The Toast recently shared a piece that featured several Playboy POTMs from back in the day (link is obvi NSFW). Fascinating in a lot of ways, but especially in how our definition of beauty has changed over time. The pictures are hokey and odd and the posing honestly bizarre, but up until the final one from 1972, there’s a certain innocence that’s hard to quantify.
It’s not in the posing and what is shown or not shown – it is in the bodies themselves. While all of the women are white and thin, before the 1972 picture their breasts vary in size, nipple shape, and their skin bears the slight folds that skin does.
Starting 1972 is when the woman’s body looks like manufactured. Beautiful, yes, pert, perky, perfect, impervious. It is a picture that could be one from today – not just because of the hairstyle and the lighting, but because she looks plastic.
The words we use for beautiful bodies are ones that make the bodies into objects: sculpted. Bronzed. Built. Cut. Steel. All materials that last and hold their shape, while bodies themselves grow and shrink and wrinkle and change. Soft.
My mother is unhappy with her body.
It took me a while as a kid to realize this, that the body that comforted and held me with soft curves was not one that she liked. That she didn’t get in the pool not necessarily because she didn’t like swimming but because she didn’t like swimming suits.
She’s tried dieting, and we always ate healthfully in our house. She wears a pedometer and walks. She follows her doctor’s instructions and takes it seriously, the health hazards of obesity. That doesn’t make a difference, and this time when she visited and mentioned the latest diet, in which she lost weight and put it back on, I finally heard what a source of shame and stress her own body was to her.
I heard a woman comedian recently in a conversation say that she was just waiting for the trapdoor to finally open under her and drop her out from the success that she’s achieved. Life is full enough of trapdoors opening – the hidden debt, the undiagnosed secret, the wrong left turn – but women in particular must walk gingerly over the trapdoor of their bodies changing and the world suddenly turning its face away.
It hasn’t happened to me, yet, but I already carry my own baggage with my body, and I still angle myself in pictures and in the mirror to try to show my ‘best side’. To try to trick the light into showing the body that I ‘ought’ to have instead of the one I do.
I’ve seen pictures of her when she was young and she looked like me.
She visited recently and we walked a long ways to the park that is by the waterfront. The sun was bright and hot and she was feeling the heat, as well as every incline that we encountered. We stepped into the cool shade of several trees and I looked for a place to sit, because I could tell she was tired. All benches were taken so I suggested the grass, cautiously.
She sat, cautiously, a multi-step process to be done with care. We talked and looked at the boats and birds on the water. When we got up she wouldn’t let my dad or me help her. She rolled to her hands and knees first and then stood up that way.
It’s a test of health, she said. Being able to get up on your own.
I have no ending.