Friday, August 27, 2010

Drawing on the Past . . .

Before I tell you about my most recent portrait, I realize I need to spend some time with this image of my 17-year old self. I have to say, first off, that I'm a bit surprised to realize how pretty she is, that girl on the threshold of womanhood, of a life beyond her immediate family, beyond high school. I say that because although she/I occasionally believed herself attractive, and hoped romance-novel style for the young man who would see right through to her beauty, she was most often convinced otherwise by the gap between what she saw in the mirror and what she saw in the most popular girls at school, the shapely models in Seventeen magazine, the television commercial actresses selling everything from cars to shampoo.

First of all, those girls and women never wore glasses -- unless they were part of a narrative that used the glasses as a prop which, when removed, would reveal that the uptight bookworm was, secretly, a stunning beauty. And, indeed, to achieve the prettiness Ms. Aspa created for me, she had me remove my glasses. While a photographer might have a good reason for such a basic alteration of my image (and indeed, my grad photos taken the same year have my glasses removed, supposedly to avoid the flash), I'm not sure that lenses are terribly difficult to draw. The change made it clear that I would be more attractive if not for the specs -- but what if seeing vies for importance with being seen?

A second contributor to the gap I saw between mirror-me and Popular Pretty Girl was my curly (and often frizzy) hair. Those shampoo commercials might allow bounce, and within several years the Afro perm would rule, even in Vancouver, but in 1970, Peggy Lipton straight (remember the Mod Squad?!) was the way to be. While there's some truth to the sketch above, it's a limited truth based on proximity to a strict grooming -- within half an hour of the drawing being completed, the volume of my hair would have doubled. I spent hours and hours and hours, so many wasted hours, trying to tame my hair into some nod to coolness. Not until several years later did a brilliant hairstylist on Robson Street (Shape Unisex -- anyone remember?) give me a cut that released the curl into a world which actually came to admire, even envy it.

But my biggest shortcoming, an absolutely unnegotiable deficiency in my mind, was my flat-chestedness. Looking back, I recognize that I was shapelier than I could see at the time, but as a late maturer (really late, menarche at 14!) a year younger than my classmates (I skipped a grade), and short to boot, I was overly sensitized to looking young for my age and the small breasts were a part of the problem. Yes, Twiggy should, perhaps, have convinced me that a small bust wasn't a problem, but even she, gorgeous and successful as she was, elicited jokes that reaffirmed my position rather than weakened it.

I do remember exceptions to what I saw as the near-universal equation of confident female attractiveness with a sizeable bosom, and these both fascinated and confused me. Two classmates, one in Grade 9, then another in Grade 12, got my attention by joking about their lack of endowment, joking in a way that suggested they nonetheless knew they were good-looking, sexy even. The one in Grade 12, I remember, joked about how she didn't need to worry about anything popping out of her prom dress, 'cause there wasn't enough there to fall anywhere. And she said this in Chemistry class. In the earshot of, get this, boys! I could no more have spoken about my shameful shortcoming publicly -- or at all, really -- than I could have taken my shirt or pants off in class.

Does "shameful" seem too strong a word? Perhaps. Yet I know it was true at the time. Since then, thank goodness -- and Pater -- I have learned that small breasts can also be attractive, sexy, and pleasurable (if you're a "small" girl, you may have heard that corny "More than a handful's a wasteful," and you may even have been grateful to hear it!). Since then, as importantly, I have learned that small breasts can fulfill one of their purposes just as well as larger breasts AND I've had the dubious opportunity to walk around with bigger ones thanks to hormones and good ol'lactation -- mine managed to grow four babies to a healthy plumpness quite nicely. So what's with the shame?

I always knew that came from my mother, whose natural (non-pregnant) weight was never more than 115 pounds (she's now perhaps 105 after a DQ banana split!). Slim, attractive, great legs that my father would embarrass her by pointing out to all and sundry, my mother was very small-breasted. She was also very self-deprecating about this aspect of her body, as if it were the only element that mattered. I was aware of this before I was ten and must have absorbed, even before my own body began to change, that lacking sizeable breasts meant being less womanly. Mom once told a story about swimming with friends, in her teens, and having the foam padding float out of her bathing suit, clearly a deeply humiliating experience. In that era of the Betty Grable pin-up, the padding was both a requirement for those who lacked the natural filling and a signal of the deficiency. My generation was the one that burned the bras, let our clothes reveal the secret that breasts had nipples (Gasp!), but my mother's shame had already seeped its way into my cells.

But the portrait above gives no hint of this shame -- indeed, although this portrait covers the area that, in a sculpture, would have it called a "bust," by the time it gets to that anatomical feature, it has become indeterminate. It is, to pun weakly, a more heady portrait, offering 17-year old me as a thoughtful or dreamy girl -- there's very little of the body here. While it's easy to imagine this young woman having romantic notions, she doesn't seem at all sexual. Fair enough, in terms of my experience at the time, although perhaps a more committed, more imaginative artist might have played with a different template -- this dreamy profile has hosted countless configurations of noses and eyes and cheekbones through the centures, and altho' it's recognizably me, here, I wonder what might have been revealed if I'd looked directly at the viewer.

That's enough for now. This kind of remembering and thinking is tough work, and I'm going to take some time before I try to bridge the many decades between this charcoal sketch and a large watercolour executed by a good friend, a talented and perceptive artist. More to be revealed . . .