The Soft Belly of Vulnerability

I watched an old woman brushing her hair. It made me tearful. I watched her diminished and thin arm reach back and forth, holding her hair, smiling gently to herself as she ran the bristles through. She reminded me of my mother perhaps? I recall a great sadness too, upon picking up my mother from a hair appointment. I wanted to understand why the act of hair brushing, and with it the accompanying acts of makeup, lipstick and clothes shopping would produce such sadness.

Of all the human life forces, the need to be beautiful is powerful indeed. We have a perverse relationship with beauty, a fickle one, a brutal one when mixed with power and manipulation. For in beauty the powerless can often find their strength. It is the currency of sex and influence and thus when it passes, the power seeps away, like sand through our fingers, and what is left can be a source of sadness. But all of us, male and female, old and young, whatever our age and our race, we all feel the need to look our best. This need is present even in hospitals and prisons, when patients and inmates crave a return to their regular grooming.

When praised for our looks our emotional state will glow, but the opposite can be profoundly painful. It is not an accident that our language of confrontation is laced with insults based on the perception of ugliness. Words such as fat, ugly, old, bald, are the staple of this very Western discourse. These words are designed to wound. They are weapons of the soul, ways to ram home a perceived deviation from the standards of the herd. It is perhaps this that makes me so sad when I see the valiant, gentle movement of the hairbrush, held softly in an old hand. It is naked vulnerability.

No-one, I feel, is completely immune to the interconnection of perceived beauty, self-esteem, vulnerability, intoxicating pride and searing pain. And quite clearly that includes me. Oddly, we are discouraged from speaking out on such feelings, part of the game is to ‘laugh it off,’ especially if you are male. As a man in the last year of his fifth decade, and following a serious illness a few years ago, it is hardly surprising that one aspect of my ageing process has been gaining weight. Of all that middle age has thrown at me, I find this the source of greatest discomfort. A few days ago a woman I had not seen for over three years came over and made a deliberate and calculated point of telling how much weight I had put on, and “what had happened to me?” I reacted with freezing fury, closing down faster than a nail parlour in a recession. Her words stang for hours, and later, over several days, the feeling morphed into an abscess-like state of self critical loathing. Little treats, that glass of wine, a shared ice cream, a slice of toast when hungry all became minefields of mixed nettle-like feelings. I found myself grimly looking at my profile in shop windows, a mixture of toxic shame and a sense of failure that hung around like a fruity fart in a lift. I felt I should explain to her my daily struggle with weight, my rigid use of calorie counting and burning, constantly checking my Fitbit, whiningly tell her about my daily 12,000 + steps and frequent cycling. Yet despite the rigorous regimen, my weight fluctuates, like an incoming tide with ebbs and flows. Luckily I caught myself and decided that it was none of her business and she would not be interested and it was certainly not my role. She had already assumed the role of a childhood bully, the mocking face that infected youthful innocence, replacing it with a nebulous cloak of fear and confusion.

Men often tease and prod and mock their friends’ weight gain in the name of banter. I hate this. The loss of beauty is a loss and it must be grieved, gently and in stages. It is a universal human experience but one which we all handle in our own way, like all grief, at our own speed with our unique blend of balm-like denial and illusion. The relationship with our own bodies is one that is fraught with baggage and fears, with a craving to be liked. It is not a place for others to enter and mock, to point out our shortcomings and the little defeats we have incurred in our battle against time, frequent flier miles we have racked up on our inexorable journey to death. In fact, I believe it is the invasion of my privacy that I resent the most. Lucky indeed are those who feel totally at ease in their skin, free from the need for external validation and the gentle strokes of compliment.  The image used is one of my artworks, a small painting at £15


8 comments on “The Soft Belly of Vulnerability

      • Thought provoking post that left me pondering to what extent a human being can feel affected by the aesthetics. Every person has a unique experiences in life that reflects upon his mind, physique and soul and finally for your own inner tranquility one must learn to appreciate your own being. Being self critical would not help all the time and can even be counterproductive. The world is replete with people who would unhesitatingly make one have that awkward moment by highlighting their limitation s. The art of filtering out the heartfelt critical remarks from the caustic insincere ones must be learnt.

  1. This is just beautiful. Scott Peck said something along the lines of – Our finest moments occur when we are at our most uncomfortable, because these moments allow us to step outside of our ruts and find the deeper answers.
    In the west, age and weight seem to be the last great bastions of acceptable discrimination. Out there in the world and inside our own heads.

  2. The last three sentences of your third paragraph brought tears to my eyes. Also as one who gained a lot of weight in middle age and sustained it for many years and now have lost 50 pounds with more to go, your experience resonates with me.

  3. I know from traumatic experience how much words can hurt! But in the end it comes down to who utters them and above all else, the power we choose to give them!
    Great writing!!

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