My words – my writing practice – focusses on my relationship with my body. It is, in many ways, a point for me to divorce the fleshiness and distortions and ugliness and abject darkness of disease into a controllable flat form. The words here, they isolate and capture and pin down the moments I stare at myself in the mirror, stare at the reality of what my naked body looks like now.
I had a photo shoot recently with a well known local photographer in Canberra, Brett Sargent. He specialises in artistic nudes, and for some narcissistic reason, I wanted to see my body reframed outside of the narrow confines of my own language. I wanted it splayed out, to stand alone as it is. It departed from my attempts to make sense of my cancer diagnosis and the reality of the fact that the more time goes on, the more clear it becomes that my body will continue to distort as the cancer cells spread through me, despite every drug we throw at them. My body remains, though, on the surface as something quiet and still, only ruptured by the scars and bruises.
I feel hideous deep into the core of my body. Almost none of the conversation around terminal illness – for young, or old people, brings into account sexuality and identity. There are wonderful organisations set up to teach women how to put on makeup and draw on eyeliner, but no way to sit with and accept the fact that your body and your representation of the bodily self isn’t going to feel more real, more embedded, with makeup that makes you look less like you have cancer. Cancer isn’t just losing hair. It is often a battle to gain or lose weight, or bruises from low blood counts or blood thinners. It’s your arms track marked from blood tests, it’s the scars from surgeries, it’s the burns and tattoos from radiation. No amount of makeup technique will stop my breasts from sagging due to my fluctuating weight, nor will anything take away the burn mark on my arse. I struggle to find the language or the acceptable place to voice these things. It is private and intimate. Our terminal bodies are not supposed to be sexy, but frail and breaking to pieces this close to death. My terminal body wants and needs more than that though. I want it to be outside that framework that seems to hover around the word terminal.
I see women – often on social media – talking freely and proudly about their sex lives, and their joy in their embodiment in their sexuality, and I find myself intensely jealous. As with lovers, I am never jealous if my lover is with someone else – I am more jealous of them, for the ease at which they can find someone to connect to and trust with, and to not fear the difficulties of managing a compromised body. My skin is both rougher from premature menopause, and softer from chemotherapy. My abdominal muscles sit strangely below my ribcage, distorted by the surgery. My stomach is covered with a line of bruises below my navel from nightly needles. My pelvic region is scarred, and prone to bleeding and tearing. It is compromised profoundly, and I remember this every time I go to touch something – my fingers have little to no feeling – or fumble on shoelaces, or stare at my body in the mirror, touching with numb hands the strange texture of the scar.
I’m comfortable being naked around strangers, and as I stripped off and stood in front of the backdrop, I could see myself being viewed and appraised as an object to photograph. My body ceased to exist as a core of sensuality, or a medical anomaly. It became an object before a space which was to be frozen, and reimagined. That act of photography most closely resembles writing to me. In writing, I attempt to somehow dynamically freeze, in sequence, my thoughts and ideas. In photography, my body is captured similarly. When I write about the body, it is interesting to reflect on the photographs. Under the lighting, with his careful positioning and sensitive placement of the camera, he made me feel at ease and like my body could produce images of beauty after all – regardless of me being beautiful, or what anyone will call a beautiful woman. There is beauty in my body, against a white backdrop, the shape of my back stark and pale, my feet curled up under me.
Beauty, to me, is a process and concept I try and dig my heels against. My beauty, or lack thereof, and my sense of myself as a beautiful woman is not something I wish mattered to me. I don’t need to be beautiful because beauty isn’t the core of who we are as people. Reclaiming, celebrating, screaming from the rooftops about beauty fails to pull apart the idea that maybe beauty is still too blinding. Makeup free selfies matter as a way of allowing ourselves to feel beautiful without makeup – while for me, I wish to be able to take my selfies as a statement of what I am, and that sometime, in a hospital bed, a weird shade of yellow due to my liver that does a real good job considering the cancer – and say this is what I am, and this is who I am, and the notion of beautiful doesn’t need to penetrate this, after the amount of I’ve had from scans and scalpels and needles.
When I received the first few photographs, and saw them on my computer screen, I was confronted by the very elements I had asked Brett to include. The scar is large and disfiguring, and my bruises cover me. Shots from the back show the perfect circle of dark brown burns on my arse, patchy in some parts from higher doses of radiation. I cringed at the roles of fat on my belly which used to be firmer, and my breasts hanging lower, a bulge above my right now, marked with a huge scar, with the port to take the chemotherapy into my heart. It is unavoidable, in this form. As other photos were sent as he edited, more of my tattoos came through, flooding the web page with the proofs with colour and life. My body, stained and running with this ink. My nipple piercing which I’ve kept through every scan, every surgery, every intervention. They will not take that from me. And these scars are me now, as much as my tattoos or the back of my hand, and it’s just a matter of finding a space to make myself feel somehow vibrant and sexual within this body again.
Elizabeth Caplice is an archivist on hiatus. She writes about the body, and its intersection with disease and experience. She has been published in Meanjin, The Lifted Brow and Kill Your Darlings. She tweets at @hrasvelgveritas.
Brett Sargeant’s photography can be found at https://deyephotography.com/