Wellington poet and student Emma Sidnam just won the Michael Gifkins Prize for her manuscript Backwaters – the novel will be published by Text in 2023. Here, she writes about her body.
I got a plum-black eye at my first ever soccer practice. I was seven and got in the way of my coach booting the ball up the field. For half of that practice, I was forced to sit on the stone terraces of my primary school, an ice pack held up to my face. That didn’t deter me from playing for four years. Neither did my mediocrity.
When I was eight, I was the only girl at a three-day soccer camp. Alone in the girls’ changing room, I listened to the boys laughing and felt awkward. My bag looked small and lonely sitting on the white bench by itself. The room was large, lined with stone like a cell. I resented being isolated from the boys.
Out on the field, I excelled in the fitness exercises but struggled with the ball skills. It was frustrating because I’d wanted to prove that girls were just as good as boys at soccer. Eric, the team captain (and coach’s son), demonstrated dribbling tricks for me. His feet moved quickly like wind. My feet, naturally turned out from five years of ballet, didn’t move like that.
Being bad at foot tricks didn’t deter me from giving my all, even though some of the boys didn’t pass me the ball. During games, I hurled myself into the action, slamming my body against the other players, using their surprise to get the ball. Some of the boys avoided tackling me, because I was a girl, and I used it to my advantage. I couldn’t dribble neatly but I could kick hard. I could attack violently. When I played soccer, I didn’t care about my body. I was invincible. Adrenaline pulsed through my whole body as I skidded through the grass, tearing up the field with my boots. Purple bruises formed like flowers on my shins, but I didn’t care.
Once, I somehow ended up at the very top of the field. It was just me and the goalie. He grinned at me nastily, confident that a small Asian girl couldn’t get past him. I booted the ball with every ounce of strength I had. It smacked him straight in the guts and he fell to the ground with a yell. My smile was the size of the sun. At the end of season BBQ, every player got a little plastic trophy. Mine said “best tackler”.
My primary school separated boys and girls for the puberty unit. Boys were funnelled into one room to learn about wet dreams, pubic hair and unwanted erections, while girls were streamed into another room to talk about periods, sprouting hips and breast development.
These things will happen to you, we were told. There is nothing you can do about it.
The classes were fun. We got put into groups of four where one of us had to lie on a large piece of paper while the others traced her. After that, we drew all the female puberty changes we knew. We drew lemon-shaped boobs, pubes like wires, vulvas like little ovals filled with holes.
We wondered aloud what the boys were doing. We’d been shown cartoons that taught us about the embarrassing nature of breaking voices and poorly timed erections. We talked about how those were annoying, but not as bad as periods.
At the end of the unit, we were presented with our own little purses of pads and tampons. A consolation prize for incoming adulthood. We showed the boys and they scattered as if we were holding viruses.
I waited for my body to change with a heavy dread. I didn’t want breasts. I didn’t want a period. But biology made it inevitable, and my body changed like a season. By year six, I had to wear a white crop top under my shirt. My first crop top was white with little silver studs. It felt cumbersome and embarrassing, the little pricks on my chest something to hide from.
In year five, the first of my friends got her period. Girls crowded around her at morning tea, flooding her with questions: does it hurt? Is it heavy? Do you use tampons? She presided on the stone terraces like a queen, older than us through experience alone.
My first period arrived when I was 12, the average age. I was at Sylvia Park with mum, trailing behind her as we went from shop to shop. That day, I was in a terrible mood. I wanted to be anywhere but there. When we finally got home, I found blood in my underwear. It was only a thin trail of red, but my grumpy mood transformed into sad acceptance. So, this was adulthood.
Body hair sprouted under my arms like unwanted weeds. I bought my first pink plastic razor and uncomfortably shaved the follicles off, determined to prune my body into submission. But it kept growing, thick and coarse like flax.
I can cut it off, again and again. It will keep growing back.
Just before the first lockdown, my gut started inflating like a seedpod. My body filled with harsh, heavy gas that pressed against the inside of my abdomen. It was constant and painful, a reminder that I had no control over anything. I had to walk around and twist my core to squeeze the gas up my oesophagus. I didn’t go to the doctor because of lockdown. Instead, I rolled around on the floor to ease the pressure. I sipped peppermint tea and prayed for the gas to go away. Sometimes I felt invaded. It was worse at night, making me feel grotesquely expanded, too big for myself.
Burping as a child was funny. This was something different. This was a violent storm in my body, a rush of euphoria when I finally got it out. The constant burping was also socially awkward. I wasn’t prepared for that. When I was with people, I had to tell them about my gut, so they didn’t think I was being rude. The frustrating thing was that the moment I mentioned burps, people thought my condition was funny. They’d give me these looks of pity mixed with amusement. I would then describe the pain in my lower back, the nausea, and the feeling like my stomach was going to split open. Only then would they lower their eyes.
My student health doctor googled “bloating” in front of me and read a list of suggestions from WebMD. It made me want to scream. I’d had the gas for two months. I’d read every single article about it. The doctor eventually told me to get a blood test. The results said everything was normal.
To see if I had IBS, I cut my diet down to eggs and kūmara for two weeks to see if nightshades, green vegetables, fruits, or FODMAP foods were the problem. Nothing worked and I began to despair. My body seemed to hate me, and it made me feel trembly and unnatural, unable to exist comfortably anymore.
Eventually, I visited a gastroenterologist who put my symptoms down to aerophagia, which essentially means excessive air swallowing. He said it was caused by anxiety and prescribed me escitalopram, an anti-anxiety medication. Nowadays, I know the names of different antidepressants.: fluoxetine, paroxetine, sertraline, citalopram. When I meet other people on medication, we trade details. It’s like we’re part of a club we didn’t want to join.
The escitalopram helps. The gas is still there but not like before. Before, when I felt my gut inflating, I had to rush home before I couldn’t move. Now, the bloating and burping is unpleasant but manageable. I still have nights when I walk around, using my hands to push against my stomach in upwards motions. It’s worse when I’m anxious.
There are so many of us with bodies which refuse to cooperate. I say this with the privilege of having an able body. Bodies are not flawless structures. Bodies are natural, and they experience all of nature’s anomalies.
There are moments when my body is worth it.
Running in the early morning, relishing the deep ache in my calves, my thighs.
Floating in green rivers, letting the current take me past slippery rocks, half-soaked trees. Walking hand in hand with the person I love.
My flatmate paints me naked, and I post a picture on Instagram, covering my chest with ferns from the garden. Her paintbrush transforms my body into an artwork. She makes my eyes big and thoughtful, my lips pink and soft. I put the painting on my wall and look at it when I need a reminder to feel confident.
I would like to say I feel most beautiful when natural, my body pure like running water. I could describe my legs as roots, strong enough to carry me. I could call my eyes the deep brown of bark, the promise of water and life that comes with mud. I could tell you that my hair is black as the midnight sky. But the truth is I equally prefer myself painted. It reminds me of the little control I have. I love my hair with its pastel purple, rose pink, indigo purple, hazy daylight blue. I love my eyelids coated in bronze and blood glitter and my eyeliner as thick as dirt.
I’m learning to love my body despite all its problems. Sometimes, I step out of the shower and examine myself in the mirror. I look at the curve of my hips, the natural slope of my shoulders. I imagine viewing myself through a waterfall and I smile.