The Natural Order of Things
I am drawn to a series of black and white photos in a recent New Yorker magazine. The article reviews a book of 1200 images through which the author, Nancy Floyd, chronicles herself aging over a forty year period. Flabbergasted, I stare at the ease with which she leans against doorways or fence posts, without any of the vanity or careful posing that has been typical of most of my lifelong behavior when being photographed. Rarely have I stood in front of a camera with that comfort.
I was most curious about the images in Floyd’s series entitled Underwear, in which she unabashedly photographs herself wearing various examples of unfortunate cotton undergarments, showing dimpling thighs and rippling belly. These simple pragmatic pictures reveal a lack of care about how she looks or is viewed by the world. The photographer appears unconcerned with the vision of her own aging body.
* * *
The first time I paid attention to an older woman’s body, particularly her breasts, I was ten years old. In the locker room at our town pool, I shyly wriggled out of my bathing suit, hiding behind a towel to avoid revealing my prepubescent body which I already thought was too fat. But I was interested in an older woman a few lockers over, her grey hair wet and sleek as a seal, undressing without caring who was peeking or staring.
Underneath her black latex suit were enormous low-slung breasts, huge upside-down mountains hanging and flopping dangerously close to her belly button. I stared at them, the nipples large and dark, so unlike the tiny pink buds of my own undeveloped nubs. My mother was shy and protective of her body, referencing those female parts as “bosoms” but I’d seen a few before, of indigenous women in National Geographic or older sisters at sleepovers. I had even seen those of my friend Sarah’s mom, her vein-filled engorged breasts openly nursing the youngest child in their large family. I’d never noticed bosoms at home, as my mother and aunt fed their children with bottles. But most of these previously-witnessed breasts were perky and upright, not limp and low and sad. It never occurred to me when observing this woman in the locker room, that those hanging mounds were a premonition of my future. Yet my fierce determination emerged in that moment: to hide, not celebrate, an imperfect body, an imperfect self.
Yet my fierce determination emerged in that moment: to hide, not celebrate, an imperfect body, an imperfect self.
* * *
I don’t have 1200 photos of myself, or even half that many, though I might have 1200 photos of sunrises and sunsets over my beloved beach. Among my photos exist not a single underwear shot, not one of me wearing plain white cotton briefs like Nancy Floyd or sporting more sexy lingerie. Looking at my photos, I feel memory skate, as if over the surface of a stone. Sliding, so effortlessly moving through time. Can I remember how I felt as a newborn, as my lungs filled with air for the first time?
* * *
My sunrise photos of rosy pink, tangerine and golden light are daily invitations of hopeful beginnings and calls to the soul. Like an infant, dawn is full of promise, unashamed.
* * *
I first study the photos of myself as a sweet toddler or little girl. These are smiling, innocent girls, eager and full of promise. I don’t recognize all of their expressions, and wonder if they are part fiction, part desiccated memory. But all of them meant something to me, mean something to me. My heart pounds for some of their stories, our stories.
I see a navy blue cardigan buttoned right to my chin, my cowlicks and frizz wound into pigtails, pulled so tight I often got headaches—but said nothing. Then I’m a bit older, and hiding behind my siblings and cousins in a steel-grey, scratchy woolen jumper that my mother sewed for me because I didn’t fit into cute clothes from the junior department. When my own breasts develop, I cleverly conceal them behind oversized sweaters and boyish sweatshirts. Always hiding. Next was my stage of peasant blouses and huaraches and denim skirts. I might be grinning, but my eyes are unreadable. There was always the fear of the dark, the unknown, of being uncomfortable, of being seen. Of wishing to be something else. Someone else.
I’d like to touch the cheeks of all of those small girls, those adolescents, then hold them close. I’d like to let them know that I didn’t appreciate or know how to love them then, but I do now. I don’t wish for them to be anything other than what they were.
I search for photos of me in middle age and I’m not just hiding but missing altogether. There are hundreds of pictures of my children, but I’m conspicuously absent in most. Years ago, I deleted or threw away many of the photos in which I was present, chiding myself for looking too fat. But I manage to find a few: on the rocks of Lewis Bay crouched behind my perfectly dressed family in matching blue polo shirts, or leaning to the side of the laden Christmas table, almost out of view. My smile is strained, because the marriage is strained. Everything is strained. Looking at those photos, I can almost feel the valves of my wounded heart.
Nancy Floyd appears at ease in her underwear, her laundry in heaps, unfolded, her background environment a tangled jumble of books and record albums and family life. My photos represent faux order, a mirage of organization because inside my head, things felt cluttered or splintered or broken.
* * *
I rarely take beach photos in the middle of the day. Long ago I stopped sunbathing, years after the jean-skirted teenaged girl burnt herself for the umpteenth time, slathered in a mixture of baby oil and iodine while a tin-foiled covered record album reflected cancerous ultraviolet rays. Instead, I beach walk at the bookends of the day when the tourists and loud families and sun worshippers have gone home. Few midlife photos, fewer midday beach photos, though time did not stop.
* * *
Now I study images of myself in this last third of my life. Post divorce with hope, resolve and a healing heart. Years earlier, I’d read and reread Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, contemplative musings on women and life at the beach. After a lifelong yearning to live near the water, I packed thirty years of memories and the family home, and moved myself right near a sprawling and wild Atlantic Ocean beach.
Scrolling through hundreds of digital pictures I see positively jubilant selfies, me by the wavy water’s edge or giggling in the shifty sand with a friend. My face might be partially obscured by a pandemic mask, but I’m no longer hiding. After six decades, I’m finally at ease in my own body, this sturdy body which has never let me down. Yet if I look at myself too closely, I might become critical of my gravitationally challenged bosom, or the way the crepe-like skin on my neck folds into itself. I might despair at the grooves deepening into gullies next to my mouth. Lines from too much crying, but also much laughing.
Yet if I look at myself too closely, I might become critical of my gravitationally challenged bosom, or the way the crepe-like skin on my neck folds into itself.
* * *
Finally, there is the utter brilliance of my sunset pictures. I’ve captured this slow descent of the sun hundreds of times, but it never looks exactly the same. My memories are as varied as the colors in this nightly celebration. A revelation. It has taken a lifetime to get here, to this place in time. A place to embrace all of the broken and imperfect pieces. I didn’t realize that this was a destination, but for the first time in my life, I don’t want to be anywhere else.
Diane Forman is a writer and educator who has published in Boston Globe Connections, Intima: a Journal of Narrative Medicine, WBUR Cognoscenti, and elsewhere. A graduate of Northwestern University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Diane lives and writes on the north shore of Boston, where she also leads adult writing groups. See more at dianeforman.com.