‘Please don’t call me strong’: notes on race, gender and the body
In an extract from ‘Don’t Let It Get You Down’, Savala Nolan reflects on the journeys her body has endured.
02 Jul 2022
Content warning: mentions sexual assault and fatphobia
What happens to burdens? I have some. I wonder: do they weld themselves to each other, grow thicker and denser, cleaving to our bodies with keloid seams? Because this coalescence, this mounting and merging would explain why my hips hurt the week of my daughter’s birthday, the week I spent in the hospital, wrecked and apart from her. Why my back hurts the month my dad died. Why the news sometimes makes my thigh bones shake and scrape against my knees. Why I take a hot, salty bath every night; to wash off the stickiness that has amassed, some of it old, antebellum and farther back, cobwebbed and preverbal, grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’.
“Yes, I think burdens collect. They are the body itself”
Yes, I think burdens collect. They are the body itself; please don’t call me strong. I think, eventually, when there are enough of them, they join hands, get drunk and rowdy and clamour for contact with your skin, your bones. They’re coming for you, and maybe, if you can decipher it, there’s some wisdom on their lips; but also some blood – yours. This is why I ache just walking. This is why I daydream. This is why I flake. This is why I have secrets. This is why I’m silent. This is why I just want to sleep. This is inescapable. This is work.
I’m sure there is another, normal, low-class Big Sur set way back from the ocean, tucked into dark canyons, where modest houses battle mildew and laundromat coins collect in jars. But here at this sumptuous seaside estate, which I am privileged enough to have access to, I only experience the rich, clean spaciousness of Big Sur, and it allays how drained and spent I feel. Big Sur! With its midnights an absolute, velvet dark; its chalky cliffs tumbling down to meet the teal thrash of Pacific waves; its forest groves like cathedrals, holding quiet; how the air smells of fog and woodsmoke, pine and salt! My body feels, for the first time in years, restful. Full of rest. My anxiety fades. I revere the magnitude of the world in peace.
Still, I’m here for a wedding, so I know it’s coming—
Picture time! “We’re doing photos, everyone!” We line up. We’re grinning. We all jut our arms out, broken-doll style, and laugh. The bride most saucily of all, and I think she says Well, duh, I want my arm to look thin, obvi! She says it with a smile, good-natured. Other women agree; the groom’s mom, his sister, some of the bride’s friends. I suppose even I agree. I make like my shoulder is broken and my arm shoots out at that hard, enchanting angle. Whatever thinness my current arm can approximate is here in this broken-doll pose. The sun is hot under these oak trees; my heels sink into the wet ground; at last a breeze comes off the ocean and it’s a blue reprieve on the back of my neck.
“I imagine seeing the pictures in a few weeks and being elated and relieved that I don’t look fat”
I try to point my chin slightly down as a photographer taught me. It’s slimming. I imagine seeing the pictures in a few weeks and being elated and relieved that I don’t look fat. This won’t happen, though, because my arm can’t be slimmed with a camera trick. Mine is a thick arm, thick like a prosciutto. It’s a carrier of toddlers and wiggly, shining stretch marks, a schlepper of grocery bags and umbrellas and briefcases and laundry baskets; a treasure chest of sunlight and freckles. I won’t ask these women to be less fatphobic. Instead, I do the broken doll. I also slump, sliding down the wall of myself until, on the inside, I’m poured into my pinching shoes and I’m nose-down on the ground, very tired again. I feel a bit violated by their fatphobia, but also to blame.
It’s like the summer of 1999, the first summer I ever wore a tank top in public: the sun’s alchemy on that long-hidden skin, the warm wind touching it in the dissolving evening light. And a man sat too close to me in the empty movie theatre and began to masturbate, and I wondered if it was because of my arms, whether my body was too available even if it wasn’t desirable, whether my arms’ fleshiness gave him permission.
This extract is taken from Don’t Let It Get You Down published in the UK by The Indigo Press on 30 June 2022. Available here.