Cover Story: True Body and the Write Stuff

Engaging girls to deal with their bodies and our culture

Sep 7, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Clare Rettig

Finding the True Body

'UglySmartGood Girls'

From the moment I entered this world upside down and butt forward, it's been about the ass. As a little girl, my round white bottom looked like a swollen marshmallow stuck to my summer-browned body. In the black-and-white photographs of the 1960s, it's a glowing orb of future torment.

As a teenager I was referred to as "Donna BubbleButt" by peers, and the recipient of inappropriate and often abusive comments and physical advances by adults as perverted expressions of their power.

As an adult — ironically in an age when much is shrinking — I've finally come to accept my robust posterior. You could call it a "butt reckoning." But as a developing adolescent — and despite the outward appearance of a studious, smart girl with acceptable social skills — I wore a lot of secret anguish and baggy Levis.

In addition to my body being sexualized when I was in pigtails and braces, coming of age was difficult at best; puberty felt laden with danger and anxiety. Born into a generation of mixed messages — one that saw critical changes in gender roles, work and sexuality while trying to hold fast to conservative "either/or" ideals — I learned how to curse, threw out my bra and develop an "attitude problem."

Yet I still applied lip gloss behind closed doors.

The cultural emphasis on thinness (nary a bubble butt in sight with 6-foot, 115-pound models as the standard of beauty) made the normal weight gain of puberty a source of self-loathing. My own family's dysfunction, its subsequent dismantling and the erosion of adult supervision exaggerated the extreme egocentrism, exquisite self-consciousness and emotional reasoning — all frustrating but normal stuff of adolescence.

I responded to the inner chaos and feelings of isolation by disconnect — at first through substance abuse and promiscuity (the paradox being that I'd come to define myself in terms of my body), then through insulating myself in a community of Eastern religion.

Along the way I sacrificed my authentic voice on the altar of social acceptance. It wasn't until much later — after marriage, motherhood and divorce — that I could begin to hear it once again.

And when I finally did, it surprised the hell out of me. It was nearly a scream.

Stacy Sims remembers the precise moment she disconnected from her body in junior high. The 43-year-old novelist and owner of Pendleton Pilates believes it to be the beginning of a trajectory path into a life defined by addiction.

"I weighed a whopping 117 pounds," she says. "I felt oafish and uncomfortable with my braces, glasses and bad haircut. Despite the freakishness I felt, I was a popular girl, cheerleader, athlete and good student, but that all didn't seem to matter much as I assessed myself in relationship to my adorable, blonde, skinny girlfriends.

"That was the year I developed a seriously bad temper and discovered sugar as medicine. By 10th grade I was a full-out smoker and binge drinker. I became irresponsible with my body in all ways, most of which were routinely treated as predictable rites of passage for teenage girls."

Our abbreviated war stories about puberty and adolescence aren't unique. Despite the feminist gains of the 20th century, girls today come of age in a media-saturated culture of sexually explicit images and misogynistic messages, the ubiquity of substances to self-medicate, eating disorders and disordered eating, diluted family and community relationships and the near extinction of intergenerational mentoring.

'We've Been Singing Since We Could Speak'
The response to these pervasive issues facing young women might be called a move toward girlhood advocacy — a systematic and self-conscious effort to change the culture and prepare girls for lives as self-directed, liberated individuals with nearly limitless personal choice.

In recent years, feminist scholars such as Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia, and Joan Jacob Brumberg, author of The Body Project: An Intimate History of Girlhood, have meticulously documented and offered thoughtful analysis on the changing nature of American girlhood. Along with notable programs such as Girls Write Now and WriteGirl — New York and Los Angeles organizations that mesh youth mentoring with creative writing — there's been a deepened interest in defining the more specific nuances and contours of the female adolescent experience in hopes of guiding them into a more fully realized life.

For Sims, her self-realization came at age 38 when she simultaneously entered a 12-step and a pilates program.

"They were both critical to my recovery," she says. "I was as unhealthy and as disconnected physically and spiritually as a person can be. I needed to find my body and my voice."

It was literally life-changing. She ultimately found her voice by writing and publishing a novel and used her newfound discipline to start a business that could provide others with the same heightened awareness to body and spirit.

And as I began the journey in 1997 of a single mother raising two sons, I rediscovered my rebel yell through writing — creatively and professionally — and reconnected to my body as a dedicated student and teacher of yoga, coming to grips with the dysmorphic view I held of my physique.

'Discovering SheHerWeIGirlWoman'
With such analogous lives, a sense of fate was present when Sims and I connected as friends and colleagues and again as we both quivered with intuitive excitement during a phone conversation in January when we discussed an idea she was formulating called True Body Project.

Drawing similar components from other girl advocacy groups across the country, Sims proposed to stimulate dialogue about body, body image and the creative process in a group exploration of body and voice through movement and writing exercises.

Partnering with ArtWorks — the local award-winning community program that provides job training, employment and mentoring for youth in the arts — True Body Project would employ female "apprentices" to create a collaborative literary anthology and film documentary. Together we'd take a journey of personal expression relating to body issues and narratives of self-discovery.

At the same time, a parallel group of adult women would act as mentors. They'd not only fund the girls' salaries for the six-week program and provide a female support system but also actively participate in the writing and movement disciplines, exploring memories of the girl within as well as their aspirations.

In June, Sims, poet/filmmaker Aralee Strange, filmmakers Selena Burks and April Martin, 13 teenage girls from Greater Cincinnati high schools and I set up camp at the Melrose YMCA in Walnut Hills. We then embarked on a six-week odyssey of movement (yoga, salsa dancing, swimming, boxing and Pilates); discussion with other strong female voices (Women Writing for (a) Change, CityBeat's Kathy Y. Wilson, body and the media with UC professor Cynthia Crane, body image and eating disorders with Dr. Susie Mendelsohn); field trips (Cincinnati Art Museum to study the body in art, a walking meditation, InkTank and a lecture with Toni Morrison); and daily, continuous writing, writing, writing.

When given an opportunity, today's girls have a lot to say about the world around them. The voices of True Body Project's 13 girls were edgy and creative, amplified by intelligence and honesty.

Always inspiring, the personal stories and writings that emerged were humorous and raunchy, sad and reflective. In the end they revealed to us, the adult women, as much about ourselves as the young women who traced their curves with the breath of primal goddess energy and whose incandescent words are presented on the following pages.

To understand the girls we were and the women we've become — and to help girls understand the girls they are and the women they will become — it's imperative to continue to engage girls in intergenerational dialogue about what it means to come of age in a society where authentic self-expression is far more complicated than your favorite pop culture pastry or consumer goods fantasy.

Ultimately, girls mirror the distractions and obsessions of a culture. They are us, and we are them.

The TRUE BODY PROJECT documentary film premieres at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at the Cincinnati Art Museum. A reading and signing of the True Body Project Literary Journal 2005 will take place at 7 p.m. Sept. 23 at Joseph Beth Booksellers. The girls will be in attendance at both events. For more information or to find out about future programs, visit