Domestic Bliss 

Comfort afoot

In New Mexico on a working vacation, after five days spent sitting at a desk, I jump in the car and head across the Rio Grande gorge from Taos toward the hot springs at Ojo Caliente. It's a brilliant, cold February day, and walking outside from one soaking pool to another, the hair on my head quickly freezes into tiny icicles.

I have signed up for something called a "Salt Glow," a spa treatment designed to exfoliate and invigorate the skin. A beautiful young girl in sturdy brown shoes and a purple T-shirt gets me settled on a massage table, then begins rubbing my body with a gritty mixture of hot oil, sea salt and cornmeal. Her name is Natasha.

"You sure do have cute little toes," she says when she gets to my feet. I laugh, a scoff really. I've always hated my short, squat feet, wishing for long, narrow ones that would look pretty in sandals. Natasha says she has a thing for feet: that she would like to keep a camera stashed in her treatment room so that she could photograph all the feet that cross her table.

We gab a while about the unrealistic styling of women's shoes. She notices the hardened clump of internal warts on the ball and heel of one of my feet, and tells me about an athlete she treated here once who had the same foot problem. Her father had taken her to specialists for surgery and had spent thousands of dollars trying to find a cure for the painful growths. Nothing worked until she went to a folk doctor, an older woman in New Mexico who told her to apply banana peels to the warts on her feet. It worked.

As she talks, I almost begin to cry. The warts on my feet hurt; they have been painful for almost a year and I have ignored them out of sheer, ignorant hatred and embarrassment over my feet. I had them when I was an athlete in junior high, and my mother took me to a doctor to have them removed. I was mortified at the word "wart" and all it implied. My father and brother teased me mercilessly about having warts. The surgery, performed in a doctor's office with a local anesthetic, was excruciatingly painful. I had to wear a white cotton sock over my foot for a week as I hobbled through the halls of my school on crutches.

And here was this girl, gently rubbing my feet, warts and all, with salt and oil.

It happens to my generation of women from time to time. We think we have grown past the shame of our bodies since the feminist movement taught us that our bodies are us and are there to be honored and loved. But we forget. We lapse into old patterns, reacting to physical realities in a deep-held and destructive way that whispers, "If you don't look a certain way, you'll never find a man to love you."

I think of my daughter and her friends, women in their 20s whose self-love is deep and solid, who share platonic romantic friendships with one another openly, who live with men who love them for themselves, not because they need to control or protect or dominate them.

Natasha tells me about her 9-year-old son. She was 16 when he was born. Now she and the boy's father are divorced. He didn't want her to work outside their home and she didn't want a life of confinement. She worries that when her son is older he will want to live with his father. It's not that she's afraid he will love her less, but that he will begin to see women in the way his father does -- as girls who must be kept in their place.

We share a wish for all our sons -- that they will grow up to be, in bell hooks' words, "men who embrace gender equality wholeheartedly ... men who choose liberation." For myself, I wish for comfort with my own body that doesn't rely on the mythical approval of a man or anyone else.

I'm not advocating a goddess-centered culture; that bugs me as much as the patriarchy and is just as sexist and divisive. Can't our sons, like my daughter, grow up with absolute knowledge of the equality of men and women?

They can, of course. More of them do every day, in spite of the groanings of the patriarchy, questioning their manhood, trying to keep them in place just as it has tried to keep women in place for centuries.

Loving my feet will be my Valentine to myself this year. I'll tell those old voices to hush and I'll put banana peels on my heels. And my Valentine to my sons will be this -- a wish that as they grow up and find love, that they will always look after the deep, and not so deep, needs of their own souls.

-- First published in February, 2002


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