Kathy was in the ninth month of her first pregnancy. She was at home on maternity leave as the baby was due in a few weeks. It was pretty boring for her seeing as the nursery was already finished and her husband was at work. Before lunch, Kathy decided to have a shower.
After her shower, Kathy was in her room drying off. While doing this she looked herself over in the mirror. She had never particularly happy with her body. Getting pregnant made her feel worse, despite her husband and friends constantly telling her how beautiful she was. It didn't help that everything on her was bigger, especially her stomach. She only hoped she would be able to lose the weight once the baby was born. In the midst of looking at her belly, Kathy began to think about what her baby would be like and whether she would be a good mother.
Given the fact that she was uncomfortable with her body, what she decided to do next would seem strange. It was a warm day and none of her maternity clothes ever really fit well, not even her underwear. So she figured since no one was around she could go without clothes, at least until her husband got home. After checking and double-checking that all the doors were locked and blinds closed, (they were) Kathy dropped her towel and stood there nude for the first time, in a place that wasn't the bedroom or bathroom.
'This isn't so bad, ' she thought.
All of a sudden, there was a knock at the door.
Flustered, she ran back into the bedroom, grabbed her old, ratty, terry bathrobe and pulled it on. She had had the bathrobe from before she was married so, now, with her belly sticking out to the next county, she could barely hold the edges closed. Making sure that the security chain was latched properly, she cracked open the apartment door.
Standing in the hallway, was an attractive woman in her early thirties with long straight dark hair flowing over her shoulders and down her back, with a well shaped figure with wide shoulders, wide but not overly wide hips and very long legs, dressed in a pale, slightly 'oriental' blouse under an open bodice and straight-legged fashionably tight black slacks. She wore a pair of classical black high-heeled pumps with large two inch heels. Under one arm, she was carrying a large flat purse/portfolio held up by a long strap over her shoulder.
"Hello, my name is Melissa Hendricks. I am the neighborhood 'Natural Childbirth' consultant; a neighbor of yours noticed you were pregnant and thought to contact us to come see you with some information about our organization. My card..."
The card was pale blue with the stylized drawing of a woman breastfeeding a baby. Below the name, was written 'birthing/breastfeeding consultant' and a land-line and cell phone number. In one corner was the address of the local 'Natural childbirth' branch.
"I'm not really dressed to receive visitors. Would you mind just leaving me some brochures and stuff that I may study at my leisure?"
"Certainly; it would be my pleasure." And she brought her purse forward to take out some documentation. As Kathy reached forward to accept the papers, she accidently let go of her bathrobe and the sides opened, revealing her swollen breast and belly to Ms Hendricks.
"If you wouldn't mind my asking; when are you due?"
"In about three weeks. Why?"
"Oh, nothing ... I would invite you to look over the documentation. If you have a computer with an Internet connection, I would recommend that you visit our website, and especially that page dealing with water births; I have a feeling that it would be of particular interest to you. If, after you have consulted the information, you would have more questions or even if you just want to talk, call me on my cell phone. I'm available 24/7, seriously."
"Thank you, I'll do that." And started to close the door...
Ms Hendricks stopped the door with one hand and looked intensely at Kathy. "Mrs. Charles, call me ... please..." and released the door.
Shaken, Kathy walked vaguely back into the living room. She poured herself a glass of water even though it would make her want to pee. She always needed to pee, these days. Still wearing her open bathrobe, she sat down in her easy chair and slowly started to page through the documentation Ms Hendricks left, stopping at a small 50 page booklet on different birthing techniques. Not really aware of what she was doing, she started to read...
Curious, now, she looked at the other brochures and realized all of a sudden that she had read every single word of every brochure the woman had left. Stopping at the bathroom to go pee, again ... she turned on the computer and, almost feverishly, started to research birthing and breastfeeding, starting with the sites mentioned in the brochures. It was as if a whole new world had opened out before her.
Up to now, she had endured her pregnancy a bit like a curse that was the fate of all women. Her mother had died of pneumonia five years previously. As for her husband, as long as he had his beer with his supper and had his way with her whenever he felt like it, he left her alone. The computer was his; whenever she was too tired, he used to spend half the night, surfing the net. She was computer-literate, (what secretary wasn't these days?) but other than for work, she never used it. At her job, the nurse had tried to encourage her to get regular check-ups but money was tight so, after she had been put on maternity leave (thankfully, her union contract still paid her 75% of her salary even though she was off, ) she had spent of her day at home or at the park.
After two hours sitting fixedly in front of the computer screen, she was stiff as a board and, damn it, she had to go pee again ... damn nuisance! On a whim, she went back to the living room, picked up Ms Hendricks' business card and called her cell phone number.
"Ms Hendricks, this is Kathy Charles..."
"You suggested that I call you if I wanted to ask some questions or ... if I wanted to talk..."
"No, I have nothing else scheduled. My husband is at work ... and, these days, he frequently stays late ... Overtime, I guess."
"Sure; I'd like that..."
"Fine, I'll see you in fifteen minutes, then. Bye, for now."
Slowly, she waddled to the bedroom (God! How she hated the way she was at the moment!) and took out some fresh underwear, a tee-shirt and her stretch jogging outfit. She had just managed to pull her pants over her belly when there was another knock at her door. Opining the door a crack, she saw it was Ms Hendricks, and invited her into her living room.
"Hello, again. I'm glad you came back, Ms Hendricks. I had no right to expect it."
"Call me 'Melissa'. Why is that?"
"I don't know ... I've always found myself alone to solve any problems ... I guess I've sort of gotten used to do things by myself. Can I offer you a cup of coffee, or something?"
"Why don't you let me make it for you ... you must be tired carrying all that extra weight. Just tell me where to find everything and I'll take care of it."
Five minutes later, everything was ready and Tia carried a tray with two cups of coffee, milk and sugar. "How do you like your coffee?"
"One sugar and lots of milk."
"I hope that it tastes OK, Mrs. Charles," said Melissa hopefully. "I'm more of a chai person myself."
"It's fine really," said Kathy. "Especially when someone makes it for me. And please call me Kathy."
"So, I'm assuming this is your first child?"
"Yes, it is. My husband and I got married a little over a year ago."
"How has your pregnancy been so far?"
"In a word, it's been horrible, down right horrible. I've just been so uncomfortable and out of sorts these past few months. Even my clothes don't feel right on me."
"I know what you mean," confided Melissa. "I felt the same way during my first pregnancy, the first few months anyways. And I've counseled many women who felt the same way you do."
"Kathy, do you mind if I ask you something?" asked Melissa.
"No go ahead."
"When I first came over here you were wearing a robe," stated Melissa. "It was unfastened and you just said that you didn't feel uncomfortable in clothes, were you naked before I came over?"
"Oh my god... ! You saw me?" embarrassed, Kathy said; she paused for a minute trying to find the words. "Yes, I was. It was the most relaxed I've felt in ages."
"Don't be embarrassed," Melissa said with kindness, "most of the mothers that I work with feel much more comfortable being in the nude, even for extended periods of time. I know I did."
"Thanks. My pregnancy has sort of made me feel like a freak."
"I don't think pregnant women are freaks. They are beautiful. And you are beautiful too."
Kathy paused. Other people had told her that she looked beautiful pregnant, even her husband when he was around, that is, or not into his second six-pack of the night. But coming from Melissa it seemed actually true.
"Well, the first thing that we should do is get you to see a doctor, just to make sure everything's OK."
As Melissa said these words, tears welled in Kathy's eyes. Vainly, she reached for a tissue. Melissa stood up, took the box and offered it to Kathy. Kathy blew her nose and, then dabbed at her eyes.
"I'm sorry ... I don't know what's come over me..."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"It's just ... I've felt so lonely ... I've never had many friends in high school; I was sort of dating Charley ... Henry Charles, my husband. When my mother died five years ago, I didn't really have anywhere else to go so me and Charley got married. We went on a fishing trip on our honeymoon. It was alright, I guess, but I'm not that good at fishing and, two years ago, we went to see the Lakers on our vacation."
"Do you like football?"
"It's not that I don't like it, I just can't seem to understand it, you know... ? I mean, Sunday afternoons, Charley sits there with his friends, with their beers and their popcorn, going crazy about this and that but it all seems rather pointless, do you know what I mean?"
"What would you like to do?"
"I don't know ... I like music. I like to watch André Rieu and Yanni on PBS, and one time, I saw a great show by a Japanese drum group called KoDo. Oh, and Riverdance ... that was amazing how all those dancers did all those complicated steps and how they kept the beat and all ... Charley was going to bring me to a show at the amphitheatre for my birthday but then, I got pregnant and we had to use the money for the baby furniture."
"Is he happy that you're pregnant?"
'Well, he was at first, I guess, he said it made me look sexy and he was bragging about it to all his friends ... but lately, I hardly see him anymore; he leaves before I get up and he's always coming home late – he says he's doing overtime for the baby but sometimes his clothes stink of cigarette smoke."
"Does he help around the house?"
"He takes out the garbage; he makes a joke out of it. He's always saying that not taking out the garbage is un-American ... and he did a lovely job decorating the baby's room."
"What about you, how do you keep busy?"
"Well, I try to keep the house clean and on Tuesdays, I do laundry ... everyone else does it on Mondays so the machines in the basement are always busy. And until a month ago, I was doing secretarial work at a shipping company. Nowadays, when it's nice out, I go to the park and talk with the other mothers. But it gets harder and harder; I can't seem to be able to get into my clothes anymore ... And I always have to go pee ... Excuse me, would you?" as she struggled out of her chair."
When Kathy got back, she said "You know, when I called you, I had all these questions about my pregnancy and all but now, it's close to supper and all I've talked about are my little problems."
"Do you need any help with that?"
"No, thank you ... I'm not that hungry, anyway. I think I'll make myself a bowl of cereal. But I still have all those questions."
"Tell you what ... how would you like it if I came back tomorrow morning ... say around eight thirty? That way, we'll have lots of time to answer those questions and we'll talk more about that doctor."
That evening, after rinsing off her cereal bowl, she sat and watched PBS – there was a concert with Kitaro that evening and Sherlock Holmes was always good. By nine thirty, she was nodding off to sleep so she closed the TV and made her way to bed. She had given up trying to find a nightshirt that still fit and so, after struggling to undress, she decided not to bother with putting anything on for bed. Maybe it was for that reason she felt strangely lighter that night. Around eleven, she vaguely heard Charley come home and turn on the computer.
The next morning, she overslept. It had been at least a month since she had slept that well and that deeply; she hadn't even woken up to go to the bathroom. She had just finished her shower and was in the process of drying herself off when, again, someone knocked at the door. Kathy suddenly remembered that Melissa Hendricks had said she would be dropping by at eight thirty. Hurriedly, she pulled on her bathrobe as she went to open the door.
Holding her bathrobe closed with one hand, she escorted Melissa to the living room. "I'm sorry; I overslept. If you give me ten minutes, I'll get dressed and we'll get started," said she as she headed for the bedroom.
Something in Melissa's voice made Kathy hesitate. She looked around, confused.
"You don't really want to get dressed, do you? You don't have to."
"Come and sit in your chair. I'll go make us some coffee and we'll get started."
Seemingly without volition, she returned to her easy-chair. Still holding the edges of her bathrobe, she sat. A few minutes later, Melissa entered the living room with two cups in her hand; she had prepared everything in the kitchen. Putting her own cup on the coffee table, she passed Kathy's cup into her other hand so that the cup handle was towards Kathy's right. Instinctively, Kathy let go of her bathrobe to accept the cup. Melissa smiled.
"Fine, make yourself comfortable. I thought that we could start with some pictures." She took out an album and, taking Kathy's cup, she placed the album in Kathy's partially exposed lap. Automatically, Kathy opened it...
The first picture was an eight by ten glossy of three naked women seated in a large tub. The woman in the middle was very, very pregnant.
"The woman in the middle is me..."
But you're ... you're naked," Kathy stammered.
"Yes, that's a water birth," answered Melissa calmly. "It's done in the nude. I gave birth to both my children that way."
"Oh, do you have to be naked?"
"To be honest, clothes are unnecessary for a water birth," answered Melissa. "They are frequently a hindrance and confining."
"I hate to admit it, but I slept naked last night. It was the best night's sleep I've had in ages."
"I know, I always sleep in the nude. It's so much more comfortable."
"So who are the other two women?"
"That's Arlene and that's Hannah," replied Melissa. "They're my sisters. Hannah, the woman on the left is actually a doctor, an ob/gyn ... Dr. Hannah Bruin. Arlene helps us from time to time when she can. Right now she's in Rwanda now coordinating a program that rescues girls and women at risk. All of the sisters in our group dedicate their lives to helping women that need it at some point in their lives."
Kathy stared at the two other nude women in disbelief. There was no way that they were related to Melissa.
"I know what you're thinking, how could I be related to those two. My organization, Natural Childbirth, is part of a larger group. A much larger group of women. We help each other. We're a family ... Sisters."
She turned the page. As she did, Kathy, who was a little nervous and agitated at first, now seemed calm. The robe, now completely open, exposed her breasts and belly. The next page showed two large black and white photos of other women. They were both pregnant and naked. The images were professionally done. It was obvious that the women weren't models, but they looked stunning. They were gorgeous, not in spite of the fact that they were over nine months pregnant, but because they WERE nine months pregnant.
"I could never be that beautiful," thought Kathy.
Melissa looked into her eyes for a moment, "Everyone woman is that beautiful. Especially at this point in her life."
Kathy smiled. Melissa always knew what to say to make her feel better somehow. She turned the page again. It was Melissa. She was breastfeeding a baby and both she and the child were nude. There was a similar picture on the facing page.
"That's my daughter Tia, my youngest," said Melissa with pride, "And that is Kendra. She's another woman in the sisterhood."
She turned the page again. There were two pictures of Dr. Bruin examining two other women. One woman was pregnant, the other not. And like the other ones, the women were nude. It went on like that page after page.
"Now, let's get you to the clinic. The Natural Childbirth Center has a clinic once a week and Dr. Hannah has time today where she can see you, so what do you say that we get going?"
She nodded. Kathy got up from her seat. By this time, her robe nearly completely came off her body exposing her entire front to Melissa. As usual, she was constantly fighting with her robe trying to make it cover her nipples and/or her pubis. It seemed as if it wouldn't cooperate. She thought, "It would be so much easier if I could be naked."
Embarrassed, she was about to close the tattered fabric around herself when Melissa said, "Don't worry about it, dear ... we're in this together, right? You could take it off, altogether; I don't mind."
Kathy looked at her...
"Go ahead..." murmured Kathy and Melissa let slip the robe to the floor. She felt highly embarrassed but Melissa's approach eased her nerves slightly. At the same time, she felt a sense of relief.
"I'll throw something on in my room and we can go," said Kathy.
"Why don't you let me find something for you? Just tell me where to look."
"My bra and panties are in the top drawer and you can pick something out of the closet next to his stuff."
A moment later Melissa came out with button-up pink maternity dress. It was very light. It had seen better days, but it looked comfortable. "Since we're just going to the Center, I figured we could do away with a bra or panties."
Melissa helped her with the dress and they were on their way. They left her 'low class' neighborhood and were soon out in the country. Melissa turned her car onto a driveway with only a large mailbox with the address neatly painted on it. The same address as the literature Kathy had read. The building was set back a ways from the street and was at one time a private home built in a ranch style, but larger than a standard ranch house.
Melissa led her in the front door and they found a waiting area like you would see in any doctor's office. It looked like any doctor's office that she'd ever been with chairs, a counter at the reception area and wall decorations, except that here, the decorations were all photographs, all nudes and all very similar to the images that Melissa had just shown Kathy. These were all real women, no models. She recognized Dr. Bruin in a few of them as well as Melissa.
"Oh hello, Melissa," greeted a voluptuous woman behind the desk, Kathy had seen her somewhere before. "And you brought Kathy with you ... marvelous."
"Here's some paperwork for you since it's your first visit, Kathy, and I'll need your ID and insurance card if you have them."
Kathy dug into her purse and handed them to the woman, "I'll give these back to you in a minute, and Dr. Hannah will see you when you're done."
She filled out the forms and handed them to the woman when she brought her cards back. In that, instant Kathy remembered where she had seen her. It was Celia, one of the nude women from Melissa's pictures; she was sure she had seen her somewhere else too. "She has the same self-confident poise that Melissa has," thought Kathy.
"Dear, there seems to be some problem with your health insurance card," said Celia as she handed them back. "But Natural Birth will cover your medical expenses."
Slightly confused, Kathy took the cards from Celia and put them away. Truth be told, her employer was always fudging with her insurance, not that it covered much anyway and it was so expensive for her!
A moment later Celia told them that they could go back to the exam room. Celia walked with her and Melissa back to the room. Even along the hallway, there was picture after picture, just like in the waiting area. When they got to the room, Celia put Kathy's chart in the folder holder on the door. "Please take everything off and have a seat on the table," requested Celia.
Kathy kicked off her shoes as Celia waited for her. Melissa took the shoes and handed them to Celia.
"We'll put these somewhere safe for you," assured Melissa.
Kathy then slowly undid the buttons of her dress again with Melissa's help. It fell to the floor and she stepped out of it. Totally naked, she felt a rush of embarrassment and but something deeper as well that she couldn't quite pin-point.
"Just have a seat there and the doctor will be in shortly," said Celia softly and she and Meredith left, closing the door behind them.
Contrary to most examination rooms she had visited in the past, not that she had been in that many, her finances being the way they were, this room was comfortably warm and, surprisingly, the examination table was covered, not by a roll of paper, but by a sheet, an actual flannel sheet. The décor was also much better than the usual impersonal bare white walls one usually finds; they were painted in varying tones of ivory and café-a-lait and there was a plant and a little fountain in one corner.
She had not finished looking around and reading the fine print on the diplomas on the wall when there was a quiet knock on the door and a slight woman of about 40 came in. She was wearing doctors' whites but, somehow, they looked different, lighter, more comfortable, perhaps. Her hair was dark brown, almost black, pulled tightly to the back in a small bun, her skin was incredibly smooth, without a wrinkle, not even around her mouth and she was wearing small, rimless glasses over the most incredible, lively, pair of golden, no ... bronze colored eyes Kathy had ever seen.
"Hello, Kathy. I'm really glad to meet you, Celia has told me a lot about you. My name is Hannah; I guess you could say I'm the boss around here. How are you doing?"
"All right, I guess ... I mean ... all this is so strange. I'd never known places like this existed. Melissa has been ever so nice to me and ... Celia greeted me like a long-lost family member; I barely know her ... I've seen her in the apartment block, occasionally, but that's all. And this place ... this room; it's so different from what I've known ... I almost feel at home."
"You are home, Dear. I want you to feel that you are always welcome here, at any time. Has Melissa told you anything about who we are?"
"Not really ... Yesterday, she told me she was a birthing counselor. Today, she called you her sister and started to say that this place was part of a larger organization but she felt that it was more important that I see a doctor right away."
"Well, in that case, let's get that out of the way first, shall we ... I've found that when Melissa starts talking like that, she's usually right. Would you mind climbing onto the table, please?"
What followed was probably the most thorough exam that Kathy had ever undergone; eyes, ears, nose, throat, temperature, both oral and rectal, blood pressure, heart monitor, ultra-sound, a complete pelvic exam (Hannah warmed the speculum before inserting it, ) the works ... Hannah even verified Kathy's flexibility; bending her arms and legs to find where her joints tightened. She finished by placing herself at Kathy's head, reaching under her neck and delicately fingering her trapezium muscles and then placing her fingers lightly on her temples.
"Okay ... a bit later, I'll ask one of the girls to take some blood and fluid samples but for now, I can already tell you some things. First of all, your baby is absolutely fine; he or she is totally healthy, his heart is beating strongly and I did not detect any abnormalities. For you, it's another story; you are seriously undernourished and your vital signs are all over the place. I want you to move here immediately; we have room available for our clients."
"But ... but ... I wouldn't be able to ... What about Charley, my husband? And the cost... ?"
"Don't worry about the cost; our rates are on a sliding scale – yours will be covered by the organization. As for your husband; I'll go ask Melissa to go talk to him. I insist ... I don't even want you to go back to pack a bag; I'd like you to leave your keys with Celia, she'll see to it that you have everything you need."
"Now ... on to other matters. It's my guess that you'll give birth in about two weeks. There's a full moon in two and a half; that day will be the most likely one. Do you have any family or friends you would like present at the birth, Charley ... someone else... ? Be honest ... think of yourself, first; don't invite any one just because you feel you must. Any person who's not really welcome will just sour the atmosphere."
"No ... I don't have any family left. I don't want Charley! There's maybe one person ... there was a nurse at work; she was really nice with me and had told me to see a doctor but I couldn't afford it. Maybe, she would come ... I don't know."
"What's her name?"
"I'm not sure ... Isabel something or other, there's only the one nurse."
"I'll look into it. Will there be anything else?"
"What about my clothes? Melissa left with them."
"Don't worry ... most of the girls here, staff and clients, prefer to stay undressed, including myself. The only people who are usually dressed are Celia and the night shift receptionist; they have to deal with the public."
"Don't you have any men here at all?"
"Two ... our gardener is male and we have a millwright on staff to take care of all the machinery; they're both nudists. We're not against men; it's just that most men don't seem to fit in with the set-up we try to maintain. The two men here found out about this place trough their wives – they actually came here and applied for the job."
"I'll go and ask Celia to come get you. If ever you need to see me, any time at all, just ask any of the staff and they'll send for me."
"How will I know who is staff? After all, if every one is naked, I won't be able to tell you apart by your uniforms, will I?"
Hannah laughed; it was a pleasant sound. "You're right ... everyone on staff wears a medallion like this..." and she showed Kathy her medallion with the breastfeeding mother logo.
The following morning, Kathy was awakened by a light knocking at her door. She was a bit confused ... where was she? As the knock was repeated, it all came back in a rush; Melissa's visit, the drive to the Birthing Center, her medical evaluation, everything.
The door eased open and in peeked a pretty round-faced woman in her mid-thirties. Apparently satisfied that she was not disturbing anything, she walked in. The only thing she was wearing was a little medallion like the one Dr Hannah showed her yesterday.
"Good morning, Kathy. My name is Jennifer; I was asked to show you the ropes this morning. How are you this fine day?"
"Well, frankly ... I'm a little confused. This place is like nothing I've ever seen before ... Even the fact that you're naked, I find hard to get used to."
"Does it bother you?"
"No ... it's not that ... exactly. It's that I've never associated with women who feel so at ease about their bodies. Melissa ... do you know Mellissa?"
Oh, yes ... I take care of her daughter when she's out ... She's a wonderful lady ... and beautiful."
"I think that all the women I've seen here are beautiful, you included."
'Thank you. That's nice of you to think so. You were saying about Melissa... ?"
"Oh, yes ... when Melissa showed me those pictures of her giving birth and I saw how everyone was naked, it was a bit of a shock and then, when Dr Hannah said that almost every one was naked here, including the men, it threw me for a loop. I didn't know to believe it or not but, seeing you, I guess she was telling the truth."
"Oh, yes ... you'll find that it does away with all the pretense. We're all on a first name basis here and nobody pretends to be better than anyone else. We each have a job to do and they're all equally important. That reminds me; I'd better get on with mine. Are you hungry?"
"Then I suggest we go eat. Shall we... ?"
"Okay ... Woops! Just a minute..." and she ran to the bathroom that was just off her bedroom.
"That's wonderful, having a bathroom right next to my room."
Jennifer laughed; "One thing this place has plenty of, is bathrooms; with all the pregnant women here, it's a necessity. Come ... the cafeteria is this way..."
At the service counter, Kathy took her usual bowl of cereal and a glass of milk but Jennifer reached over and added a bowl of fresh fruit, a cup of yogurt, a large piece of cheese and two slices of buttered multigrain toast.
"Are you allergic to peanuts... ?" and she added two packets of peanut butter. "You are to eat ALL of that EVERY morning. Do you hear me?"
"Are you serious? I'll get as fat as a blimp!"
"No, you won't and before you say anything else, it's Hannah's orders. After breakfast, we are going to the pool where you'll be doing an hour of exercises. Then, you'll be joining the 'New mothers' class where they'll teach you what you need to know about biology, child care, nutrition and first aid. By that time, it will be lunch where it will be my immense pleasure to stuff you again. After lunch, we'll spend an hour strolling through the grounds, then, at two thirty; you're scheduled for another course. When that is over you're free until supper. We usually have some live entertainment in the evening; I understand you like music – maybe we could go dancing.
"Dancing? With this belly?
"Why not... ? We won't be doing the Jitterbug. It's more of a 'stomping to the beat' type of thing. You'll love it. And so will your baby ... he hears the music quite well, you know."
In spite if her best efforts, Kathy was unable to finish the food on her tray. "Come on ... one last little bite..."wheedled Jennifer. "Here, I'll split the cheese with you but, tomorrow, you eat it all, do you hear... ?"
Jennifer was waiting for her at the classroom door. "Are you hungry? You must be after that work-out, this morning."
After another stop at a convenient bathroom, they entered the cafeteria. This time she did not even ask; she just filled Kathy's tray with a bowl of Couscous salad, a bowl of chick pea salad and another of egg salad. For desert, there was cottage cheese and fruit salad. To drink, there was green tea. Yummy!
As she entered the room, Kathy looked around and ... froze. Sitting, or rather, slouched in one of the easy chairs in the room was a woman of around forty, although it was hard to be certain, as her face was half covered by a beat-up cowboy hat. She was obviously a woman because the hat was all she wore but what had stopped Kathy in her tracks was that the woman had no breasts; instead, she had a large discolored scar across her chest.
Without saying anything and trying not to stare at the woman's deformity, she sat down in another chair. Instinctively, she scrunched up as much as her belly would allow. Above all, she tried to hide her breasts; for fear of losing them, out of sympathy for this poor woman, out of shame, she did not really know.
She waited for the teacher; Jennifer had said it was a course but she had not been more specific. That, in itself, was curious because at breakfast and again at lunch and during their stroll through the grounds, she hadn't stopped talking, not that Kathy had minded, because Jennifer was such a simple happy soul; every thing for her was a joy.
'Now, where WAS that teacher? Whoever he or she was; she was very late, ' she thought. She fidgeted in her chair...
"Why do you hate yourself?"
"Huh?!" Kathy looked around, startled.
The woman had raised her hat and was looking intensely at Kathy... "Why do you hate yourself?" she repeated.
"I'm sorry ... I don't understand?" asked Kathy, not knowing what was going on. "Why would you say that?"
"Well, I see you come in here and you saw me," the woman said now standing and straightening up. "I was the only one in here and you saw me. I saw you looking at me. And I know that you saw my surgery scars. And then I saw you sitting down trying to hide your breasts from me. I'm right, aren't I?"
" ... Yes," Kathy replied to the interrogation.
"So to put my question another way, why do you hate your breasts?"
"I don't know," Kathy said trying to be polite. "I guess I saw your scar there and became suddenly aware that I have these large jugs and you ... and you don't have any. I'm sorry if I've offended you."
"Not at all. You've spoken the truth. At least about my body compared to yours. A few years ago. I had breast cancer and I survived, but I lost my breasts. And for a long time I was very angry about that. I felt like less of a person, and I hated myself."
The woman paused before beginning again.
"My name is Carrie Sargent and I am here to help women get over their body issues and that's what I'm here to talk to you about," Carrie started. "Alright?"
"Alright," responded Kathy feeling only slightly more at ease.
"So, do you hate your breasts?" asked Carrie.
Kathy swallowed. She had never been asked such a personal question before. It took her a long time to answer. "When I first started dating Charley, I was a skinny cute girl. All my life I've been around women and girls that wanted to have these really skinny figures. Hardly any breasts at all. And then little by little I start gaining weight. My butt got bigger and my boobs got bigger too. I avoided mirrors."
Kathy wiped a small tear from her eye.
"I know what you're thinking," Kathy continued. "But I never did the binge and purge thing. I'm not an anorexic. But I did hate the way I looked. Charley almost never touched me and he started drinking more."
Carrie handed her a tissue and Kathy did her best to compose herself.
"Kathy, what was one of the first things that you noticed when you came to the Center?"
"Well, it looked like your average doctor's office on the outside, not that I've been to many."
"On the walls there are pictures of women and they are all in the nude," said Kathy.
"That's right. And did you notice who the women in the pictures were?"
"I recognized Melissa, Celia and Dr. Hannah."
"Ah, you noticed them, did you?" asked Carrie. "They are all women who, at one time or another, have stayed here or received support from us. And all of the women that have been touched by us have been photographed in the nude. Today, it's your turn to be photographed."
"I don't understand ... Why do you do that?"
"Do you think you're a beautiful woman? Don't lie ... don't pretend ... Tell me the truth!"
"No, I'm ugly."
"Oh? Shall we verify that? Would you push that red button by the door behind you, please..."
There was the sound of a powerful electric motor starting up and, gradually, the entire far wall slid aside to expose a giant mirror covering the entire wall.
"Tell me what you see ... describe yourself to me." Kathy looked confused... "Come on; make an old woman happy ... just this once."
Kathy hesitated... "Well, I look all bloated, misshapen; my butt is all squishy, my belly sticks out to the next room. Before, I had the cutest little belly button, now; it sticks out more than that switch on the wall. And, if it wasn't for the fact that they're drooping all over my belly, my boobs would be hanging down to my knees, my nipples have changed color and are all ugly, I've got these ugly blotches all over my face ... is that enough or do you want more?" Kathy was getting more and more angry about having to endure all this.
Carrie rose. "Come with me." She led Kathy to another door at the far end of the room, next to the mirror. After she had entered, she stepped sideways so that Kathy could enter and take in the room. It was a photographer's studio; a very well equipped photographers' studio, it seemed to Kathy. In one wall, a window overlooked the grounds. The window was covered by a sheer tulle curtain. On the wall next to the window, about three or four window shades had been mounted on over the other on the same support brackets. In the middle of the room, there was a bar stool, comfortably upholstered chair and a small platform. Around these were an expensive looking camera, some floodlights, an aluminum lined umbrella and some other paraphernalia. On a side table were some props.
"What we're going to do is this ... We're going to take a series of pictures. For the first one, I'll let you take whatever pose you feel like ... you can even use some of those props over there. The only thing is that I must be clearly able to see your belly and your face. You can use that tissue as a veil, you can take that hand mirror, whatever ... I want you to adopt a pose that an art photographer would want to shoot. The other shots I'll compose; some will be for our records, others will be so that we can follow your progress but the first picture will be totally yours. Okay?"
Kathy nodded and walked over to the prop table. Finally picking up a six foot length of tulle similar to the window dressing, she asked "Where shall I stand?" Carrie brought her in front of the collection of widow blinds and pulled down a pale cream-colored one.
Kathy took one end of the tissue and hung it over her shoulder. She draped the longer end across her breasts, passed the remainder behind her back, gathered it in one hand and held it in front of her pubis. With the other hand, she spread the tissue to cover her breasts more completely. "Okay, I'm ready."
Carrie looked through the view finder, adjusted the focus slightly and shot.