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Redefining Beauty Through Cancer

Posted Oct 16 2009 10:01pm
I am thrilled to be able to bring you a guest post from Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. Caryn received her doctorate from the University of Kansas and was recently appointed the Poet Laureate of Kansas. She is the author of four poetry collections, is certified in poetry therapy and has led workshops for many groups, including people living with physical and mental illness. In 2000, Caryn founded the Master’s level program in Transformative Language Arts, that focuses on the effect of written and verbal language on the community, at Goddard College where she teaches. Her writer’s guide Write Where You Are is unique in that it is directed to teenage writers.

Her most recent book is The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body.

The older I get, the better looking I think I am. That is to say that when I was in my 20s, 40 pounds and a chin or two lighter, I grappled daily with not measuring up to the beauty standards of the women in magazine ads, movies and sometimes right before me who possessed slim bodies but breasts big enough for cleavage, flat stomachs, long necks, high cheekbones and hair that didn't stick up.

My own arrival at beauty was always delayed by the “if I were only....” spam landing in the inbox of my self-esteem at regular intervals. If I were only 10 pounds thinner, if I were only a few inches taller, if I only had more space between my neck and breasts, if I only exercised everyday and ate a perfect balance of low- (fill in the blanks: carbs, fat, calories), then I would be, maybe almost, just a little or at least in the moonlight with a slight breeze behind me, just a little beautiful.

Like many of all of us -- sisters, mothers, aunts, daughters, cousins, friends, acquaintances -- I judged my beauty from the outside in, doubting it so much that I succumbed to a bout with bulimia, too much time reading this month's magazine diet to get in shape by whatever major holiday was approaching, and oversized, shapeless clothes. For so many years, I lived in black straight-legged jeans and oversized t-shirts, super-short hair and sneakers, figuring I would dress up more when and if I turned better looking.

Strangely enough, it took age, cancer and losing my breasts to a double mastectomy to make me beautiful to myself. As I write in my memoir, The Sky Begins At Your Feet, about looking at photos a woman named Rhonda took of me topless -- and I do mean really topless, I began to sense a new way of seeing beauty as what sustains us from the life force, as life itself as it lives through us.

All my life, I had fretted about my body in the same boring and usual way as just about every other woman I’d ever known, and that old hatred and worry filled the background of each photo. Yet in the center of each [photograph], there was just me, a 44-year-old woman with some of her trails and trials more visible than others. It wasn’t what I would call sexy or beautiful, yet it was alive. Erotic, I supposed, if I were brave enough to claim that word.

I smiled, not one of those camera-facing-me smiles, and told my dubious thoughts to just hang tight with such a statement. Breastless. Erotic. I tried to stop myself from adding “anyway” or “regardless,” tried to accept that this body, shaped by so many years of food, activity, sleep, and thought, and then cut, healed over, and scarred, was still the place where I live.

I also found that simply moving through six months of intensive (is there any other kind?) chemotherapy, three surgeries, and loss of various body parts gave me a new appreciation for my body's capacity to heal, remake itself as whole, and carry me forward, not to mention a very clear new insight: being alive was beautiful.

Over the last five years since I looked at those photos for the first time, I have realized how much beauty and health are entwined acts of love for ourselves and life itself. Just as trees and rocks age, so do we. Just as the change in a landscape over time or through seasonal shifts show us new angles of the place's beauty, so can our changes show us new ways to know our own beauty.

I focus now each day on beauty and health, making time to do yoga or walk, not because I'm not good enough (although those thoughts pop up occasionally like uninvited by habitual guests), but because the act of moving helps me feel some love for myself, and illuminates the beauty of living in a body that can take the next step or next downward dog.

I gave away most of my old clothes in recent years, and started aiming toward color and shape, shimmer and just the right draping, so that when I dress most days, I'm actively inviting myself to feel at least a shiver of beauty. I've become a bit of a beading maniac, making myself necklaces and earrings to enhance the clothes, and I've grown my hair out, even started wearing make-up on occasion, and occasionally paint my toenails. These bits of adornment aren't so much for whoever I encounter, but more to invite beauty into my sense of myself, from the inside out.

So now that I'm on the cusp of 50, I have scars where my breasts used to up and across other assorted terrain of my body, amazingly enough, I finally have found myself and beauty cozying up together in the center of my heart. I invite us all to do the same however the journey unfolds for us.

For more from Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg make sure to check out her blog.

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