The Beloved Body

There is an enormous amount of insight to be gained from watching women try on jewellery. Sometimes it is just joyful. A woman will put on a pair of earrings, lift the mirror, and smile at her reflection. The earrings bring out something in her face that she has always liked. Or they compliment the colour of her eyes, and she remembers her mother saying what a deep blue her eyes are, how special they are. Or the earrings express a part of her personality that her face alone cannot, and she is excited, as all humans are upon such a discovery, that she has found a means through material culture to show the world a little of her identity. 

The latter is always the greatest joy to me. Over eight years I've had the privilege of customers, and friends, and customers who have become friends, telling me of the conversations they have had whilst wearing their Beloved pieces. People on the street, on buses, on trains, senior colleagues who haven't previously noticed them, or the cleaner on their floor who they have always wanted to engage but never knew how, these people will stop them and say ‘those earrings’ or ‘that necklace’, ‘I have never seen anything like it. Where did you find it, who made it, what is it made from?’

This, you see, was my dream in creating Beloved. I grew up in a deeply egalitarian household. My father, an Anglican vicar, had a congregation whose circumstances spanned the spectrum of human experience. Whether a judge, a struggling artist, a banker, a school teacher, a refugee fleeing torture, a person who could not find employment or love, my father would do his level best to make you welcome in our church and in our home. With this in mind, I never wanted to create cultural artefacts that enabled or exacerbated socio-economic divides. I never wanted someone to look at a person wearing one of our pieces and think ‘that person is too fancy, they would never want to speak to me’. The feedback I receive tells me that we have managed to avoid that trap, and I am extremely grateful for this.

The purpose of this post, however, is to talk about the women whose faces do not light up when they try on a piece that they love. From afar they spot our work, see something in it that expresses something of who they are, and make their way to our stand to look, touch, and try. I know they love it before they put it on. Eight years in this business has taught me to see the glint in someone's eye that betrays their desire for a piece. I am so happy when I see that. They put it on, lift the mirror to their face, and an instant sadness hits them. Quickly they take it off. ‘I don't have a nice enough neck for those. It is made for those young women with tall necks.’ Or ‘If I wear this it will draw attention to my scars’. Some women are in so much pain over the way they feel about their body that they don't even notice the jewellery when they lift that mirror.

It is this reaction that breaks my heart. Not because of the lost sale, but because I can all too readily identify with their fear. Women are taught to embody the hatred levelled at them. When we say ‘I'm too x’ (x= fat/thin/tall/short/wrinkly) what we are often really saying is ‘I am not good enough’. In a patriarchal, ageist, racist, heteronormative, aesthetically obsessed culture, there are negative messages coming at us from every angle to keep us hungry for products to ‘fix’ us, and to ensure that women have an extra barrier to self acceptance and growth. These messages are absorbed into our skin like cocoa butter, into our minds like song lyrics, they are there ready and waiting to be used by our hearts to explain why we cannot find the loving acceptance that we seek, to make us acquiesce to the idea that we are not good enough, to make us endlessly strive for acceptance in a society that has no intention of fully validating us.

I am writing this on the third anniversary of my double mastectomy. It is not an easy thing to write about, and it is tempting to preserve a self-protective silence. Yet, I am also driven to speak because the experience taught me, and continues to teach me, so much about the messages I have absorbed about my body.

One of the means by which I told myself I was not good enough in the past was to point to my stomach. Even when I lost a lot of weight my tummy was stubborn. It remained to taunt me. I strove constantly to hide it, to manage it. I am not alone in this; there is a reason that spanks have been so successful! I wished, I prayed it would be flat and tiny, resented its presence daily. Then in February 2014 I was diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer. 

The early days were dominated by discussions of risk, cause, treatment options, recurrence rates, genetic testing, and frantic calls to my medical insurance company. As that noise died down, as the path became clear to me, we turned to reconstruction options. 

Imagine my utter shock when I learned that my long-hated tummy was to be my salvation. The most recent development in breast reconstructive surgery involves taking a person’s outer stomach tissue, and using it to make new breasts. Breasts that are warm, soft, that age with the rest of you. The operation can only be done if you have ‘enough’ tissue to spare.

So this time last year I was saying goodbye to a part of myself that I had always hated, and now was so utterly grateful for. I had wasted years disparaging my saving grace.

I cannot say this to the stranger at my shop who picks up our mirror and recoils. Yet I am desperate to. I want to grab them by the shoulders and say ‘you are perfect, you belong, you are beautiful just the way you are and you deserve to express yourself like anyone else’. Instead I have to watch them walk away deflated.

I'm writing this in the hope that if you are one of the people who owns our pieces, and there are days when you dare not wear it for fear of drawing attention to yourself, or if you ever wonder ‘Was this really made for young/pretty/skinny/*insert label here* women? Am I really their target audience?’, you will know that you are the person we had in mind when we made your piece. We had in mind your scars, your ‘short’ neck, your ‘thick’ wrist, your ‘dry’ skin, and we don't care for the excuses society has used to put you down. We care about the content of your character, and if you have chosen to express that character through wearing Beloved then we could not be more honoured.