Once upon a time, the brilliant essayist Eve Babitz was also a painter. In the 1960s she was not only known for her magical groupie powers but for some of the key album covers of that decade–most notably a collage for 1967’s Buffalo Springfield Again. And although she had limited patience for movie stars (she did deign to fuck a young Harrison Ford, but then he was mostly a weed dealer and shoddy carpenter), she hobnobbed with some of America’s most-touted artists–among them Annie Leibovitz, Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, and Marcel Duchamp. (Only one of the aforementioned never saw her naked in person.)
But one day Evie put away her brushes for good. And the reason, at least according to every teller of the tale (including Eve, who is honest if not exactly truthful), can be traced to one seemingly offhand remark by Earl McGrath. A sort of Oliver Wilde-cum-Leonardo Da Vinci-cum Frank Abagnale Jr cad-about-town who quite possibly was her only true match and definitely her only worthy frenenemy*, McGrath gazed upon one of her paintings.
And after an exceptionally pregnant pause, said only: “Is that the blue you’re using?”
And she never painted again.
Boy o boy do I relate to that story. I think all artists possess–nay, require–a ridiculously thick skin as well as a profound sensitivity. The problem–for me, at least, and maybe for Eve as well–is we don’t always know which is going to kick in when.
I suspect that for Eve, it was the knowledge that Earl’s observations were notoriously, witheringly accurate in nearly all other contexts. So the fact that he didn’t bother to utter more than that passive-aggressive question must have slayed her.
I think about that story all the time, especially when someone devastates me with the same fatally faux naivete. It’s like a Meisner exercise ringing in my ears.
Is that the BLUE you’re using?
Is that the blue YOU’RE using?
(and, the most likely culprit) Is THAT the blue you’re using?
I mention this because last weekend a friend asked me if THAT was the blue I was using in such a casually terrible way that my back immediately went into spasm and still hasn’t entirely recovered.
She is a friend from my fashionista days, when I was fifty pounds lighter and still wore a double A cup. Pals from those days generally guffaw when they see the big girls I have today, but that was then and this is now. And having conquered my eating disorder as much as anyone really conquers an eating disorder, I’ve made my peace with my natural weight–well, as much as anyone can in our fucked-up, capitalistic, post-industrial society.
Or so I thought.
Because last weekend I was out on the town with said friend who, after watching me struggle with a dress zipper, said, “I guess you’ve put on a pound or two.”
I pushed back at first. I said, “You know these boutique bitches can’t make a dress to fit serious-lady boobs.”
And she said–just as innocently–“No, honey. You’ve definitely gained weight around your waist.”
I swear, I actually started defending myself. I stammered about how I’d been working out a ton lately so couldn’t have gotten much bigger. And then, as she kept watching me with her (tiny) hip cocked, I started calculating the calories of every regrettable carb I’d consumed over the last six months.
And by the time I went to bed that night, I couldn’t stand up straight.
Because the pain in my back was searing. Especially around my waist.
The truth, of course, is that even when I was anorexic I had a pot belly. From my father’s mother Francis I inherited a penchant for bright red lipstick, big juicy tits, and a tendency to store weight around my waist.
It makes sense. I also inherited from her the aforementioned thick skin and profound sensitivity. And if that’s how you move through the world, you need to protect your precious organs.
Hence the extra weight in that area.
But I’d really thought I’d made my peace with my belly until this so-called friend asked if that was the blue I was, uh, wearing. And I heard myself saying aloud, “Do I look fat and hadn’t realized it?” As if being fat was a bad thing, even.
And she said, “Nooooo, honey. I’m sure you’re just getting your period or something.”
In fact I was. My period arrived a few hours later with that crazy hunter full moon. But by then, the damage was already done. Sure, I’ve been working out so much that I’d probably strained my ligaments and muscles. And sure, my lower back goes out when I’m worried about supporting myself, which I am once again. (Second chakra concerns; cue a future post!) But the truth is my back went out right as I was obsessing over how everyone thought I looked 12-months pregnant.
Where I’d felt fabulous, now I felt a frump.
And you know what? It’s not really my friend’s fault. She is, after all, like me and the long-deceased Francis–like everyone in this city and in this world. She is a fragile, feisty, beautifully flawed human.
Don’t get me wrong. No one should ever comment on anyone else’s weight. Full stop.
But my job as both an artist and as a grown-ass woman is to love every inch of myself so completely that such comments bounce right off my psychic shield, rubber and glue style. And my inability to do so is 100 percent connected to why I’m malingering at the finish line of my book. Being seen is terrifying. More than that, it’s terrifying to consider that my book may be awful and that no one will find the heart to tell me so. Or worse: they will.
Or even worse: the book will be okay but someone will suggest it should be, you know, azure instead of indigo….
Of course, self-love does not preclude self-reckoning. In fact, self-reckoning is integral to authentic self-love. But there’s a vast difference between constructive criticism, always delivered in the service of compassion and truth, and those conversation-stopping shame-spirallers that are more about the other person’s issues than your own.
And for that matter, true self-love entails the good grace to acknowledge that sometimes it’s been me who’s asked in that same shitty singsong–
Is THAT the blue you’re using?
Flat on my back today, let me state this once and for all.
Every blue is beautiful.
*Didion doesn’t come close.