by Vanessa Angelica Villarreal
To look at my body and marvel at its size.
I can’t remember a time I’ve ever looked at my body and been pleased.
This is nothing new in the story of women. Even as a child, I feared the day I’d have to share my body with another person. Each part was my own private shame—my fat little fingers, my little swollen belly. I couldn’t understand how my body was both my most public self, the thing strangers saw and judged upon first meeting me, and also my private self. For the body to succeed in public, I learned, it was supposed to be pleasing for others to look at. This would be a constant struggle.
When my future spouse and I first moved in together, I was already a slave to my running shoes. I knew I was in some unspoken and fierce competition-—with my larger self, with other smaller whiter women, with the pornography I knew he craved and indulged in frequently. I remember one afternoon, I set out to compete yet again, this time, as a computer image. After having done my eyeliner just right, I took boudoir selfies with his digital camera in bed, tossing my hair, opening my mouth just so. I deleted the ones that showed too much nipple, or where my waist folded, hinting at anything more than a concave stomach. I could never tell if he liked them, so I asked him to delete the set.
Back then, I marveled at my own smallness, proud of the taut physique I had obediently achieved. All the hateful messages had been appropriately internalized: be small, like a white girl.
I was running four to six miles a day, and as a result, I was tight-waisted with an ass like two moons swaying. It pulled men in tides-—I’m not afraid to say this. It was a sexual wonder; a ripe, smooth thing I dressed in tight jeans.
Now it is a larger, flatter thing, dimpled from stress. I look at myself some mornings, breasts as fat and full as grapefruit over the giant veined swell of my belly and say, we have work to do. By this I don’t mean jogging, or swimming, or toning up. I need my body, large and sturdy, to support me as I guide my baby out into the world. Vanity is for later. My ass, and my waist, will have their comeback tour.
To look at my breasts and marvel at their dark nipples.
The first breasts I ever saw were my mother’s. She is an exquisite, coffee-and-cream-colored woman. Her nipples are lovely camel-colored discs no bigger than silver dollars. As a girl, I’d hoped to inherit her beauty, but as I grew, I took after my father—olive-pale, with dark joints and armpits. My nipples were also darker, and smaller than my mother’s, concentrated little purplish-brown knots on soft dough.
The color was not so disconcerting. In my family, everyone’s nipples are dark brown, a fact I’d take for granted until I saw the magnificent breasts of white girls, their nipples as soft and pink as sow’s ears, delicate and erotic. It was a softness I could never obtain that I would learn repeated itself again and again all over my body. White girl hair was soft and thin and light, pliable and easy to style; my hair was coarse and thick and dark, difficult and heavy. White girl hips were small and narrow, able to fit into sizes as small as zero; my hips were wide below a thick trunk that would only thicken as I aged.
And just like that, a metaphor for all the ways my body failed to meet standard.
In the early stages of love, I decided to take Nair to my entire body to take care of the small hairs that covered me, including my nipples. I am a dark woman, and thin black hairs cover my whole body, including around my nipples. I found it more reasonable to give myself a chemical burn on an erogenous zone than undress in the light. I would learn later that this is the colonized body.
Now, I am pregnant, and my nipples are purple, nearly black, and tough along the edges with small, raised bumps. Once tight, bright globes, my breasts now spread like sacks of flour into my back, and ache when I turn in bed. They are not for sex. They are not for my marriage. They are not for the world. They are for motherhood.
To eat to fullness, with abandon, in order to nourish.
I have never truly denied myself a good meal. I am powerless near food, and will eat to fullness, sometimes beyond. I’ve fallen for phases of deprivation for the sake of weight loss—a three-year vegetarian-cum-vegan phase which ended in anemia, the coffee and cigarette diet, paleo, keto, plant-based whole food blah blah blah—but I’d always backslide. The reality is, I am a glutton. Food is sensual. I derive as much pleasure from a drive-thru cheeseburger and fries as I do from a duck confit or crème brulee. I will never deny myself pasta with sausage and heavy cream and a fat glass of good wine. If my body is a political space, then I’d like my body to be France, or Italy, or Spain, or Chile—some place with excellent food and good social programs.
So what’s changed since I’ve been pregnant? I eat truly without a single ounce of guilt or shame. I give into my cravings because fuck everyone, I’m pregnant, you don’t understand. I ignore xenophobic medical advice. I eat food that gives me pleasure, and will benefit my baby—fresh spinach and berry protein smoothies, raw salmon sushi, big steaming bowls of pho, sticky cinnamon rolls, hot sweet coffee with cream, omega eggs and chilaquiles, avocado, hummus, steak. You think all this gorgeousness is from Cheetos?
To give myself pleasure.
Pregnancy is isolating, and long, and painful. It is the loneliest I have felt in a long time.
Days go by as I watch the more fun version of myself slip away in the mirror to be replaced by a larger, more serious person. Less funny. Sleepy. Concerned for the kind of world her child will have to live in.
I am not hopeful. I don’t look knowingly at my belly and imagine the possibilities. I am afraid of all the ways I might fail, at all the ways I have already failed. People fall away. Some care to keep up, ask me how I’m feeling. Others discard me completely. My stock goes down. I feel myself becoming less interesting.
It is a long goodbye to the last stage of youth, that ragged and beautiful time. All the fun things I could once do—drink, stay up late, hike, run, bike, fuck—become unavailable to me. Sure, I can have a glass of wine here and there, but not without intense guilt and shame. I’d google “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome large glass of wine three times a week” after a tame, early night out with friends. I would fall asleep even at early movie showings, the smell of popcorn nearly toppling me with nausea. Walking under all the weight became slowly impossible. Sex became even more of an exercise in shame, as I was now more body-conscious than ever.
Some pregnant women find sex abhorrent. I am in that category. Some pregnant women report an increased sex drive. I am also in that category.
In my isolation, I have discovered my own body again, just like I did when I was a teenager. I am surprised by the depth and breadth of my desire, and its insistence on total privacy. I am moved to deep orgasm in new ways. I care little for standard heterosex, and if I must watch it, the focus must be on the woman, fully in control. She should receive. She should ride. She should definitely come, and not for the sake of the man’s ego, but for herself.
It is difficult to find this kind of erotica. Hetero male-gaze porn is an ego-serving mechanism, providing cliché fantasies to cliché men via cliché women. The actors are almost exclusively white, thin, and young, soft nippled, small-assed girls without a clue as to how or why their bodies should receive pleasure. If they aren’t white, they are fetishized women of color—squeaky Japanese kink in uniform, big-assed Latinas loving anal at Carnivale, big booty black women getting dominated by white men. The stereotypes, the exploitation, is disgusting.
But mainly, it’s white girls, so vapid, so grateful. They are surprised at how big a dick could be, indebted to the man who is providing something that is free and abundant in nature. Is this sex? Get up off your knees.
I have no interest in free and abundant. Give me the rare sight of a woman, flawed, coming through pain. Give me a woman of color with power and substance in her lover’s bed, not some elaborately staged farce. Real sex is awkward, intense. Tender, vulnerable. That is erotic. Equality is erotic. Queerness is erotic. Feminine beauty and power is erotic.
Through these sessions—reading, watching, meditating on sensation, I discover my own power. It is not quite sex, but it is not quite not having it. It is pleasure on my terms. It is my body in want.
It is my body in want, finally, of itself.
Sculpture: Damien Hirst, The Virgin Mother
Vanessa Angelica Villarreal is a writer, editor, and designer. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Western Humanities Review, NANO Fiction, The Colorado Review Online, Almost Five Quarterly, The Potomac Review, and is forthcoming in Caketrain. She earned her MFA from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she currently lives and works. Her hometown is Houston, Texas, as in that H-town, coming coming down.