The things we do to our bodies

During the week on Radio National I heard the story of Princess Alexandra Amalie from Bavaria.  She lived for forty nine years from 1826 to 1875.  
day when Alexandra was in her twenties her parents became alarmed at the strange sideways walk she had adopted to
climb the stairs.  They called her in for a talk and there
she told them how when she was small she had swallowed a glass grand
piano whole.  She worried then if she were not careful she might bash into something
and the piano would shatter.  
The story has stayed with me all week. As a delusion, as a
state of mind, as a way of imagining a person’s internal world.  
Cruising through Facebook the other day I saw the shadowy
xray of a man’s penis and read the caption below which described how this man
had inserted a fork up into his urethra. You can see the fork in the xray opaque against the shadowy grey of his xrayed flesh.  Someone commented below that it was a good
thing that the man had inserted his fork handle-side first.
In my social work days I heard that it was not uncommon
for people to arrive in emergency with all manner of objects inserted into
their various orifices, particularly their genitals. 
The worst I ever did as a child was to shove a small bead up my nose.  I was watching
television and fiddling with this bead which I had found on the floor.  I tested it for size in one of my nostrils and
before I knew it had slipped from my touch.  I did not feel it roll through my nostril back down my
throat but I expect it went through to my oesophagus and down into my
I never saw it again but that is not to say I did not
panic about its presence.  I told
my mother who told my father.  My
father examined my nose for good measure and decided to do nothing.
If it had been my child I imagine I’d have taken her to
emergency for an xray to be sure the bead was not lodged in her lungs, but
times were different then.  It took
more than a bead in the nose or belly to get you into hospital. 
Most of the awful insertions into body orifices we hear of
these days are those performed as part of some perverse sexual practise and
their meanings range from fetishistic behaviour all the way along to
sadism.  And of course it is one
thing to do it to yourself, another to do it to another, particularly if that other
is unwilling or a child. 
things we do to our bodies…
I went to hear Susie Orbach speak on the topic of bodies
earlier this week and she too is aware of the ways in which our bodies can be
colonized by others more powerful, for example by the so-called beauty industry
for the purpose of extracting money from us.
In another radio program Orbach’s interwiewer, Natasha Mitchell at one point
referred to the cosmetic surgery possibilities on offer as being given choices, but Susie Orbach
reckons it’s more like a tyranny of choice. 
For example for young women who feel compelled to shave off
their pubic hair in order to match some ideal that has been established in
their minds. 
The same applies to the recent rise in women who have
surgery to correct the size and shape of their labia, as if there is anything
wrong with their labia in the first place. 
Susie Orbach talked of how she had visited a number of
cosmetic surgeon’s websites and in one she saw a series of labia, one after the
other, all shapes and sizes. 
Wonderful, she thought, so much diversity in bodies, only to read a
little further on that each of these labia was ‘wrong’ in some way. 
They were considered aesthetically displeasing, at least
to the cosmetic surgeon who advocated a shape and size along the lines of what
I think of as ‘MacDonald’s labia’. 
Thus it seems corporate interests encourage us to go back in shape and
size to our childhood selves, as though our hairy and angular, lumpy, squat
and variously shaped adult bodies are no longer desirable.
Susie Orbach also talked of Botox mums, those who use so
much Botox that their faces lose their ability to be expressive.  Researchers reckon the babies who look
at their Botoxed mums get confused. 
After all babies look to their mothers or primary caregivers, whoever
they might be, for emotional signs first registered on their faces. 
If none are visible or if they are distorted through the Botox grin, a face stretched to rid it of its wrinkles into a mask, then how
can a baby begin to find himself in the mirror of his mother’s
And so I think back to the princess and her glass grand
piano.  Is hers part of a confusion
of existence that she wound up feeling huge and fragile like a glass baby grand
such that it stopped her moving about and made it hard for her to play?   

Beneath the marzipan

I did not notice the waitress cut up our cake after we had stuck a
knife into it on our wedding day, but I remember going through a dummy run of cutting the cake
before the reception began.  Our wedding cake had two tiers arranged bigger to smaller.  
‘This’ll be an interesting shot,’
our photographer said in the lull between wedding and reception.  ‘I’d like to get the
candles’ reflection in your eyes.’ 
She asked us to hold empty wine glasses up to one another as if by way
of a toast.  Then asked that we
hold the sharp edged cake knife, which she managed to get from the kitchen,
over the dark red fake rose in the centre of the top tier of our cake.  

After the wedding we kept the smaller top tier to eat another
day.  It has travelled with us in an old cake tin my husband’s mother gave us after the wedding.  
It was she who took responsibility for the cake in the first
place.  She who baked it, and she
who organised a friend and neighbour to ice it, one thick layer of marzipan on
top of which she stretched the ordinary sugary icing.  It was she who chose the single artificial red rose as an
embellishment, she who designed the shape and size.  
I look forward one day to opening the lid of the cake to see what lies concealed beneath.   But I cannot imagine doing this yet.  Some have joked that
if we were to open the cake tin, it would signal the end of our marriage, after over thirty years.  Others reckon it might be like an omen. 
No one imagines that the cake will be edible, or that it could taste
good.  Though a friend once told
me, a couple of years after their wedding, her mother took their cake, peeled
off the by then yellow icing and recovered it.  They then ate the cake at the christening of their first child – a tradition, I understand –  but given our irreligiosity and our failure to christen any of our
children, we have not been able to take such an opportunity to cut our cake.  
I had considered the occasion of
one of the wedding anniversaries, the big ones, maybe the first, the fifth, the
tenth, twentieth, all those multiples of five would be a good time to get out the cake, to cut it up and see what lies beneath but as the years go by I become more
and more reluctant to take a look.  
The cake stands, still heavy, sealed in its faded tin.  The paint on the tin is pale red and
yellow, a traditional hunting scene, hounds, horses and men in red
breeches with riding crops, leaping over logs in
pursuit of a fox.  In places the
paint is worn down to a faint silver glow.  

About twenty-five years ago my husband sealed
the cake tin with silver masking tape after we’d endured a plague of kitchen moths and
weevils.  I was worried they’d get

Even then I did not have
the heart to look.  I peeled away
the fat little bug bodies clinging to the underside of the tin and wiped the
whole thing with a damp cloth. 
After my husband had sealed it, I sprayed the tin with insect spray.  I’ve not looked at it since. 
Today the cake sits in the far topmost corner of the kitchen pantry, a place that’s difficult to reach and each year it waits for some decision to determine its
fate.  I do not want to die without
looking inside but I’m superstitious enough to think I should not look yet.  I fear it might be like the surgeon who cuts open a body only to discover it’s riddled
with cancer – the looking signifies the death knell.  
 If I outlive my husband then I might look,
but not while the two of us go on together, or at least not yet, not while we
are still in the busy rush of our lives.  It’s too soon to see.