The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Naked Ladies


I’ve spent most of my life in refusal of my mother’s body. Call it exhibitionism, the way she has always bared her skin with a flagrant lack of self-consciousness. I’m all too intimately familiar with her edges because they have always been in evidence; her pale Irish flesh tanning to a recessive Spanish brown on the beach under a slick of suntan oil; her curvy thighs and dimpled butt spilling out the sides of a barely covering bikini; the strange thick trail of black hairs, like extended pubic hair (on an otherwise mostly hairless body), creeping from bikini line to knee. She thought nothing of throwing off her clothes in view of my girlfriends. It wasn’t uncommon for her to change her tampon while I brushed my teeth, flinging the bloody thing into the garbage can, the yeasty scent of her filling the small space while I recoiled.

Recently, leaning across the table at a chic Marin breakfast place, my mother squeezed her breasts together, pushing them up and out of her camisole. “Look at these babies! I thought your boobs were supposed to shrink after menopause but mine have gone crazy.”

I squirmed in my seat—sure that the passing waiter and the older couple at the next table were watching with horror. Put those things away, I thought. Of course, why would she? She’d been pulling them out for longer than I could remember. In her wedding photo to my father—granted it was 1973—the top half of her wedding dress is sheer lace through which her breasts are plainly visible.

My younger half-sister, not her daughter, smiled politely as my mother cupped her cleavage, but I had to distract from my bloom of shame by cutting my son’s pancakes into unnecessarily small bites. Were she someone else’s mother, I might nod and approve of her ample cleavage, which not only looks fantastic on a woman of 64, but is, in fact, an anomaly in our small-breasted, luscious-hipped lineage. But she is my mother, and despite being 40 years old myself, I was suddenly 12, 14, 16 again, silently wishing she would read the discomfort in my tensed cheeks and tight lips. But she has never learned to read my silent cues. And age has not softened her need to show the world what lies beneath her sculpted surfaces.

Perhaps that’s why I preferred my mother as she was when she went to work, impeccably clothed, her heritage as the daughter of two visual artists manifested in bold but tasteful colors; her high cheekbones and dark almond eyes smoothed into camera-ready perfection by her cosmetology-trained hand. In my earliest memories she is a swirl of scented skirts and perfect make-up—the olfactory windfall of her both comforting and stimulating.

And yet, the sweetness covered the sharp sting of excessive alcohol; the artistic kohl and shadows of her eye makeup hid the pinned pupils given to her by opiates, both medicating the dark grief after her brother’s untimely death. It was this subterranean version of her that I witnessed after hours: awakened by startling grunts, I’d part the curtain between the hallway and her bedroom-slash-living room to find her embroiled in a naked writhe with her boyfriend at the time, a hairy plumber named Tony, whose wolf-like buttocks thrust away at her. Or a later flash of her standing in the doorway to her bedroom to speak to me, opaque pearls of semen dripping down her leg.

When my body began its inevitable swell from slender girl to curvier woman, when the black hair made its descent down my thighs, I was unable to take her cue to be so free. I didn’t relish the male gaze upon my morphing self, and there were plenty of middle-aged men around my parents—dealers and friends to drink with, a rag tag cast of disillusioned poets, academics and artists—who made no bones about admiring me. Once, between the ages of 12 and 13, when the first peaks of my breasts pushed out the edges of my tank tops my mother insisted, “Let me see them!” But I clutched my clothing tight and refused, same as when she asked, “Have you gotten pubic hair yet? Can I see?”  She seemed to be assessing me for the moment I would explode into sexuality like an overripe peach, perhaps a moment when I would, for once, be like her.

Tino Rodriguez, "Anima Mundi," oil on wood,  16"x20", 2008, Private Collection

Tino Rodriguez, “Anima Mundi,” oil on wood, 16″x20″, 2008, Private Collection

When, in the first months of my 14th year my period finally came, later than most of my friends, she clucked at me when I admitted that I had only been able to get the tampon in half-way. Moments after diving into the pool at our eighth-grade graduation party, I’d felt the cotton balloon up, an unpleasant pressure half inside, half outside of me, and waddled to the bathroom to pull it out, in tears of horror that one of my classmates could had noticed.

“How are you ever going to fit a penis in there if you can’t take a tampon?” she asked.

Her words elicited a fresh terror I’d never even considered. The realm of tampons was a tricky enough gauntlet, now I had to contend with the penis? Familiar as I was with the crevices of my mother’s body—every curve, swell, moist corner of her womanhood—I had barely ever caught sight of the male member, except in flashes between my father’s dashes in and out of the shower and, once, my stepfather dancing naked through the house as if it were funny.

The same week as the tampon mishap, I was scheduled to go to San Diego to stay with my godparents, my mother’s best friend and her husband, bohemians who took a laissez-faire approach to me, let me eat what I wanted, read what I found, and generally do whatever the hell I felt like.

My godmother worked during the day, but my godfather, “Jack,” a quiet alcoholic, didn’t work at all. We loafed around the house reading books or analyzing MTV videos. Though I had known him all of my life, this year, as I labored through my first bleed, wracked with cramps that contracted my whole abdomen, his pseudo-fatherly presence changed. Suddenly, his praising of my body in my first bikini, his teasing about catching the eye of men on the beach, made him seem more like a strange dog that I needed to be careful around.

During the nights of that long week, feeling sorry for myself and lonely in a way I couldn’t name, I swept through a pile of books he kept lying around, and uncovered a huge collection of pornographic comics, many of them drawn by R. Crumb: a toddler with woman’s breasts toting around a penis on a leash drawn to resemble a puppy. Goofy, knock-kneed bald men jamming themselves into robust, curvy naked women with bullet breasts. I couldn’t stop myself from looking through them, nor deny the arousal searing my young body. And yet they filled me with an inexplicable anger, too. The discovery signaled a kind of alarm in me: like a voice had just said “run!”  But run to where? From what? I had the uncomfortable feeling that in me resided a place as crude and raw as the images in these comic books, a place my mother’s pulsing, obvious sexuality was beckoning me toward, and that the very act of bleeding was proof of its inevitability. I threw the comics down and promised myself I would never do any of the things I saw inside their pages.

And then I met “Mick” at a friend’s party. He was the same height as my 5’6”, with pale blond hair and a gentle sweep of freckles across his skin. His eyes were the wrong kind of blue: too pale, as if he had been plagued by illness as a child.

On our first real date after that night, Mick picked me up in his Honda CRX, tricked out and fussed over until it was “tits”—a term he delivered with a proud leer, meant to suggest as hot as a woman. I could hear him coming from blocks away with the insistent bass of the Beastie Boys thrumming in a rhythm not unlike a panicked heartbeat.

Where most mothers would have been alarmed by an older boy swooping up their daughter and taking her out in his car unsupervised into the night, my mom brooked no arguments. Despite a brief stint in rehab when I was ten, my stepfather had convinced her alcohol was not her problem, and so she’d begun drinking again. My mother was a pleasant, loving drunk, but it lowered her propriety to negligible settings.

One day Mick drove me to China Camp beach, a place my dad used to take me, and I drifted along the corridors of fantasies of what life with a boyfriend would be like: walking hand in hand along the sand, chasing each other through the brisk ocean as it reached the shore.

Instead he led me to a secret corner of the beach where a weathered picnic table sat half buried in sand like a shipwreck. It was soon apparent that if any lunch were to ensue, I was to be the main course. I had seen my mother’s breasts often enough, A-cups with wide areolas. She didn’t regularly wear a bra, and thus her thick nipples often pressed at the edges of her blouses. It never seemed to bother her that she had small breasts, but I, with shadows of my seventh grade crush’s taunt of “tic-tac-tits” haunting me, and an oily terror of allowing live male eyes on my flesh, worried that my nipples’ erect presence might be a signal to Mick that I was as bold as my mother. I wasn’t ready for my own narrow hips to swell out into her curves. I prayed that the thick black hairs she never bothered to shave from her thighs would not someday populate my own white skin. With Mick looming over me, I felt as though a sexual awakening was coming at me without any chance to stop it. And why stop it, when so many other girls my age, and my own mother, suggested I should go for it?

When Mick instructed me to “lie on the table” and then peeled open my shirt, he didn’t say “my god you’re flat,” as my friend Tawne had done in freshman PE, but bent forward over me, his tongue hot upon each breast, which he licked in the manner of a small starved beast. Unwelcome images flashed behind my eyes: the sweating, hirsute buttocks of my mother’s lover; the clinging spindly man plunging into the Amazonian woman in Crumb’s comics. I did not feel myself engorge into womanhood or plunge into desire. I could hardly define the sensation, the sloppy tickle of licking, the way he seemed bent to an important task for which I was barely more than bystander.

At the near horizon where grass gave way to sand I saw a crop of the cloyingly sweet pink lily-like flowers that also sprouted all over my neighborhood. Stifling a snort of nervous laughter, I remembered we called these Naked Ladies.

Tino Rodriguez, "Twice born," oil on wood, 16"x16," 1997, Private Collection

Tino Rodriguez, “Twice born,” oil on wood, 16″x16,” 1997, Private Collection

A few months later, my mother asked, “Do you want to go to the gynecologist with me?”

I did not.

I didn’t want her sex ed any more than I wanted her to work her make-up magic with her palettes of blush and eye shadow, which I cringed from as though they were wet paint. Plus, I was stiff with fear that she would offer herself as an example, hopping up on the table and walking me through the parts of the vagina in person.

She gave up after several invitations, though Mick and I did try to have sex a couple of months later. When he pressed into me— affronted by a searing hot stab, my mother’s words a taunt, “How are you ever going to fit a penis in there if you can’t take a tampon”—I shoved him away from me.

Over the years of my sexual unfolding, my mother continued her curiosity. Once, when I was 16, a boy gave me a wet tongue kiss goodbye at the front door. My mother strolled by, cooing, “Ooh la-la, the girl is in liplock.” The boy stopped kissing me and, red-faced, hurried out of there.

When I finally did lose my virginity, at 17, on the night of my high school graduation party, it was in the bedroom right next to hers. Several times, tense at our brazenness, aware that my overly-curious mother could come knocking on my door at any moment, I flung my hand out spasmodically, hitting the wooden shutters with a loud thunk that was followed by my boyfriend’s stern shushing.

In the morning, my mother slunk out long after me and beckoned me aside. “So…how was it?” she asked with raised brow.

A faint soreness lingered between my legs that I didn’t want to talk about. Tingling with shame, I fumbled for the words to both apologize for anything she may have heard and express indignation that she would ask.

But she cut me off before I could answer, leaning in so close I could still smell the fruit-rot scent of old alcohol. “I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t remember a thing. I think I had one drink too many.”

I narrowly realized she was asking about the party, not my secret coitus, which she’d likely been too drunk to hear.

I continued my self-loathing of my body and its reflection in hers—yes, I inherited the stretch marks, the wide hips and bold booty that hangs out of underpants, and the trail of black thigh hair that marches boldly from pubic bone to knee—with a controlling boyfriend in college who taught me to punish my body out of its natural ripeness with running and strict dieting. For him I whittled down and away, buttoned myself up in conservative dresses and gave in to his desires for a partner who pretended to take pleasure in sexual boundary pushing. After three agonizing years of sex in the backseats of cars driven by his parents, in the same room as friends under a thin blanket, in public parking lots—where the fear of being caught was the only way he could be aroused—I left him.

I would meet my husband-to-be only six months later, at 21. After 12 years of marriage to this loving man who did not need me to slap my sexuality on like a costume, I became pregnant with our son. And for the first time, my body became erotic to me in a way that felt organic, not dictated by anyone else. I admired my newly swelling breasts and found the parabola of tummy and the darkening line below it tantalizing, archetypally sensual. My pregnant body became a source of delight I had never believed possible. I craved sex and enjoyed it more than ever before. My husband found me desirable in my condition too, which fed this feeling, and, for perhaps the first time I related to my mother and her body. She, too, had loved pregnancy, and the photos of her, gravid with me at the much younger age of 23, show a wide, giddy smile, her hands proudly displaying her new girth, head thrown back in exultation.

After my son’s birth, I took to breastfeeding with the same ardor as I’d enjoyed pregnancy—and found that in this I could also bypass shame. Unlike the girl I’d been whose tiny exposed breasts mortified me, now, I reveled in feeding my child. Even though I had to school my mother out of saying the baby wanted “some titty” when he cried, I finally felt I had nothing to fear from my mother’s body or her scrutiny because my own was no longer mysterious.

My son’s birth helped me see I was not at war with my mother’s body itself—which, other than height from my father’s side, mine is all but a clone of—but her inability to keep her body—and her sexuality—to herself. I didn’t articulate this until I was nearly 30, after years of despising my own skin. I have since come to see my own youthful, tightly-held sexuality and modesty as a shield against hers—a pulling back and away from its constant intrusion.

More than 20 years of sobriety have given her some boundaries she didn’t have when I was a child, though I regularly hear about her weight loss or gain, particularly as it impacts her bra size, and her sex life. Fortunately, adulthood means I am no longer compelled to live under her scrutiny, though I still find myself at times straining to throw up my virtual shields when we are together, always poised in anticipation of a groping tentacle of intrusion.

After I begrudgingly weaned my son at age two I returned home to my body even more than before, like I’d unearthed a time capsule, finding it entirely different than I’d remembered before his conception. Now, it was neither knobby, gawky and flat, nor fleshy and repugnant, but an in-between place in which I was learning to take comfort.

At its best, shouldn’t a mother’s body be precisely that: a landscape of comfort to a child, a place to feed those hungry skin receptors with safe touch? It can offer a child the ability to distinguish between people: this is me, this is you, and only you should decide the distance between us.

Jordan Rosenfeld's work has appeared or is forthcoming in: The Billfold, Brain,Child, Literary Mama, Modern Loss, The Nervous Breakdown, The New York Times (Motherlode), ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, and a collection from Shebooks. She is author of two writing guides, Make a Scene & Write Free, and two novels, Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. More from this author →