Like Maps On Our Naked Skin

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I was 10 years old, all frizzy hair and gangly limbs, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I began puberty right around the same time that she began chemo treatments. I grew breasts and started my period and learned to shave my legs. Meanwhile, my mother recovered from a mastectomy, waited for her hair to grow back, and tried—perhaps for the first time in her life—to gain weight.

In a strange eclipse of our stories that has forever shaped my life, I grew into womanhood at the very same moment that my mother was losing a part of hers.

What I remember most about these years were our mornings together, standing side-by-side at the double sink counter of my parents’ bathroom getting ready for the day. This was where I learned the art of makeup application and eye-brow shaping without over-plucking, and how to curl and back-comb my bangs (never forget the 90’s, babes.) All useful skills, but I know the real beauty of it was deeper than that.

This daily ritual was the intimate space where I learned about womanhood from my mother.

In a cloud of hairspray and blush powder, I watched her care for her cancer-ridden body. Scar after scar slowly appeared, and tiny dots tattooed her skin, mapping radiation treatments like constellations of pain. Her weight fluctuated high and dangerously low. Her hair fell out and grew back and fell out again. And she talked to me honestly about her suffering, about how much it hurt, about how hard it was to feel like a woman when the markers of her femininity were permanently altered by illness and treatment. This was the space where I watched her reclaim herself.

One swipe of mascara and spritz of perfume at a time, my mother continued to show up in her life.

Now I stand before my bathroom mirror alone, in my 27-year-old body, trying to hold on to the wisdom of womanhood that she tried to impart. The survival skills of self-care, and the immense power that lies in learning to love ourselves. How important it is to create safe spaces for women to learn from each other and share the deepest parts of who we are – the beauty and the pain.

Our stories are unique as our fingerprints, but communally we understand the joy and the grief of growing into womanhood. We stand before our bathroom mirrors in the morning and we see our journeys into womanhood like maps on our naked skin, in wrinkles and folds and scars and tattoos. We feel the social forces working against us, telling us that our bodies are things to hate and punish. These forces try to break the connection between our physical being and our spirit, to disassociate us from ourselves and make us weaker. They tell us that we do not belong to ourselves, but we know better.

We know this sacred truth: we do belong to ourselves. And we are worthy of being seen and heard. 

It is dangerous to utter aloud, that our bodies are our own and we love ourselves as we are. To say these things is to disrupt those social forces that thrive on our shame and silence. To speak up is to interrupt the patriarchy that exists to control women’s bodies.

It is subversive, but it is survival. It is risky, but it is a radical act of reclamation. It is life-giving for ourselves and the women around us when we affirm our inherent worth, especially for those whose expressions of womanhood are wildly different than our own. Fat, thin, short, tall, light, dark, healthy, sick, femme, androgynous, straight, queer, mothering, child-free – we are all image-bearers of our Creator, beautiful and worthy of love.

It is a legacy of Divine Love we can impart to our daughters, to say aloud to one another, “It is good.

To tell the stories of our journeys into womanhood is a healing act, a reconnection of our bodies with our souls, our hearts with our voices.

So come stand with me at the mirror, sister. Tell me what you see. Tell me the story of your growing pains, the joy and the grief. Tell me the story of your womanhood.

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Bethany Suckrow
I’m a writer and blogger at at bethanysuckrow.com, where I shares both prose and poetry on faith, grace, grief and hope. I am currently working on my first book, a memoir about losing my mother to cancer. My musician-husband, Matt, and I live in transition as we move our life from the Chicago suburbs to Nashville.
Bethany Suckrow
Bethany Suckrow

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