathtakingly beautiful, therefore I cannot compare. But isn't that what every mother thinks? Don't all moms think their babies are the most beautiful creatures to grace the planet? What happened to beauty being in the eye of the beholder? Are pretty babies easier to love?

We want to see beauty that holds no weakness or flaws. We would rather look upon the taut mom in the bikini rather than the soft, bulging stomach in the gingham swimsuit. Why? Because that woman has a weakness she cannot hide, a struggle manifested in her ample body. And her weakness makes her bad. I actually heard a preacher from the pulpit talk about keeping your weight down so as not to be a stumbling block to others. Of course, I am paraphrasing here, but he said if you were overweight, everyone could tell you obviously wrestled with the sin of gluttony. At the time - fifteen plus years ago - it made perfect sense to me. But then again, I also believed the whole premise of Christianity was to make myself as sinless as possible.

While the mom in the bikini could be a raging alcoholic that beats her children, her beauty is hailed as the standard by which we should all be measured. Because if you look good, you obviously have everything else together, too. And God forbid that you not have everything together. If you care enough about yourself to look good, then you must approach everything else in your life with as much attention to detail. After all, you can't love others until you love yourself, right?

At the risk of sounding completely "After School Special", I believe Marni needs something on the inside more than the out, obviously. However, it seems mean and unfeeling to try to tell her she should be okay with being alone because I am not. I cannot even pretend to know what she is going through. But I certainly will not tell her that the secret to having a lasting, lifelong, intimate relationship with someone is all in buying a new wardrobe.

I find myself at a crossroads. I want to rail against this, but at the same time I perpetuate it. I will shop for clothes that camoflauge my hips and thighs, though there is no hiding them. I will color my hair to disguise the premature gray I have been growing for ten years. I will put my best face forward, yes, to please myself, but moreover because it pleases others. After all, were I on a desert island with no one around to admire me, would I take the same pains "just for me"? Maybe I would. But there is something about knowing what others find attractive that drives my idea of beauty and makes me want to strive for that. Why is it important for me to feel attractive? It means acceptance. In the end, it is still more about society than myself.

However, I am going to the water park today. I am wearing my swimsuit. And if you can't stand the sight, too bad. I'm not hiding anymore.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Phantastic Phourth

So, whadja do on the fourth? Cookout? Fireworks? Sweltering heat? More of the same?

What did I do? Well, nothing much, really. I only sat in an air-conditioned theatre and watched a live performance of the longest running Broadway show in history.

The Phantom of the Opera.

(Cue driving organ theme.)

In the eighth grade I had the soundtrack memorized, never even knowing what the show was or was about. Two years ago when the movie came out, I bought the DVD out of sheer curiosity. It was then that I finally put the music with the story and could fully come to appreciate the hype about Phantom.

On Mother's Day of this year, I received the Mother's Day gift to end all Mother's Day gifts. Tickets to see the show on July 4th, with a dear friend, no less, to spare my husband the, ahem, experience. Independence Day? Celebrate our country's freedom? Screw that. Momma's goin' to see the Phantom.

Walking into the already crowded Performing Arts Center my excitement was bubbling over in the form of schoolgirl giggles. Had I not been surrounded by theatre patrons I would have jumped up and down clapping my hands in child-like glee. It was better than Christmas. Better than blowing out birthday candles. Better than...well, I should be careful. Suffice it to say, I was excited. Silly, sappy, crazy excited.

We found our seats on row N, dead center. That is thirteen small rows from the very front of the stage. And we waited breathlessly. "You know," I said to my friend. "My favorite part in the movie is the beginning, when the chandelier lights up and the organ starts booming out the theme. You think they'll have that in the play?"

"Uh, maybe," she replied, pointing to a large tarp covered mass on the stage. "That might be what's under that sheet that says 'CHANDELIER'."

Hey, how could I possibly be expected to read or spell under such thrilling circumstances?

Soon, the lights dimmed and the MC came out to introduce the show. "...and now I am pleased to present to you, The," Pause. "Phantom," Pause. "of the Opera." Riding high on waves of electric applause and elated expectancy, I found myself getting teary-eyed, a reaction I did not expect. And then we were in the opening scene at the auction. The auctioneer auctioned off the poster, the skulls and the grinding organ monkey music box. Then he came to "lot 666"...the chandelier. He told of the phantom folklore surrounding it and informed the crowd that it had been reworked with electric lights. "Perhaps," he leered, holding up two light switches. "We can scare away the ghost with a little...illumination." He hit the switches and sparks showered the stage with a thundering explosion, ushered in by the simultaneous drive of the eerily familiar pipe organ theme. The chandelier came to life in a blaze of glory. I jumped in my seat, deliciously scared, and for the next two hours and fifteen minutes lost myself. I pouted at the interruption of intermission, wondering how these people could so quickly get up from their seats and walk out for a Coke as if reality had not escaped them. I mean, the masquerade ball was next! Who needs a bathroom break with a masked gala at hand and a killer on the loose?

But it was only fifteen minutes and before long I was at the ball singing "Masquerade" under my breath and crying with Christine in the cemetery. Spellbound.

The end came all too soon and I had to tear myself from my seat to offer a standing ovation to the cast, especially The Phantom. He was brilliant. I clapped so hard my hands stung and my shoulders ached. Could I hide under a seat unnoticed until the next show? Probably not. With leaden feet and an even heavier heart I turned to go, trying to memorize all the beautiful details I knew I could never recall the next day and the last note still ringing in my head. I would have to come back. I resigned myself then and there to be one of those Phantom geeks who have the airbrushed mask and rose on a black license plate on the front bumper of their car. I will have to buy the T-shirt. I will have to drive people insane discussing the wrenching dichotomies and subtle messages within the story, singing the songs throughout my day in ear-splitting operatic falsetto.

As it is written, so shall it be.

I have been obligingly sing-songy ever since. My family LOVES it. Loves, loves, loves it. Really. Yeah, they do.

Wait till I buy the soundtrack.