Julie Gillis, on lust, bodies, aging and kindness.
My ankles hurt each morning when I rise out of bed. I’ve been running more and more, perhaps in an attempt to stave off age, so that I can keep eating my fill without worry, perhaps because I’ve always been active and I don’t want to stop. I’ve found tricks to help ease those aches, stretching my calves and rolling my feet prior to placing them on my cold wooden floor. Still, the first few steps of the day indicate some strain. Perhaps the beginnings of arthritis from years of overuse; days of 5th-grade ballet class, jazz in high school and modern dance in college and beyond. I read my dancing life in my ankles and knees, I carry lessons in my wrists from the piano, my mouth from the oboe, my shoulders from carrying stress.
The body shows age. Think about that. The body quite literally shows us where we have been, what we have done. It shows in lines and scars, in aches and fatigue. The stories of our years on this planet are written on and in our bodies. We may try to avoid it, through surgeries, exfoliation, hormone enhancement or love affairs, but the words are indelible.
There was a post by Tom Matlack, called Is Male Lust Turning Us Inside Out. It garnered several hundred comments, many due, in part to the opening paragraph referencing how a friend was discussing with Tom how pregnancy and childbirth ruined his wife’s breasts. There have been follow-up posts to that article, including one by Marcus Williams, Even Wonderful Husbands Like Breasts, humorous and with great points.
I was one of many commentors who wrote much about the initiating statement of the friend and his wife, and his perhaps less than kind comment about her breasts. True, it could simply be because I’m a woman, have had children, and worry that my husband might not appreciate my body in its postpartum state. But there was so much anxiety produced in both male and female comments. So charged and so effective in lighting up sparks of fear in many women readers. So much defensiveness from men. From both, actually. What was the fear? Was it really that male lust, out in the open, is that threatening? Or was it the totality of the statement, the particular callousness of it?
This article was inspired in part by those comments, but it is not a complaint on Tom’s piece, nor a polemic about the state of male lust. Not at all. I’ve thought about this long and hard as a woman who is a fan of lust, desire, and men. As a woman who has had a more alternative marriage than some, and as a woman who is favor of honest conversations with the men in my life, I think my reaction was due to the casual unkindness of the initial statement about breasts and ruination. My reaction is not, “Don’t lust.” It’s, “Be kind to me and my aging body while you lust for others, and I will be kind to you and yours, as my own eyes pause on younger flesh.”
Ruined. Ruin. Ruins. This word has been ringing in my head.
Her breasts were ruined. Ruined? Are mine? Are my hips (wider than in past years) or my stomach (not stretch-marked but a bit looser due to pregnancy), or my feet (once a petite 7, now an 8 or 8.5 depending on the shoe) are they ruined? Or are they just written upon by life? By the stories of being young, of aging, of producing children. Of pain, of joy, of conception and labor, of strain and challenge. I can look at my body and read those histories.
On my own breasts, I imagine written poems of waiting, waiting, tears while waiting for them to grow, of furtive teenage petting, of pleasure and hope with new lovers, with annoyance at monthly swelling and pain. Words of cooing, of tolerance for a baby’s unskilled latch, of sharp pain at cracked nipples, of “I love you’s given by a baby’s gentle pat on my flesh, giggling as milk spilt from his mouth.
This mark, here a poem of shock at the capacity for milk production, of a glorious spray of nutrients. I can see right here in this curve a story of sadness when that time of nursing was over. In this area, flatter than before, darker, I can see the present, the result of the past. And my life is not finished. There are more stories to be written on my breasts, on my body, in my being.
My husband’s body, too is covered in poetry, in heartbreak, stoicism, knees that hurt, hair that is different than in his younger years. A crease under his eye from focusing on a dissertation, muscles that have strengthened in places, lessened in others. Can I look on those poems with desire? Yes, I can. I can read our 18 years together, and wonder about the years before. He can tell me stories about those years. I can read the poems on his body. He can read mine.
Can I see the difference between my body and one of a 25-year-old nubile girl? Well, of course. She’s at the beginning and I’m at the middle. Can I accept that when his eyes cross her body that he’ll experience something perhaps different than when his body reads mine? Yes, I can, and he knows I’ll appreciate the beauty of younger men as well. Nothing wrong with having that out in the open.
But what about kindness? Where did that callousness in that original statement come from? Was it simply a shortcut of words between friends? Words mean things. What we say out loud is how we see the world. The comments responding to that statement, filled with anxiety, fear and defensiveness…is there a deeper fear underneath them? All of us worried we are ruined or will be, men and women alike, gay and straight, as we age? About worrying we’ll be irrelevant, impotent, disregarded for sagging breasts, thinning hair, or growing guts?
By accident, I ran across this gorgeous post from written by Curtis Smith, Decline, which truly sealed my desire to write this piece today. Though I fight it with morning runs, face creams and sexy shoes, I know in my heart that our bodies are meant to be ruined from living life, meant to decline like temples first proud and shining, into ruins of achy bones and weathered skin.
It’s quite fair to say that we lust and desire the young, both men and women, because they are beautiful. But isn’t it possible that that desire for them is also because they show us where we have already been? We already know we’ve written those stories, but still we’d like more, just a little bit more
Our ruined bodies remind each other, partner to partner, that we are not new anymore. This is hard, but it is also beautiful. We will wear our stories on our ruined bodies and those stories are who we are. They are poems, lead us from birth to death, and they are holy, all of them, like an epic poem, like Homer’s Odyssey. All I want is kindness along the way while the poems are written.
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