The Plaster Shell

The Plaster Shell

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Plaster Shell

Intense feelings of embarrassment and absurdity filled my entire body. These feelings were not helped by the fact that I was slathered in baby oil, clad in a T-shirt and lying in my basement, in fifty pounds of plaster. I stared down at the warm plaster that embraced my midsection and slowly crept up toward my chest, and I tried to remember why I had chosen to make a plaster cast ofmy entire body. For a moment, I simply concluded that I was an utter fool, but I soon remembered my motives. And while the plaster dried, I certainly had the time to think about it.

The insecurities of my freshman year in college, combined with my poor body image, made me feel like an oaf. Here I was surrounded by all these lithe, long girls who wore the latest fashions really well. Was there some mold that churned out these girls? And where in the world did I come from?

That was the beginning of the question that led me to my plaster ensconcement. It all began 506 years ago, when my forebears were thrown out of Spain. They migrated to Eastern Europe and developed the stocky, bosomy shape consigned to overstuffed chairs. Though my tall, slender parents seemed to have defeated this pernicious (certainly in my eyes) shape, it continued lurking in the depths of the family gene pool and flung itself into existence again with the arrival of their firstborn child—me. It gifted me with wide hips, a nonexistent waistline, powerful shoulders and ample breasts. Very reminiscent of a long line of intimidating German matriarchs.

Built to survive harsh winters and to breed children, I certainly wasn’t near anything I saw in fashion magazines —or like any of my new college peers. I loathed my shape and cursed my past. Though I was always an independent person who disregarded the edicts of popularity and fashion, I could not ignore our culture’s concepts of beauty. The rancor I had for my body made my freshman year of college really hard. Clothing seemed made for those generic stick figures I sat next to in class. That was when Dorothy, my slightly eccentric art teacher and mentor, originated the idea of body casting.

Consequently, on a lovely May morning, I found myself sitting in a dark basement, encased in plaster. I lost all sensation in my legs at approximately the same time that the plaster hardened. After an additional uncomfortable twenty minutes, I slipped out of my plaster shell. At first, I was rather depressed by the sight of the powder-white and headless torso lying on an old towel. It looked more like a sea creature stranded by the tide than a human shape. My eyes squinted, trying not to take in the entire picture of my shape, which was even more exaggerated by the plaster. I thought about how I would never be graceful or delicate, how two-piece swimsuits were absolutely out of the question and how I would never be conventionally beautiful or fashionably thin.

As I stared at the empty outer shell of myself, a great realization hit me—I realized that I had been completely wrong about my body image. For the past nineteen years, I had believed that my linebacker-like shape would discourage others from noticing my additional attributes. How would they ever see my love of science and books, my creativity or my offbeat sense of humor?

All this time I had wanted to be fashionably svelte, but that would not make me a better person. I recognized that confidence was much more important to others than a dainty appearance and that if I had confidence, they would notice my talents. More important, I realized that I did not actually want to be thin and bikini-clad. I was quite content using my powerful build to lug around sixty-pound scenery pieces, and I liked my one-piece, practical bathing suits. My physical appearance had shaped my personality in a largely positive way. It contributed to my dislike of conformity. It gave me my somewhat self-deprecating sense of humor. And it gave me that strong will that I cherish so much. The misconception I was holding all these years, along with the exaggerated body cast that lay there on my basement floor, was suddenly so hilarious to me. I laughed for five minutes straight.

The body cast currently resides in Dorothy’s attic, under a large blanket. I never actually used it in any art piece; I felt it had served its purpose. The process of body casting had been far more important than the product.

Since that day three years ago, I have not resented my ancestral build. I have also discovered that being comfortable in my body has given me increased confidence and assertiveness, something many girls, and women, lack. Perhaps they should all be given the opportunity to make their own body casts. When the shell of the body is separate from the person, it is obvious that it is severely lacking. Without the wisdom, sense of humor and heart, it really has no shape at all.

Miriam Goldstein

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