A Feminist Reading of Phillip Lopate’s “Portrait of My Body”


Bodies interest me, but Lopate’s body, in “Portrait of My Body” – not so much. I confess to an interest in women’s bodies – or women’s experiences IN their bodies, the way they come to own (or not) their bodies, moreso than men’s bodies. I’ve read Sallie Tisdale and Judith Ortiz Cofer, Pam Houston, Judith Hooper, and the haunting Lucy Grealy. For years I assigned Margaret Atwood’s “The Female Body” to my first year composition students, as well as Sallie Tisdale’s “A Weight Women Carry,” even when female students unabashedly admitted that Tisdale had no credibility because she confesses to being content with her size 14 body.

The body can’t be a neutral site — it can’t escape gendered politics, and so thinking about the way women struggle to love their own bodies in a culture that constantly monitors, labels, markets, and punishes their bodies is what I do all the time. Thinking and writing about Lopate’s essay, where he carefully inspects his own body, can’t happen without placing it in the context of all those women’s voices inside my head.

At least Lopate owns his body. It is fully his, unlike Atwood who preludes her essay with a quote from the Michigan Quarterly Review where a writer (presumably male) calls the female body, “this capacious topic.” Atwood begins her essay with her own body, but names it her “limping topic,” her “topic with back problems,” her “near-sighted,” “badly-behaved topic.” Her body diminished to a “topic” only, she is unable to extract it from the language used to name it, the accessories required of it, its functionality as a cheap peddler of clothes and shaving cream, hard liquor and diamonds.

What I notice, first then, about Lopate’s essay, is that he has the privilege of considering his body outside the dictates of other cultural readings of it. In this essay, his body, unlike all of the women’s bodies I have read about, stands by itself in the limelight.


Lopate does briefly acknowledge that his body lives in the context of a wider audience after first admitting that “I do not like myself at all, but out of stubborn pride, I act like a man who does.” This pretense makes him appear “for all the world” as a “poised, contented” man. Then he gloats: “What a wonder to be so misread!” This sentence deserves its mark of punctuation. When he’s misjudged, it is a misreading that confers on him the positive, self-confident traits that culture associates with successful white men. What Lopate lacks in self-love, the world confers on him. It never occurs to him what a privilege this is.

When Lopate talks about the authority he gains by being tall, I can’t help but recall my own struggle as a taller-than-average teenage girl and young women, how I slumped my shoulders so I could appear shorter among the circle of my friends, their whispers down below, out of reach to me. Or how I fretted over wearing heels: when it was okay, when it wasn’t (which was most of the time), depending on the stature of the current boyfriend; how my father whispered “stand up straight” whenever he was out in public with me; how all the grown-ups in my life assured me that one day I would be glad I was tall because women who are tall are the last ones to get fat in middle age.

About his short friends, “brilliant men” who “deserved” his respect, Lopate confesses an urge to  “rumple their heads,” that annoying gesture adults perform on children.  These short men, unlike Lopate, suffer the same harsh penalties that women suffer – they are dismissed, pitied, infantilized, and judged based on one feature completely out of the body’s control.

To be tall is to look down on the world and meet its eyes on your own terms. Obviously, this is a man’s perspective. Tell this to the 6’1” girl who is my son’s best friend in college, the one who averages 10 points in her college basketball games and who can’t get a date because, as my son says, “Guys are just intimidated by her.” Tell her that she’s getting to “meet the world’s eyes on her own terms.”

Because I found parts of his essay, already, “dangerously provoking,” which Lopate admits as a possible reaction to the “noblesse oblige” of tall men, I found his “gossip column about my body” paragraph dull-witted and self-indulgent. He picks scabs and jabs Q-tips in his ears and relishes his belly button odor – and he says this in a pseudo-confessional tone like he expects the reader to be mildly embarrassed and horrified at his honesty. I wasn’t. And don’t even get me started on his penis inspection and the Freudian-esque pshyco-babble about the trilogy of cock, suicide and impotence. Spare me.

Maybe men feel this way when they read Naomi Wolf or Jenefer Shute on their female bodies. Maybe they are just as impatient with a middle-aged woman who recounts the “tentative, guilty and frightening” moment she decided she actually liked her body (Tisdale) as I am with Lopate’s confession that his penis “has a personality like a cat’s.” Maybe I need to find a way to be a kinder, gentler reader of Lopate’s essay, take more time to appreciate his deft irony (I really like that he saves his penis until last, and begins “About my penis there is nothing,” when a suicide attempt and an impotence idealization is quick to follow). Obviously, it is not Lopate’s craft, but his presumptuousness, that I struggle with in this essay.


A Reading of Kingsolver’s “High Tide in Tucson”

My kids often had hermit crabs, especially in the summer when we made trips to the beach where we found them for sale in wire cages at tacky beach shops; and after the requisite “please mom’s,” they wrenched slender pinched claws from the wire cage to drop the crabs into take-out boxes like the ones we ate our lo-mien from. Sometimes we purchased a few extra shells, painted neon colors, so the kids could leave them out in the aquarium as promising new homes for their crabs. We could always tell when a crab was about to move because it stayed in its old shell long enough for its body to spill out of it, like it didn’t know how silly it looked with its usually private body parts swelling out of the shell’s narrow opening.

My favorite hermit crab name was “Hairdo,” which my daughter aptly chose for the crab whose shell was a beehive shape in a swirl reminiscent of an old-fashioned bun. One time Hairdo escaped and went missing for weeks in my daughter’s room, but miraculously was found one morning, scooting across my daughter’s rug, pointed in the direction of an open potato chip bag.

I once tried to use a hermit crab as a centering metaphor in an essay, and it didn’t work in the usual ways that too-obvious symbols fail us. The crab that tries on different homes, abandoning one to migrate to another, taking up a new shell like we take on new identities, was too predictable to hold up.

But Barbara Kingsolver makes the metaphor work in High Tide in Tucson. When she struggles – like the sentence: When I was twenty-two, I donned the shell of a tiny yellow Renault and drove with all I owned from Kentucky to Tucson. – she just pushes a bit too hard to force the analogies, like I continuously did in my failed essay.

What makes Kingsolver’s hermit crab metaphors work is her integration of the 1954 research on the way intertidal oysters adapted to their environments; even in the absence of an ocean tide, they carried out their lives in the “same cyclic unison.”  Moving away from family, settling in Tucson, finding a way to make the rhythms of that new place in the desert familiar and home-like – all of these comparisons work to connect Kingsolver’s moving experiences to the hermit crab that stowed away to Tucson in her luggage.

What I love is how she folds her “losses” and “gifts” into a single paragraph later in the essay: a “knife in the stomach” alongside a “column of blue butterflies rising” from a monastery. Grief and joy collapsed. And afterwards she writes about her bold confrontation with the strangers who tried to rob her, insisting she wasn’t brave or lucky at all; that this was “only the way life goes” (269). She blindly does what anyone would do in those moments of fear and grief, joy and beauty: she “fought off the knife,” “mourned” the lost baby and marriage, and “bore witness” to beauty.

Living, Kingsolver tells us in this essay, means doing whatever it takes to survive.

Earlier this month my cousin’s 18-year-old son was killed in a car accident. She lives in Texas, another sort of desert, one I’ve never wanted to visit, and the only access I have to her grief is on Facebook. Her son, a wiry dark haired boy I’d never met, was a senior in high school, only “120 pounds soaking wet,” my aunt told me on the phone last week, and ironically or tragically or miraculously, depending on how you read this truth, had accidentally made a baby with his girlfriend, due in only a few weeks. The couple had been in that hard place of trying to calibrate to the tide of a new life they had somehow stowed away to: the girl living with my cousin and her husband because her family had disowned her, my cousin’s son, James, dropping every class except the two he needed to graduate so that he could find a job repairing computers. When James died on a rainy highway a few weeks ago, he and his girlfriend were living in that necessary moment of “raw, green passion for survival” (272).

Now James’ parents, the cousin I haven’t seen since she was a twelve-year old, stringy-haired skateboarding girl, and James’ brother and father and cousins, his olive-skinned girlfriend with her heavy belly, that boy inside her, must go on living.

Kingsolver says when something extraordinary shows up in your life in the middle of the night, you give it a name and make it the best home you can. And that’s what they will do for James’ infant boy, the baby who showed up unexpected and unwanted, but who will help my cousin cross the “wide gulf” from survival to joy.