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Reflections on fleshy vulnerability


They seem so practical, those mirrored closet doors at business-class chain hotels. You can see your whole outfit in them, no need for contortions to check whether your slip’s showing. And the mirroring even has a certain ersatz art-deco elegance.

Until you step out of a steamy, thunderstorm-force shower, still savoring all that unlimited hot water free of clanging pipes or yelling kin ... and see what I saw.

The shock of all that plump pink nakedness jolted me senseless. Surely those billows were magnification, the dimpling in the mirror’s surface?

Knowing full well which one of us was lying, I turned 90 degrees and ignored all reflection. Was this shame, this abject nakedness that proved me all too fully human, precisely what scripture meant to convey with Adam and Eve’s banishment? Had Eve eaten a little too abundantly from that tree? All we know about their nakedness is that they fled, rather like adulterers rushing unceremoniously from a daytime motel after the camera-flash explodes outside their window.


Babies are naked; so are lovers. So would corpses be, if we didn’t insist on dressing them up like they’re about to leave for their spouse’s class-reunion dinner. But the aforementioned categories, by definition, lack self-consciousness. It’s the rest of us who are truly naked, even beneath our clothes. An uncomfortable state that begins, as best I can recall, with puberty. That’s when the changes get interesting, mortification mixes with shy pride and comparison becomes a relentless hobby.

Alas, all those intense feelings are wasted on notions we will later see as negligible. A tummy that protrudes all of a half-inch does not destroy one’s chances of marriage. Oozing pustules do not signify base worthlessness.

With age comes the real shame, as our lives begin to show in our flesh. Gravity -- and gravitas -- pull the body ever farther from its media ideal. The progression begins to dawn on us as irreversible. We are, we joke bitterly, falling apart.

In point of fact, what disintegrates is an illusion. The illusion, so necessary to youth, of immortality. Invincibility. Reliable beauty. Ready conformity to whatever standard society dares advance.

I recently interviewed a young woman, flawlessly beautiful, who, because of a tragically mistaken diagnosis, had undergone a double mastectomy at 25. Until that surgery, she’d been healthy, athletic, thin, thoughtlessly attractive. Now, she takes comfort, not just from the plastic surgeon’s excellent reconstruction, but from older friends, women stretched into new shapes by pregnancy, women who’ve lived long enough to fall apart a little. “I never realized your body changed anyway,” she said softly.

Change it does, and if one avoids monitoring those changes closely, a hotel mirror is rather a shock. But before I fled screaming into the hallway, it dawned on me: I’ve been this vulnerable all along.

It’s just that now it shows.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999