Nonfiction by Libby Bahr
I find extra comfort in my imagination lately. I’m often slipping away to escape reality and envision a version of myself in another life, in a different world entirely. In my daydream, I’m sprawled out over a picnic blanket, lazily journaling in a flowery meadow; a golden, balmy breeze combs my hair and warms my cheeks. A lush forest’s cool, green scent perfumes the air. This particular afternoon is spent savoring my own company, enjoying my favorite activities: reading, painting (poorly), and simply breathing. Pure, undisturbed bliss.
Painting leads me to capture this meadow’s wildflowers: pink ladies, poppies, forget-me-nots, and so many more. Their feminine beauty cascades throughout the field, decorating the grass with a rainbow of bright, dotted colors. Some even sparkle in the sunlight, so I haphazardly sprinkle glitter on my canvas, like a child in art class.
I find wildflowers effortlessly inspiring – growing and blossoming at their pace, on their terms. They bloom far and wide without permission, refusing to be contained by any garden’s parameters.
Buzzzzzz. I set down my brush and narrow my gaze to watch a few fuzzy bees hop busily from flower to flower.
Listening to their gentle hum stirs up a memory. As I start to recall it, feeling it take shape from deep inside my real brain, I’m transported from this fantasy meadow back to a previous life: the third grade. It’s springtime in the prairie, meaning the brutal North Dakota snow has finally melted. The sun is shining, we can finally hold gym class outside, and I will soon dance in the school’s recital without any stage fright whatsoever. When you’re eight, confidence is abundant; you’re truly fearless. Nothing holds you back from believing your every dream will come true. I wish I still believed in something so strongly.
I’m sitting nicely at my desk, hands folded, waiting for my teacher to turn on the projector. It’s Earth Day. It’s also Hat Day, for some reason, and I’m fidgeting with a borrowed navy blue baseball cap that I begged my neighbor Lucas for that morning. Even though it’s too big for my little head, I have to wear a boy's hat because I want to be a tomboy, you see. I want to be taken seriously. (These things are conflated.)
Anyway, to celebrate the planet, we’re watching a film about wildlife. The special begins and to my surprise, it’s all about bees. An old man’s monotone voice narrates the story and the classroom wall is filled with pretty images of parks and flowers and honeycombs. The boring monotone man explains that without bees, our plants wouldn’t be pollinated, the animals who eat these plants would be hungry, the predators who eat those animals would also starve, and then the world would eventually end. I wrap my mind around this inevitable doom and try not to panic, although I guiltily decide that I’m fine with the world ending if it means I can escape piano practice.
The monotone man takes a break from fear-mongering to introduce my newest obsession: the queen bee. I listen intently and absorb the facts: queens are larger, stronger, and more powerful than all the boys and entire colonies wouldn’t survive without them. This makes me grin.
I remember arguing with boys at recess later that day.
“The strongest bee can’t be a girl,” one smirks. “Girls aren’t strong enough.” He looks to his friends for reassurance.
“Yeah, queen bees are weak, anyway,” says his friend. “My cousin got stung by one once. He said it didn’t even hurt!” Giggles erupt from the group.
“Girls are strong, too. We can do anything boys can do,” I huff, adjusting the stupid, ill-fitting baseball cap. “And the queen bees actually do things boys can’t do.” I march away, angry to have my new fixation mocked; protective over queen bees everywhere.
In my world of make-believe, I reside in a cozy, mirrorless cottage. It sits atop the tallest hill in this valley, providing an exquisite view of the glittery meadow, the forest, and everything in between. Sometimes I stick my head out my kitchen window, basking in nature’s beauty and pretending to be Jack from Titanic – queen of the world.
Here, I don’t need to obsess over my reflection or even see it! There are no external forces clouding my perception of self; no boys to prove myself to with a silly hat. I know that I’m here, I’m healthy, and I’m happy. What I wear and see in the mirror has nothing of value to add to or subtract from my life, so why bother? Who are our physical features affecting, anyway? Do appearances change our perception of the world in any measurable way? Would clearer skin make the feeling of a waterfall’s mist against our faces any less enjoyable? Would a facelift make an ocean’s view at sunset more exquisite? Certainly not in my imagination. Here, the fine lines on my forehead and around my eyes are not paid to be erased but celebrated instead. Each wrinkle is merely proof that my face has experienced years of pure, unconstrained, fully expressed joy.
Somewhere, somehow, I dream that our bodies are our own. I dream that they are not born with expectations to visually and physically satisfy others; they are not patrolled or criminalized or politicized or scrutinized. More than a vessel to birth workers, they are simply bodies – our bodies, carrying our souls. That fact alone has value and weight. We are each uniquely beautiful! And strong! Our bodies take us on kayaking adventures through icy rapids; they bend and twist to fulfill daily yoga practices; they carry us up, up, and away to the highest mountain trails. They permit us to think, love, and feel.
What are bodies, anyway, if not little more than skeletons connected by flesh? Muscles and organs held together by skin? When we remove all of the arbitrary societal connotations and expectations, we’re left with basic anatomy. Bones. Bones that we will all inevitably leave behind, pieces of us that will disintegrate into the earth, regardless of gender.
It feels like an eternity since Roe v. Wade was overturned, and the aftermath is still crashing down on all of our shoulders. I’m still finding it difficult—agonizing, frankly—to grapple with and unpack all of my emotions. On one hand, I’m mourning the rights we so fleetingly had, and on the other I’m attempting to redefine the relationship I now have with my body, knowing federal law grants its autonomy to the states.
Growing up, I sometimes heard adults refer to my body as a “temple”. Although I now know that this meant my virginity had value to uphold for a future husband, I think there’s a better message here if we dig for it. In this life, we do only get one body. One. It’s ours to care for, to nourish. Forget telling little girls to respect their bodies for their nameless husband’s sake, but their own. Our bodies are our first and only true lifelong partner.
For young women, the relationship with our physical bodies (like many others in our lives, let’s be honest) often lands in the “complicated” category. We fault society for this inevitable toxicity, but I will admit to bearing some responsibility for the hostility I’ve voiced toward my body, my partner, over the years. The harsh language I’ve used could be called verbally abusive. I’ve called my partner ugly, worthless, too big here, too small there. It breaks my heart that so many relate.
From the impossible beauty standards introduced to us in childhood to the harassment many of us have unfortunately grown numb to, I conclude that we’ve never really had full bodily autonomy. We had “more” when Roe was settled law, but this independence was always somewhat of an illusion meant to keep us quiet. In this real world, our protests and outrage are merely an inconvenience to the status quo. Our bodies are and have always been objects for productivity, desire, scrutiny, and satisfaction, all at once, all the time.
When did my relationship with my body first turn sour? Was there a specific instance that forever altered the way I perceive myself? I suppose grown men have catcalled me since I was twelve on rollerblades, listening to The Princess Diaries soundtrack on a purple iPod shuffle, smacking hot pink Hubba Bubba gum. It was then that I first heard the word “slut” and learned to navigate the world with one eye peeled and one earbud out. Boys in high school would sneak pictures of me as I walked the halls and trade them with each other, ranking my body on a scale from 1 to 10. It didn’t matter that I was heading to my favorite class, or that I had interests and feelings, likes and dislikes. All that mattered was what my body looked like and how much they liked it. In college, I learned that some would pressure for sex. Beg for it. Call me names either way. Manipulate and gaslight and coerce. It’s all a game, really – a sinister game with unclear rules, rigged for us to lose.
It’s no surprise that these experiences compound on each other and create layers and webs of deep, intertwined trauma, some parts more damaging and harder to untangle than others. Would any single catcall cause existential confusion about our value as human beings? Of course not. But with a lifetime of disturbing, unwarranted interactions and unsolicited societal commentary, one’s confidence is bound to suffer.
And isn’t this incredibly sad? The Universe, or God, or whoever grants us the precious gift of life; the opportunity to briefly experience the vastness and wonder that the world has to offer through the vehicle that is a physical body, and we’re constantly objectified, distracted. We’re made to think that through makeup and shapewear and boy’s baseball caps we can win the right to be treated like human beings.
It’s all terribly exhausting. I want to rebel. To fight to love and respect myself as-is, if for no other reason than spite.
“All important progress made by the human race has its roots in daydreaming.” -Eda LeShan.
When these thoughts keep circulating and their weight becomes too much to bear, I escape back into my daydream. I’m greeted by my adorable cottage overlooking the flowered valley. Dusk has fallen and stars are beginning to peek through the purple sky, preparing to shine.
I open my window, look out from my peaceful cottage on the quiet hill, and begin to scream into the void. Rage leaves my body, if only briefly. Now that I’ve started unleashing this animalistic fury, I can’t stop! I’m banging pots and pans together, smashing vases, piercing my own ears in an attempt to wake people up, to be noticed and heard. I need others to know, too, that women are infinitely more than bodies. I want everyone to believe this as absolute fact, deep in their bones, and then to tell everyone they meet. Loudly! I want women to refuse to be treated otherwise. To take no more shit. To give ourselves permission to be wild and unruly, blooming unapologetically. To lead colonies. To fight back.
I hope to wake up one day and find this daydream manifested into reality.
Libby Bahr is a feminist, writer, and optimist. Her love for stories sparked as a child and deepened in adulthood, especially while working for an arts nonprofit in Fargo, North Dakota. Her writing has been published by Lotus Midwest, an outlet that empowers women of all backgrounds. Libby has studied multiple forms of writing at North Dakota State University and The Writing Salon in San Francisco. In her free time, she enjoys teaching yoga.
Published 29th March, 2023.