Mary Mandeville

ASSIGNED SHAME AT BIRTH

I stand before my full-length bathroom mirror before donning the day’s needed costume. Doesn’t matter if I’ll put on workout tights, jog bra and t-shirt for walking dogs or taking a local hike, or whether I dress in floral tights, a skirt, sweater and sensible but cute shoes for seeing clients, or choose the top with the best neckline for a Zoom meeting. Before this mirror, I am, and always have been, flawed.

Often, I miss my youthful shape, slender with small perky breasts, lanky arms and legs, and a nearly flat belly. I scrunch my nose at the long scar that runs from navel to public bone where, once, I was opened up so a malignant tumor could be pulled out. I cup my hands under the belly I wish I didn’t have, the protective layer of fat that piled on like an old-fashioned life preserver around my waist. I breathe and strive to love this still alive, still vibrant—if misbehaving by cultural beauty standards—body that I’ve been taught to loathe, not since I started getting older, but since I have memory of having a body.

*

“Original Sin, boys and girls,” Sister Frederick Anne’s wooden pointer tap-tapped big words in white chalk on the green blackboard. Her furrowed brows gave her a mean face as she educated our first grade class about our sinful nature, in preparation for our First Confession.

“Original Sin,” she repeated, “stained you before you were born.”

I swung six-year-old feet in white cotton anklets and black Mary Janes back and forth beneath my desk. I stared at the big O-is-for-octopus, and S-is-for-snake that began the words Original and Sin while Sister Frederick Anne went on about the way Eve had failed Adam and failed God and failed all of us when she fell for the snake’s hissed story and ate the forbidden fruit. Because of Eve, all of Mankind got kicked out of Eden. Because of Eve, Original Sin blotched me from the beginning. Because of Eve, I was wicked from birth. Me and my body, bad from the get-go.

Born that way.

*

F-U-C-K was spray painted in bright white on a gray wall and I saw it while climbing trees in a park with two friends. I was seven. When I got home, my mom was hand drying dishes.

“Mom,” I asked, “what does FUCK mean?”

Forks clattered to the counter. Mom’s face flushed red, pinched into a frown. She took me by the hand and led me to the living room, sat in the recliner with me at her feet. Her red-faced discomfort and her Quiet and Very Serious voice, cloaked the story she had to tell with deep embarrassment. She used words like penis, that seemed to stick in her throat and catch on her tongue differently than when I’d asked about the dangly little thing on my baby brother. Then she used another sticky word I’d never heard before—vagina. With these words and some others, she went through the whole she-bang: When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much and want to have a baby …

You know the rest: tab A slides into slot B and blessed by God and the Catholic church through Holy Matrimony, a baby is made.

FUCK was a bad word for a good thing for a mommy and daddy inside a holy marriage. FUCK was a go-straight-to-Hell Mortal Sin for anyone else. Oh, and never say the word again.

*

Patent-leather shoes reflect your undies.

Short skirts distract boys.

Don’t come out of your room in your pajamas.

Don’t wear your bikini around home, it’s so immodest.

Beware of boys, they only want One Thing.

He’ll never buy the cow if you give the milk away free.

You’ll burn in hell forever.

From 4th grade on, we girls knelt while nuns measured the distance from floor to hem. If the skirt was too short, they ripped out the seams. Add in American culture—Seventeen, Vogue, Cosmo—where female bodies were never good enough, are never good enough, then stir, stir, stir. Buy this or buy that; there’s always a fix for your flaws.

You need to fix your round bodies, the magazines told us, fix your slim bodies, tall bodies, short bodies, all the bodies in between. Breasts too small or breasts too pendulous, thighs that touch or thighs that don’t, flat butt, fat butt, bubble butt, fat bellies, flat bellies, concave bellies, a nose too big or with freckles on its bridge, a chin too small, hair too curly or too straight, and on and on and on forever and ever, without end.

Amen.

*

The chastity belt was invented in Europe in the Middle Ages, states a chapter of Naomi Wolf’s 2012 book, Vagina. This chronicle of v-jay-jays through the centuries rattled me to bone and muscle (and vagina) as I read. Ancient history echoed in my body as if I’d been there.

Chastity belts were not delicate garments, but actual body locks made of metal. The device surrounded the wearer’s hips with two iron bands and a third iron band went between her legs. That band was closed with a lock. A woman’s husband, if he wished to travel or was departing for war, would literally lock up his wife’s pudenda[1], and take the key with him. The device did not simply prevent intercourse; it also made hygiene difficult, caused severe abrasions, and is best seen as a device of domestic torture. Later, in the Elizabethan era, the chastity belt continued to be used to control a woman’s sexual behavior, sometimes along with a scold’s bridle, headgear to shut up a talkative or ‘scolding’ woman. The scold’s bridle locked around the offending woman’s head and gagged her mouth forcing vocal silence, while the chastity belt locked rigidly around a woman’s genitals, forcing sexual silence.[2]

Witch burnings and literal policing of what women wore, along with medicalization and subjugation, pieces of history I already knew along with pieces I was just learning, reverberated in my blood and flesh. The trauma of my European female ancestors bleeds down the centuries, lives in memories and cells, lives in blood and bones. Reverberates in and around today’s world with genital mutilation, sewing vaginas shut, rape culture, laws that limit a woman’s control over her own body.

*

“What are you going to wear?” she whispered, as I sat on the edge of her bed. This fair-skinned, freckle-faced, blue-eyed young woman with short-cropped carrot red hair whose proximity made my skin tingle from face to feet.

Though we’d decided to sleep in the same bed, we hadn’t decided—or hadn’t said out loud—that we were going to do it. Maybe we’d just kiss and cuddle. At twenty-five, this was a first, my first, our first, two young women raging with attraction climbing into the same bed together in a world that despised or erased our existence. We were both capitol-N Nervous.

I had on a black t-shirt (no bra) and bikini underwear, but in case that wasn’t right I’d stashed a short white cotton nightie in my backpack. My heart was a bass drum pounding a heavy beat in my chest. What did a first-time lesbian wear to bed with another first-time lesbian? By this dashing young woman’s question, she didn’t know either.

No boy or man had ever verbalized a negotiation about any step toward sex, just pushed forward, you know, literally and figuratively. I’d stayed silent, offered no words to express my wants or don’t wants, let them lead whether or not they wanted to. That old Boys just want One Thing with its implied you don’t want the Thing, ringing in my ears. The story that sex (meaning hetero sex, duh, there’s nothing else) was evil except in Holy Matrimony, cloaked every straight interaction, made every touch, every buzz feel clammy and smarmy. Despite the way an attractive boy or man could set my parts to tingling, Tab A to Slot B sex remained hopelessly unholy and unsatisfying, with one or two exceptions.

So, there I was, on fire with desire and the color of that longing was white, was bright, was sunflower yellow and flame-red, not shame-red; the patina of Sin unable to tarnish its shine.

“I dunno,” I offered, “maybe nothing?” I started to chuckle, then to laugh.

“What is it?”

I couldn’t stop laughing, but I had to let this bright-eyed young woman (who did not grow up Catholic) in on the joke.

“The Pope,” I got out between giggles, “is shitting bricks! The Church forgot to teach me the horrors of lesbian sex, so …”

If the Catholic Church’s repeated lessons of shame around girl-bodies, and its repeated lessons around the need for girls to maintain chastity up to and including the Virgin Martyr stories, in which it was shown to be holier to be murdered than to be soiled by (heterosexual) sex, and the Catholic church’s repeated insistence that girls bear the brunt of responsibility for both our own and male chastity; if all these lessons had the power to turn heterosexual girls to lesbians, there wouldn’t be a Catholic girl in America (perhaps the world) who turned out straight.

It wasn’t that the church made me a lesbian, it was simply that by disappearing gay people and gay sex, the cloak of shame didn’t reach me in the moment when I realized my attraction to a woman was at least equal to my attraction to a man.

Miss Baby Blue Eyes leaned toward me in her white t-shirt and blue bikini undies and planted a moist kiss on my lips, then my neck. The wardrobe question turned out to be a moot point.

Light banished dark and illuminated the whole Thing.

And it was good.

*

“Why do you think this thing happened?” My sister asked from the hospital bed in her bedroom, the stem of a glass of lunch-time Merlot in her right hand.

“What thing, hon?” I asked, pretty sure I knew what the thing was, but still.

She’d been stuck in that bed for three weeks since cancer ate clean through her spinal cord and stole her ability to walk, then to sit up without help. Any time was Wine Time at that point. We’d had wine for breakfast once or twice.

“Why what happened?” I asked as winter afternoon sun beamed through the wide windows, prismed her glass of deep purply red wine, and shot beams of shimmery merlot color onto the wall.

“Do you think God wanted Ally to have a better life than with me, a single mom? Do you think it’s punishment?”

My chin dropped to my chest with the heaviness of this struggle. Again. My sister’s four-year-old would go to live with our younger sister and her husband, a mom and a dad. Though they would make great parents, there was little lacking in my single sister’s parenting. It wrecked me a bit every time she started down this line of thinking.

This not-good enough, this sense of failure she carried about getting cancer, this old belief stretching its fingers from Biblical times to clutch her in twenty-first century home-hospice: illness is a result of our sins. This certainty that God specifically targeted her with fatal cancer so her young daughter could get a “better life.”

We’d traveled this territory before. But I reminded myself that for her, with malignant cells stealing her memory, this was our first conversation like this.

Lifting my chin up and fighting tears (again), and steadying my voice (again), I said, “You know, sis, I don’t know why you got cancer. I don’t know why anybody does.”

She watched my face closely, her expression wistful and twisted.

“But I do know this,” I set down my wine glass and leaned forward. “You’ve been an awesome Mom to your girl. There’s no punishment involved.”

Mere days later, I stood beside her bed and watched her head flop onto her chest and heard her last breath rattle out of her. When she finally died of the breast cancer that had metastasized everywhere and when paramedics zipped up the black plastic bag around her face and when they rolled the gurney with her dead body out through the front door, something snapped under my sternum. Gave a powerful tug. This is not a metaphor. It pained my chest.

A thread that once was strong

b r 

        o

      k e, 

its torn edges fluttering in the doorway as her body rolled away. My DNA screamed of her—and my—mortality. We all die! those little helixes shouted from the depths of each and every cell.

We all die, but not because of our sins. Bodies simply don’t last forever.

*

Reading The Language of Women by Rachel York in the May 2021 issue of Guernica, I initially assumed I was reading the work of a contemporary, someone who’s been around for quite a few decades. The experiences were so like my own, I could have written parts of the essay myself.

Ten

My mother tells me it’s time to go on a diet. I believe her. I begin to act accordingly.

Eleven

Nothing I pray wards the breasts off.

Thirteen

I am told that I am not quite fat and not quite popular. … While I am neither anorexic or bulimic, I am repulsed by my body and its shape, its basic anatomy, all the flaps, the holes, the hair. A woman is supposed to be straight, with shiny, hairless skin.

When motivated, I can lose a pound in three and a half days. 

When I was a teen, if I was motivated—and I often was—I could lose a pound in one day for several days in a row. When my body hit the skids and the scale refused to move downward again, even for one day, I devolved into tears and tantrums.

The author mentioned her young friends posting pictures of themselves in bikinis on Instagram, and bam: I realized the author must be half my age, less even, perhaps two full generations younger than me. Yet, York detailed experiences like my own in a generation before hers. What disturbs me, profoundly, is that things don’t appear to have improved one whit, one iota, one smidgeon, for female-bodied people growing up in America. We’re still steeped in the language of objectification, a language born in the mouths and minds of men but which many women take on as our own: the language of Rachel’s mother, of my mother, of me, telling us, telling me: eat less, be thinner, be quiet, be small, better yet disappear, before you eat anything ask yourself am I really hungry? Say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

My first language is a language still in the curriculum for female people: the language of shame. But I’m working on building new vocabulary, familiarizing myself with the strange-to-me concept of self-acceptance. In this new language, I stumble over pronunciation, get the words all wrong, revert to the old language. Many times, I’ve announced loud approval of my body as it is, only to start a diet the very next day. I’ve couched dieting for a skinnier waist in terms of health and longevity, and clean eating. I’ve pretended sex shaming doesn’t lurk around every corner or because I’m older, I can’t be touched by being reminded of all the ways my body isn’t sexy enough. Still, I plod along. I act as if. I roll the words around in my mouth: pretty enough, thin enough, shapely enough, strong enough, sexy enough, just the right age, always the right age.

I’m enough, enough, enough.

*

I regard my rounded abdomen with its fading long white scar in the mirror. I note the crinkles around my eyes and lines around my mouth that Zoom meetings accentuate. Judgment begins to rise like bile from my belly.

Like my sister, I confronted cancer. Unlike my sister, I’m still here. Our childhood water source was so polluted it’s now a Superfund Site. Though the polluted Ten Mile Creek is a likely culprit in our malignant diseases, I, like my sister, believed on some level that cancer was punishment for my sins: fat, so I thought at the time, though not really fat, food disordered but not really food disordered, in possession of female body parts like boobs and pudenda, having sex with men and sex with women outside of holy matrimony.

Within less than a year of surgery and radiation, my belly piled on this extra layer. Whether penance or protection or simple biochemistry, this personal floatation device has no apparent intention of ever going away, despite intermittent dieting and committed regular exercise, so though I continue to eat healthy food, I’ve given up on diets.

I breathe again and decide I’ve harangued myself long enough over body flaws, real or imagined. I take note of the beauty still present in this female body. Solid abs peek from the edges of my belly fat, muscles sculpt my thighs, calves, shoulders, and arms, breasts curve softly, cheeks are pink, and smile bright. My pandemically feral hair curls rakishly around my face in woven strands of natural white and brown and light copper.

I am alive.

Fuck it, I say, on the judgments of church and culture. My flesh reaches toward earth where we’ll all end up. I make peace with flesh making peace with gravity and the weight of a body, the weight of a life. Boobs and bellies are soft and luscious. I work to love mine, and sometimes, I do.

I’m still here. I’m aware of the awesome privilege.


[1] Pudenda, n., external genitals, especially of a woman; from the Latin, meaning “(parts) to be ashamed of”

[2] Vagina, Naomi Wolf, Harper-Collins 2012, pp 133-134


Mary lives with her wife and young adult son in Portland Oregon. Her non-fiction and prose-poetry hybrid essays have been published in The Master’s Review, 34thParallel, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Fugue, Nailed and elsewhere. Two of these essays have earned Pushcart nominations. When Mary’s not writing, she can be found providing chiropractic care, gardening, hiking, or walking her two aging pitbulls around the wilds of Portland. She’s working on a memoir. 

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