You don’t see me. I am a demographic, a percentage, a market, a 35-44 year old with some college credit, no degree. I am White, I am Married, I have 2-4 children, I am a Homemaker or I am Self-Employed, depending on when you ask. I have four TV’s in my house. I am average height. I exercise moderately. You see all of these things, yes, but you don’t see me. From the back of your modern day medicine wagon, you seek me out in the crowd of curious onlookers. Surrounded by snake oil and mystery elixirs, your eyes meet mine, and all that I am to you is reflected back to me: the scars, the stretchmarks, the crooked nose, the extra weight around my middle, the dark circles and the stubble and the softness. You peddle lotions and potions in my direction, million dollar mustache-twirling commercial spots, and your pitch is a whirlwind of words shaped like arrows, but I will send you away empty-handed today, because nothing you see is anything that I am.
What you don’t see is everything.
My scars are the history of my skin, a body of Braille memories, stories mapped out in irregular lines — here, NYC in the empty street early morning hours, this, fifth grade playground and an oppressive blue sky, there, a bike under streetlights and swarms of mosquitoes. There are shaky lines from a shaking hand holding dull scissors and mourning the loss of something unnameable, and there are decisive lines of long-held anger, an ugly anchor dropped deep down in my belly. There’s the small star-shaped burn on my wrist, a reminder of the way my parents fought, hot oil and slammed pots, then worried eyes and whispered apologies, and that was the first time I knew certain kinds of togetherness can be toxic. My hands alone hold nineteen marks of misadventure and I can read the backs of them like a book. The small dimple chicken pox left behind just south of my temple, the smooth patch of skin under my big toe a relic of a summer day and a boy and a creek and not being afraid of snakes under the water — my scars are a tangible way to touch my past, and I would never attempt to erase all that backstory.
The timeline of my stretchmarks follows me from my earliest marked days as a woman, waking up to pink pajamas soaked through with scarlet. Twelve summers and a body that didn’t feel as though it belonged to me, or belonged anywhere really, except for those sometimes moments in a hammock hung under golden stars and thick green boughs where I was both weightless and impossibly heavy with contentment. Skin like a thin layer of dirt over new roots, bucking and shifting, quiet groaning, moving small mountains of earth for the sake of all that wild new growth, a process that was repeated twice over as I slept with my arms folded protectively around the world of my womb, bumping up against our palms with the soft watery corners of elbows and knees. Alternating bands faded into the silver of well-loved ghosts and tiny fish racing just under the surface of sunlit water, a labyrinth at the center of me, circling around my trunk like the growth rings of a tree — in certain tribes, it is said that young women undergo scarification of their abdomen as a sign of their readiness to bear children, and so, these marks are the ritual scars of my initiation into the role of woman and mother, a source of pride, never shame.
My face is a Roman coin profile held at an awkward angle — the strong interrupted line of a long-ago broken nose, a stubborn chin, lips of uneven fullness — “a handsome woman,” someone once said, and that’s perhaps not such a stretch on a good day. An interesting face. A face I have worked hard to cultivate kindness in, to make into a soft landing place for those who need it. For six out of the last nine years, I have nursed babies throughout the night, and the half-moons under my eyes are a testament to endless days of interrupted sleep; still, it has been worth every dream cut short, those small bodies, curled up like commas against me and smelling of slightly sour milk, fine hair like feathers tickling underneath my chin. As I age, my face takes on more of my father, a shadowed specter I catch out of the corner of my eye, a legacy I never asked for but can’t bring myself to resent — in the mirror I see my mother’s eyes and inside them, a generation of dark women, and I am glad for their touch upon my brow.
This body. I don’t need Solomon to write a love song for it — these limbs sing for themselves, an echo of ancient stone, all breast and belly and fat thighs, broad hips made for holding up babies. The long bones of my legs folded up at night, wrapped around his, an infinity-shaped muscle memory of the way we all fit together under moons and out of clothes. My arms lift and stir and comfort and knead, hold close and push away, pull plants from the ground and dig deep in the dirt. I’ve grown two big babies and my skin is soft and loose and warm, the way fresh bread is after the first rise, and I remember watching my mom in the bath as a child, how beautiful she was, and my body is now that body, and it is beautiful, too, in the way of women, in the way of mothers. I am strong where I need to be — I feel the thick ropes of muscle when I flex, stone under cloud, a mama bear just stretching into springtime. I move the way I want to move — I run when I want to feel the wind on my face, I do yoga when I want to breathe down into my bones, I squat over clover and bend to pick violets and wander the wild outside my door when I want to connect. Sometimes I shave. Sometimes I don’t. I love the way hair feels on a body, the soft springy curls, the slightly matted pelts, like sleeping wolves in the wilderness. Some days I stand in the sun, feet planted firmly on ground that smells like green things and rain, a sturdy shape in shadow, head tilted up to catch the scent of the wind, and I feel wild, and I feel good — and I feel like I don’t need to buy into a single thing you try to sell me.