I got naked while writing this essay. It was not sexy. Or it might have been, in a desperate, drunk kindof way. From waist to hips, from bust to thighs, I poured myself an obscene serving of sake and went to town with a measuring tape.

I wanted to know if this dress would fit. I found it online, and it was cute as hell, but according to the size chart, some parts of me required a medium while other parts were large. At some points, I may have just edged over into the territory of extra large.

I was all out of whack. Hips, ass and belly, all the way around, 40 inches. Natural waist, 32 inches. Rib cage, 32 inches. Breasts, with support, 38. Support removed, ditto. I kept measuring, walking purposefully from my writing desk to the full-length bathroom mirror, losing articles of clothing on each trip.

Circumference of thigh, 24 inches relaxed. Circumference of calf, 15. Distance from navel to crotch, 8 inches. Areola, in a warm room, not aroused, 2.25 inches. Distance between right and left nipples, 8 inches. Ankles, approximately 8 inches around, each. Feet, 9 inches long, 3.5 inches wide. Size sevens. Big toe, two inches long. Baby toe, one inch.

I was curious about proportions. Was there a golden ratio of waist-to-hip measurements? Was there a standard deviation? Could measure enough to prove something, to calculate the volume of the space I inhabit, or to index my qualities and weigh them against one another? Is breast size more important than thigh circumference? How valuable are my fingers, which are slender and type quickly?

From top of knee to sole of foot 19 inches on the left leg, ditto on the right. Bonus points for symmetry. From bend of knee to outer hip bone, about 18 inches, give or take a touch.

The navel posed an issue. My belly button is 1/2 inch wide, by 1 inch tall and approximately 1/2 inch deep — determining its depth was a little rough. I stuck a finger in and then measured the portion of the finger that went in. It was about half the first bone of left pointer finger. The first bone is about 1 inch long. But this is all approximate, as beauty is approximate.

Perhaps I could develop a system: Points for visible collarbones, hip bones and slender fingers. Points for length of hair and fingernails, size of breasts, style of belly button. With all these things measured and recorded, I could know my exact worth at any given moment. I could go public. People could invest.

Right shoulder to right middle finger tip, 28 inches. Right bicep, 11.5. Right forearm, 10. Right wrist, 6. Circumference of right ring finger, 2.25 inches. Wrist to middle finger tip, 7 inches. I could sell my own line of measuring tapes, little size chart notebooks for keeping a daily tally, and even start a series of classes to train appraisers to make house calls and teach women how to use the system.

Distance from outer edge of right shoulder to left, 16 inches. Circumference of neck, 13. Lips, 2 inches across, 1 inch high. Nose, 2 inches from brow to tip. Eyes, 1.5 inches wide each, plus one full inch in between. Point seven five inches high each. Eyebrows, 3 inches wide, dependent on plucking. Cranium circumference, 22 inches.

I struggled to measure my baby toe nail, which has long been one of my least favorite body parts — following close behind the backs of my thighs. The nail is about 2/8 inch wide and slightly less than 1/8 inch long. It is impossible to pedicure. You have to paint on the skin.

I’m being a little bit funny here (or trying) and more than a bit obtuse, I know. But how can you know the depth of a person if you can’t even tell the depth of her navel? I was trying to pull an ee cummings on my body — and don’t think I’m not aware of the pun — I was trying to punctuate myself into some fashionable absurdity. But just like a sentence, I found, my body loses its meaning when diagrammed to death. At the same time it becomes endowed with a whole new syntactical weight.

I’d like to say I reached some great realization, but other than the fact that this dress wasn’t going to fit, there was nothing. Only me. Heel to crown, 64 inches, barefoot, in the bathroom, on linoleum.

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MARY HENDRIE (formerly Mary Richert) is a writer living and working near Annapolis, MD. Her blog is missdirt.net. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College. You can also find her on Twitter, @MissDirt. Mary really likes it when people comment on her blog or talk to her on Twitter so she can meet new people and get new ideas, so feel free to say hello any time.

31 responses to “An Approximation of Beauty”

  1. Ellie Di says:

    “With all these things measured and recorded, I could know my exact worth at any given moment. I could go public. People could invest.”

    The great realization is here, in these three sentences. Or rather, outside of them – just after the end. While I get that you’re attempting to be funny, there’s that old adage that comedy hides pain. Thinking about your worth in terms of inches is no different than thinking of it in pounds or product. Your exact worth at any point in your life, whenever and however those measurements change, is so far outside of your tape’s ability to number that it’s almost laughable to think of it like that. Your insides, that immeasurable treasure trove of awesome, is what we should be looking at. Our hearts, minds, and souls are what make us worth-y.

    • Mary says:

      I’m late in responding to all of these comments because I had this weird hangup about posting about areola size that kept me from commenting and stuff for a long time. Anyway… THANK YOU Ellie for being so awesome and supportive and for getting it. And of course, you’re right, but you know… so many of us ladies really don’t grasp that. And even when we do get it, it’s hard to shake the ridiculous beauty standards that have been ingrained in us for so long.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    Mary,

    I have a terrible time ordering clothes from catalogues. I almost always have to send things back.
    My waist is big, which makes the rest of my body not fit into what the rest of my body is.
    I need square clothing, I think.
    I love how you measured everything after measuring what the catalogue wanted to know.
    That was really funny.

    • Mary says:

      Irene, now, I’ve seen photos (or at least one photo) of you, and I would say that your waist is by no means big. That’s what I’m saying, though. Big according to whom? The catalogue? Do they have a set waist-to-hip ratio they use for determining their sizes? And what makes them think everyone’s going to fall in that range? It’s just ridiculous. In school, they always told us we were unique like snowflakes and that was what made humanity great, but the subtext of everything else we’ve seen or read in life says that women in particular need to fall within a certain ratio in order to be acceptable. It’s ridiculous. You are beautiful. That’s the end of it. :-p

  3. angela says:

    fun piece, mary! i don’t think i’ve ever measured myself, but there have been times (when i’m really bored) that i look closely at certain facial features – an eyebrow, the pores on my nose, a freckle – till they have no meaning. kind of like saying a word over and over till it’s just a sound.

    book, book, book.

    weird.

    • mutterhals says:

      You know, I do that same thing all the time. It’s like I can’t look at myself in total, I can only do it piece by piece. When I see a picture of myself I’m like ‘I really look like that?’ I can’t imagine what I look like to other people.

    • Mary says:

      You never measured yourself? Really? Wow. You’re lucky. But yes, I feel like we do have this weird tendency to dissect ourselves. … Wish I could understand it.

  4. When I was in college my suite mates and I decided to start running and take our measurements in addition to weight in order to chart our progress. Never mind that we were all rail thin. Someone decided that we should measure our ankles. One girl completely freaked out about it & refused to have her ankles measured. She was about 5’10”, gorgeous face, beautiful blonde hair & crystal blue eyes, and just as thin as the rest of us. Turns out her one and only physical flaw was cankles (when the calf and ankles run together). She became completely unhinged over the ankle measuring. I remember looking up at her and being completely befuddled. After all she was bestowed with natural beauty, height, and the ability to remain thin by simply sitting around. I on the other hand was (am) relatively short, of average attractiveness on a good day, and required daily ballet class and an eating disorder to remain thin.

    • Mary says:

      I repeated your story to my husband the other day trying to explain how young women with theoretically perfect bodies can be crippled with such an unreasonable obsession with something as simple as their ankles. Thanks so much for sharing. You are beautiful. Being thin is a bullshit thing to aspire to anyway.

  5. What a wild post…. they are only numbers, after all… and you seem to have put them in their place. And can I just say that your TAGS could be a post all to themselves? Fuck your fascist beauty standards, oh yeah!

    • Mary says:

      Robin, thanks! I really loved how putting the numbers out there made them so meaningless. Now and then, I go over them in my head and wonder, “How can my waist and my rib cage both be 32 inches around?” But I refuse to re-measure. I enjoy the meaninglessness of the numbers.

  6. Gloria says:

    I read your Twitter post that said you were nervous about posting this. I understand that – you really lay yourself bare here. Both figuratively and literally. I love what you ask though – how do you measure beauty. There has been so much discussion about this, and my dude friends, especially, vary on this answer. I appreciate the fresh approach you take to this question, Mary.

    And, not to sound like a weirdo, but I now want to go home and take all of these same measurements – not to measure myself against you, but to flesh you out. This is a brilliant way to put some meat on your avatar. As a matter of fact, I think all TNB contributors should be required to list these measurements in their profiles so that I can “see” them – like sonar.

    Cheers,
    Gloria

    • dwoz says:

      I don’t know if you’re a weirdo, but I don’t know if I’m a weirdo, but just like women have to now define TWO measurements for their chest…tape measure and cup size; it apparently is now de rigueur for men to supply TWO measurements…length AND girth.

      Go figure.

      • Gloria says:

        Actually, dwoz, it’s apples and oranges. At no point did Mary offer the measures between her pubic symphysis and her coccyx, nor did she offer up the circumferences, lengths, or debths of her other bits. I believe we’ve had this argument before – about whether it’s fair to imply that breasts are to women as dicks are to men. I would argue that they’re not. However, should you be so inclined to offer these measurements, please be prepared for the ensuing jokes, which will obviously be in bad taste.

      • Gloria says:

        Also, I don’t know if you’re a weirdo either. But I admit to wondering about that from time to time. 😉

  7. Amber says:

    i have a sudden, overwhelming urge to know the exact measurements of my upper thighs. must…find…measuring tape…

  8. THIS IS SO GREAT! Amen to “Fuck your fascist beauty standards!”

    • Mary Richert says:

      Hey Jessica, I have to admit that I wasn’t the one who came up with “fuck your fascist beauty standards,” and I don’t really know who did, but thank you, nonetheless. 🙂

  9. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Hi Mary, As a lover of fine art, I’m just very grateful that Rubens never cared a whit about the numbers 🙂

    • Mary says:

      Uche, I have clung to the knowledge that even figure painters manipulated their images so women wound up with absurdly long necks and ridiculous proportions elsewhere, mostly for the sake of showing more skin. (see: dante gabriel rossetti) Thank you for saying this, and you’re damn right!

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Ha! Nice evocation with DG Rosetti. He and his buddies pretty much artistically pimped Jane Morris like Iceberg Slim, including the outrageous advertisement of her disproportionate representation in e.g. Astarte Syriaca.

        Astarte Syriaca

        And of course Elizabeth Siddal who got the Pre-Raphelite version of botox injections at every turn, except, curiously enough, when represented as dead (Ophelia)

        Ophelia

        So in that one picture they left her all Kate Moss-like (which she was in real life).

        What else is there to say about that than what Ophelia said herself?

        By Gis and by Saint Charity,
        Alack, and fie for shame!
        Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;
        By cock, they are to blame.

        OK OK. maybe I should give Ezra Pound the last word.

        Fœtid Buchanan lifted up his voice
        When that faun’s head of hers
        Became a pastime for
        Painters and adulterers.

        The Burne-Jones cartons
        Have preserved her eyes;
        Still, at the Tate, they teach
        Cophetua to rhapsodize;

  10. Elizabeth says:

    I love this piece, Mary. The humor is there, but under the weight of melancholy, like Lydia Davis.

    Personal favorite: “…my body loses its meaning when diagrammed to death. At the same time it becomes endowed with a whole new syntactical weight.”

    Beautiful stuff.

    • Mary says:

      Thank you so much Elizabeth. This piece was fun to write but a little scary to post. I’m especially grateful that my fellow women appreciate it. 🙂

  11. I think you should apply geometry to the standard because I read that people find beauty in symmetry along with the “right measurements.” Personally, for me I tend to like girls who go running everyday regardless of measurements although they might have to be able to go over 5 point five miles an hour on the treadmill. That’s right, run fast! Run, run for my love!

    • Mary says:

      Well, there’s an awful lot to be said for health. I also admire intelligence, creativity, a sense of humor, and a refined ability to make out.

  12. kristen says:

    Reading this–those number sequences–was a vaguely hypnotic experience for me.

    Nice work, M.

    “Only me. Heel to crown, 64 inches, barefoot, in the bathroom, on linoleum.”

    Lovely last bit, that.

  13. Mary says:

    Thanks so much, Kristen. I suspect that if I read this piece in public (so people could see me while hearing the numbers), it might further the effect of making the numbers meaningless. I don’t mean to sound vain, but frankly, my proportions are rather nice in person, which I think makes the numbers seem sortof ridiculous.

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