I remember the first time I saw myself in a mirror. It may be one of those early memories we invent for ourselves, an attempt to fill in that dark, recollection-less period of being a person. But even if it didn’t really happen, that first instance of seeing myself has reverberated throughout my life.
I remember pulling open the door to my parents’ room. Before the renovation, the long mirror in which my mother would assess her outfits was on the back of this door—massive in my young eyes. I turned around to face the mirror. It took me a second to realize who the girl was. Her hair was incredibly curly, her skin a creamy tan. Her eyes were large and startled. It took me a moment to understand that she was me. But still, something felt incredibly off. This was not how I had imagined myself. I don’t remember what I thought I looked like but it certainly wasn’t this. The body I inhabited did not fit with how I had always understood myself. So began my fascination with my reflection.
From that day forward I looked at myself every chance I got. I attended a Montessori pre-school, and instead of playing with the other kids, I sat in front of a mirror in my velvet maroon dress, observing my existence. Restaurants with mirrors drove my mother crazy. I had trouble participating in the conversation, simply because I concentrated so intensely on watching myself eat. It wasn’t entirely vanity that caused this fascination, although I must admit I’m often fond of my face. What drew me to mirrors was this strange feeling of disconnect. My inner and outer self were like those games in Highlights magazine, where you try to identify the differences between the pictures. I was always bad at those. The difference usually isn’t unbearable or particularly oppressive. It’s always been just a little off and this off-ness draws me back again.
This disconnect became more painful than amusing as my internal, idealized self pulled further away from the body I inhabited. I think there comes a certain point in many lives, where self-comprehension becomes more concerned with what we’d like to be than what we are. My time with the mirror became less about observation and more about assessment. My criteria, however, weren’t simply the glossy covers of Vogue or hyper-sexual Abercrombie waifs. I think we often do a disservice by discussing body-image as a simple cause and effect. It can be simple to say “Don’t compare yourself to these images, they are fake.” But what I, and I think many others have struggled with, is that I am not, directly, comparing myself to Lara Stone or some other glamorous model. I’m comparing myself to myself, or at least how my mind crafts my ideal being. Looking in the mirror, it feels like someone in marketing got the branding wrong. This is not the “Noor” look we are going for. It’s quite a bit lumpier.
The brand I was going for was defined by weightlessness. For quite a while, my favorite words were “ethereal” and “ephemeral.” I wanted to be, as I wrote in my ninth grade diary “Light, not too serious, beautiful. Like a feather or something that is pretty and light, ethereal.” I dreamed of being as cool and blue as Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life. I wanted to be a manic-pixie-dream-girl on steroids, defined by her sheer ineffability. What I saw in magazines and in movies was the beauty of women who pass through space without moving it. Ballerinas who glide through the air, using their muscles to lift their own weight, thereby negating its existence. Female beauty was sinewy and fragile. Female beauty was, most importantly, not heavy.
My body, however, had always been an obstacle to this goal. I was never thin enough or fragile enough. Sometimes, I look back on my freshman year of high school with longing. I was the sveltest I’ve ever been and it felt like all the boys were in love with me. But then I took a cringe-inducing trip down memory lane. I read my old Facebook chats. In one of those fun “question-game” conversations, when asked to describe my ideal self, I responded: “idk I’ve always wanted to be thin, and blond with green eyes. Or thin with really really dark hair, and kinda pale with bright blue eyes.” I said “I’m not fat. But I’m not thin.” In my exploration, I came upon countless conversations like these. I’ve, thankfully, never had an eating disorder or struggled with self-harm. I, thankfully, have never felt repulsed by my own body. It was always just off. I didn’t look like the water nymph I wanted to be. I wrote in my diary “I just wish I looked more ethereal. It’d certainly help me feel less like a woman of substance.”
I think the acceptance of my weight has been combined with an acceptance of my being. I am a woman of substance, even though for so many years I fought against that title. My voice gets deeper and gravelly when I tell crude jokes. I will debate my friends and family to the bloody end if we’re talking about something I find important (which is basically everything). I am not too cool to care and I move the space I inhabit. The acceptance of my internal substance has helped me, to some extent, embrace the external. I still, however, am confronted by the mirror. I am not as thin as I tend to imagine myself to be. I cringe at photos that haven’t edited out the excess, as I do, mentally, on a daily basis. I still often feel like there is too much of me. Sometimes, when I am hugged or when I cuddle with all my friends, I am surprised by the shape of my body. In my brain, I edit the image, flattening my stomach, slimming my thighs, creating more hollow for the space around me to inhabit. I work against this. But the mental image still never quite matches up with the actual one.
A very large part of me didn’t want to write this. I didn’t want to seem wounded or weak, or too involved in my own wounded-ness. I, in many ways, am what Leslie Jamison, in a lengthy but incredibly illuminating essay, describes as a “post-wounded woman”:
Post- wounded women make jokes about being wounded or get impatient with women who hurt too much. The post- wounded woman conducts herself as if preempting certain accusations: Don’t cry too loud; don’t play victim. Don’t ask for pain meds you don’t need; don’t give those doctors another reason to doubt. Post- wounded women fuck men who don’t love them and then they feel mildly sad about it, or just blasé about it; they refuse to hurt about it or to admit they hurt about it— or else they are endlessly self- aware about it, if they do allow themselves this hurting.
I, and so many women, am done with my pain. It is boring, we are too cool for it, it is passé. We have been told that “nobody cares” so many times we’ve internalized the sentiment. My problems are not big enough to share, or if they are big, I will seem melodramatic. I know that the physical “off-ness” I describe will not seem interesting or particularly strange to many women as it’s a sentiment many of us share and ignore. But at the same time, I believe it is incredibly important that we talk honestly about our bodies. I think that the efforts of the SHE’s in My Body Is Beautiful Week is the first step. I hope it will continue with the recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
(Photo Courtesy of Svenwerk)