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The Day I Saw Myself
by Karen S.
What if large bodies were back in vogue? What if bodies like mine (or yours) were looked at, admired, even photographed by crowds of people?
When I heard that the bronze sculptures by artist and sculptor Fernando Botero would be on display along Chicago's Michigan Avenue, I knew I had to see this phenomenon. Little did I know that I would learn as much from people's reactions to the exhibit as from the works themselves.
I first mentioned the Boteros to a friend. "I see them every day on my way to work," she said, wincing. "They're just too big. It's like when you look in the mirror—yuck!" I didn't bother to explain that I try not to say "yuck" anymore.
I decided that not only would I see the sculptures, I would be photographed with one of those huge women. I wanted proof that someone in this time and culture could see the beauty of my body. Maybe it would help me to see it too.
But who would take the picture? I didn't feel comfortable asking just anyone. I was afraid that most of my friends and coworkers wouldn't understand, and I didn't want to discuss these very personal feelings. Some of my friends are still caught up in the diet-exercise cycle, and at times I feel they think of me as a "quitter." I didn't want to get into that debate.
The exhibit was definitely touching a raw nerve and, combined with my natural tendency to procrastinate, my unease enabled me to avoid the Boteros for the entire summer. So here I was, on the eve of the last day of the exhibit, with no plan. I packed my camera and decided to go see the Boteros on my lunch hour the next day. At the very least, I would have pictures of the sculptures for myself.
As I was getting ready to leave for lunch, one of my coworkers, Mary Anne, asked, "What's for lunch?"
Uh-oh. "I, uh, don't know," I stammered. "I thought I'd just go for a walk."
"Oh yeah? Where to? Maybe I'll go with you."
"I thought I'd go to the Loop," I mumbled.
"The Loop? What's there?"
Mary Anne is a good friend and not a person who is easily evaded. I finally explained that it was the last day of the Botero exhibit.
"Oh, I've been dying to see that! Can I go with you?" Mary Ann asked.
We got off the bus at Michigan and Washington and crossed over to Grant Park where the bronze statues were displayed. My first reaction was delight. Such… abundance!
I was surprised about a couple of things. First of all, the sculptures were not all of women. There were large men, too, and even large animals! My favorite was the cat, who had a wide, smiling face and a fat tail like a balloon. Another work, ironically called "Little Bird," had a huge breast and puffy, cartoon-like feet.
I didn't remember hearing about these subjects during the media coverage of the exhibit. It seemed all the emphasis was on the audacious, large women.
I had expected all of the works to be huge. This was my second surprise. Oh, they were larger than life, but not so big as to be intimidating.
But the women—they were the stars. So beautiful, with their naked curves and flowing hair. Who would not want to look like them? Their faces were proud, without a trace of self-consciousness or shame. They seemed to say "Look at me!"
Mary Anne seemed to like the exhibit as much as I did, but I wasn't sure about her reaction to the women. "They sure are big!" was her only comment.
On a hunch, I asked if I could take her picture with one of the sculptures. She picked "Little Bird" and I took the photo. Then (as I had hoped), she volunteered to take one of me. I picked a statue of a woman with huge hips and thighs, standing atop the head of a man. (Not sure what Botero's message was here.)
We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and had a pleasant walk back to the office. A few days later, I brought the pictures to work to show Mary Anne. Another coworker, Beth, was nearby and Mary Anne asked if she had seen the Boteros. Beth said, "Yes, and I hated them! I know everyone raved about them, but I think they're ugly! I was so relieved to hear that they're not here permanently!"
Mary Anne was a little taken aback, but said emphatically, "I loved them! I thought they were great!"
Beth looked at our pictures and shuddered with disgust. "They're grotesque!"
Grotesque. I felt a stab of pain. Is that what she thinks when she looks at me? Is that what other people think?
"Well," I said lamely, "I guess that's the nature of art. Everyone sees something different."
"I wouldn't even say that," Beth replied.
"That they're art."
Some time later, I was able to deal with Beth's remarks. After all, she's just one person, I thought. It's not as if I were being approached by a committee.
I chuckled to myself at the idea. A mental picture appeared—a somber group of coworkers, worried looks on their faces. They surround my desk. The spokesperson sits down, patting my hand. "Karen, dear, we're concerned about you. We've noticed that you've stopped trying to lose weight. You seem to be satisfied with your body. In fact, lately you've been acting like you think you're attractive! Well, we're here to tell you that you're not. You're grotesque. And no man is going to be attracted to you unless you…"
"Well," I said to my fantasy committee, "Who are you? What are your credentials? Do you really represent everyone (including that attractive man in another department whom I've been planning to ask out)? I have my own ideas about the definition of attractive. You're right when you say I seem satisfied with my body and that I'm no longer trying to lose weight. It's a new me." The committee dispersed and I came out of my reverie.
Like many of you, I'm still struggling to accept (and sometimes even love) my body. Today's body—not yesterday's or tomorrow's. But the day I saw the Boteros, I saw my own body—on display before God and Chicago. And not only displayed, but photographed, admired, and honored as a work of art. *
I wanted proof
in this time and culture
could see the beauty of my body.
Maybe it would help me to see it too…