Phyllis Schieber Author

Women's Fiction by Phyllis Schieber

To Young Women Everywhere

I came across a photograph of my friend Claire and I from the summer of 1969, the summer we spent touring Israel. I was sixteen, newly graduated from high school, and Claire was eighteen, almost nineteen.  Because I had skipped two grades, all of my friends were older. I was fortunate that I was always physically mature for my age because it made it easier to fit in with my peers. The photograph was taken at Eilat, Israel’s southern most city, located at the northern tip of the Red Sea. Claire and I are horsing around in the water. I am perched on an inner tube, wearing a skimpy black and white bikini, and a huge smile. My wet hair is plastered to my head. I appear to be trying to help Claire onto the tube as she struggles in the water. She is laughing. A golden tan makes her look especially alive. We both look very happy. We had been camping on the beach for several days with my cousin and her friend, both Israelis. Eilat was incredibly beautiful. We were incredibly beautiful. When I stared at the photograph, I remembered my reaction when I first saw the photograph more than forty years ago. In those pre-digital days, you had to bring in the film and wait for the pictures to come back. I didn’t want anyone to see this particular picture because a little roll of fat was visible at my middle. I remember thinking that I looked “so fat.” In fact, I look remarkably healthy and sexy in the way that only a buxom (does anyone use that word anymore?) sixteen-year-old can look.

In those days, I was always trying to hide some part of myself—my large breasts, my full thighs, my something, anything. Several years later, a friend in graduate school told me that I look like a “Renaissance porno queen.” I laughed, but the description made me uncomfortable. While I never had any shortage of male attention, I never really felt beautiful. Certainly, most teenagers feel awkward and self-conscious, a lamentable condition that continues to perplex me.  I carried my doubts into young adulthood and while I knew my friend’s apt description was meant as a compliment, I was embarrassed by his observation. I was foolish where I should have been proud. What I would give today for that former body of mine… there are no words. And that is why I have a message for young women everywhere. I want you to look in the mirror and marvel at the tautness of your skin, the way your breasts stay high on your chests, and the lovely and luxuriant thickness of your hair. Stand naked in front of a mirror and appreciate your beauty, savor it, and celebrate it. It merits your admiration.

These days I often think of all the times I was self-conscious about my appearance. I wanted to look like Claire. She was the perfect Sixties girl—tall and thin, long, straight, dark hair, and legs that began at her neck and just kept going. I had a crown of wild, curly hair. I also had a formidable chest, and curves that belonged on an older woman. It was a body that emerged when I was fourteen.  I bemoaned my appearance every time I allowed myself to take a peek at my naked self. Shopping was difficult. My mother was adept at letting out the darts in blouses and dresses that were invariably tight. I straightened my hair, wore clothes that hid my full breasts, and dieted constantly, even though I was not fat (What I regret is not learning to exercise early in my life and taking some form of exercise into adulthood. Stand warned all you young beauties: exercise will prolong your beauty, and whether or not you believe me, you will be sorry if you don’t learn to exercise now). I wanted to look like Twiggy or Cher, the role models for beauty in that era of peace and love. I wasted so much precious time on that hopeless fantasy.

If I could go back to those years, I would flaunt my voluptuousness with abandon. I would never have straightened my hair. I used a horrible smelling product, Curl Free, that made my hair coarse and lifeless. At night I would pull my hair up into a ponytail, roll it backwards onto an empty frozen juice can and secure it with long, metal clips. For good measure, I often ironed my hair on the ironing board, using my mother’s iron and a damp towel. My poor mother would monitor this process, fearful that I would set myself on fire!  I would have looked more kindly on my body instead of wishing for thinner thighs, longer legs, and smaller breasts. The good news is that I have finally come of age. In some ways, I am the woman I wanted to be then even though I still do not resemble even a vague proximity of Cher or Twiggy, or even my friend Claire.  The main difference is that I am now comfortable with myself, a remarkable achievement. I practice yoga six times a week, and I ride a stationary bike at least three times a week. I feel fitter than I did all those years ago.

I write about women like myself because it is what I know and love best. We are friends, and wives, and mothers, daughters, and sisters. The women in my novels, WILLING SPIRITS and THE SINNER”S GUIDE TO CONFESSION are also the woman I am still becoming. I am ever mindful of how times passes, how much I have yet to do, and how grateful I am that I no longer straighten my hair. Of course, I am still critical of body, but I express that criticism with gentleness and humor. I know who I once was, and I know who I am now. It was good then, and it’s better now.  Still, I wish I had been s bit wiser, a bit more aware of how ephemeral youth is… I wish I had enjoyed my body rather than pass judgment on it with such harsh eyes. I wish I had loved myself more.

August 8, 2010 Posted by | Sinner's Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits | , , , | 2 Comments