Body Talk: What Chicago author Samantha Irby gets right

Body Talk: What Chicago author Samantha Irby gets right
Publicity photo for ‘Meaty’
Body Talk: What Chicago author Samantha Irby gets right
Publicity photo for ‘Meaty’

Body Talk: What Chicago author Samantha Irby gets right

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Chicago writer and performer Samantha Irby is not obsessed with her body. She knows it for what it is, and keeps going anyway.

“Listen homie, that thing that you secretly hate about my body? Don’t worry, I hate it, too. With every fiber in my weird, fibrous breasts,” she writes in her essay “Forest Whitaker’s Neck,” from her recent book, “Meaty: Essays by Samantha Irby.”

In the essay, she recounts a comment from a sort-of ex while in bed together. At the time she wasn’t sure about the extent of their relationship, and his random comment—“you have the tiniest nipples I have ever seen”—certainly did not help.

“Every mark, every scar, every scratch, every flaw: I’ve seen it, documented it, cried over it, and tried to hide it. Would it kill you to pretend it isn’t there?” she writes.

Womens’ relationships with men are not like our relationships with ourselves. With ourselves, we see exactly what we walk with from day to day. In relationships, at least in the flawed relationships Irby tries to build, willful ignorance is the root of contentment.

“Can’t we just lie fully clothed in bed together while holding hands and talking about how good pork belly tacos taste? I don’t want to do the “I’m sorry this is my disgusting body” apology jig ever again, nor will there ever be a time that the “just let me keep my shirt on” waltz isn’t utterly humiliating,” she writes.

A blissful relationship, one before the rawness of seeing the body, her body, is what she wants. But like what she seeks in the actions of a man, this is willfully ignorant of the realities of partnership. Relationships are not all pretty and sweet. Like the body, there are things to critique and hate and finally accept about them, too.

Later in “Forest Whitaker’s Neck,” she recounts every detail of herself she does not like. “Dark red mark from ingrown hair on the upper inside chunk of calf,” she writes in the section about her left leg. “Pale, raised scar from when I threw myself down a flight of stairs at age six as protest against accompanying my mother to the grocery store,” she writes about her arms.

Rather than just finding new and new things to hate, each mention of her body feels like a story brewing. She knows why she does not like it; she is still living and breathing anyway.

Society understands women can be obsessed with the female body, but what we fail to realize is the extent of that obsession. As a young teen, I used to spend nights circling the worst areas of my body with a thick marker.

Getting outside of my head was my biggest concern. Although I wrote down my fears and anxieties and anger in my notebook, writing was not enough. Pen and paper were just an extension of the obsessions of my mind. I repeated these fears and anxieties enough to call my journal less of an account of the things I did and more of an account of the things I could not let go.

The body was (literally) the biggest one. At my obsessive peak, school markers turned into permanent markers. The circles stretched over the back of my thighs, my ass, the little tops of my shoulders—scarred from years of painful acne that never went away, but bubbled up to the service to fester in its own bacteria, leaving pockets of hyperpigmentation. Permanent marker was a “permanent” reminder. ‘You will never be the person you want to be if you continue to look like this.’

My face, the worst, I never marked. I could control it—its roundness, acne, scars, discoloration—with makeup. Unlike clothing, which only served to remind me of of things I could not change or do with my body, makeup could transform me into something new. (That I could barely apply foundation evenly mattered little.)

I am in a constant battle for control and conquest of the machinations and limitations of my body. It’s why I danced until I was a teenager, and that is why I love to watch dance now, as a confirmation of achievement. Dance is knowing yourself, taking control of yourself, and seeing yourself completely. It is a truth that can be beautiful as much as it can be ugly in our wrestle for power.

There is this idea—cold and inescapable—that we must be reminded of everything we lack. Some believe that we do not know that we are fat or tall or scarred. They think we do not see ourselves so they must remind us of how we exist in their eyes, how we lack something fundamental to the norm, how we are not right.

But with adulthood comes the reckoning of our understanding of ourselves.

Later in her essay, Irby adds, “Or that—brace yourself—it might make me mysterious and sexy?” She has been through the pains of literally growing into her body and she is beyond it, accepting of it; perhaps even a little proud of it.