August is the first month I’ve had a full length mirror in my apartment since I left the US.
At home, after carefully selecting the day’s clothes and fixing my hair and makeup, I would undertake the daily sacrificial ceremony of my reflection. The offerings? My confidence, my self esteem. Most days, my happiness.
I’ve struggled with body image my whole life. Since I was a kid i’ve been too fat, the wrong shape, wearing the wrong clothes. I remember being six and having an adult tell me I shouldn’t do ballet anymore if I was going to be the fat kid on the stage. I won’t name names, but it was someone who probably shouldn’t have made me feel like a pile of garbage before I was even old enough to know what ‘positive body image’ was.
In high school I favored a uniform of ratty jeans and oversized hoodies passed down from my brothers, in an effort to conceal the body that consistently made me feel like a monster.
In college I took on a diet competition with my freshman year roommate, in which we’d strive to undercut the amount of food the other ate. “The only thing I’ve had today is a Cliff bar,” she’d say just before we went to bed. “The only thing I’ve had today is a banana,” I’d rebut. I was mentally and physically unhealthy, but I was thin, and happier than I had ever been.
A couple of years and a change of roommate later, I settled back into a more normal relationship with food, but a much less healthy relationship with my body. Since then I’ve constantly yo-yoed, peaking over two hundred pounds, valleying back down to a semi-acceptable size.
So every day at home, I stood in front of a full length mirror and went to war with myself.
There’s a roll underneath my bra, and one above it.
My legs are fat and misshapen, and riddled with cellulite.
My arms are too big
My shoulders are too round
My stomach is protruding
My butt is too flat
My legs are too short
My hips are too wide
And then I’d retreat. Change clothes. Find something with sleeves, forget about shorts, look for baggy, stick with oversized. I’d hide myself from the world, and my confidence would plummet and shatter all over my bedroom floor.
When I got to my mirrorless Prague apartment and realized I had no way of seeing how my body looked, I was terrified. I spent my first day obsessing about my appearance, wishing people would stop looking at me, hoping they weren’t judging me for being so grotesque.
I hated how warm it was. Summer has always been the worst- how can I explain why I’m in long pants and a sweater? Can I act like I’m not hot? How do I hide the sweat that creeps onto my face?
I had settled on a tight black dress for little day, and spent 11 hours sucking in my stomach as hard as I could and retying my flannel around my waist to hide the most unsightly of the rolls.
Eventually I made friends with my fellow remotes. A couple of weeks passed, and I started telling myself, “they’ve seen me, they know, there’s no point in trying to hide it anymore.” I wore more of what I wanted, but with the unyielding assumption that I was disgusting, my only justification for my outfit choices being the theory that my repulsiveness had already driven away those who would be swayed by it. I settled into the role I’ve always played: the ugly girl who acts like she doesn’t care if she’s attractive. I couldn’t fix the impression I had made. I accepted my lack of desirability.
One day when I wore shorts I caught myself in a full length mirror in a bar bathroom, and I cried. There were my legs, with all their lumps and bumps out on display. They were hideous to me. They’re still hideous to me. I was struck with a wave of nausea, and bile rose in my throat. I quickly gulped and breathed, splashed water on my face so I wouldn’t look red, and crept back into the bar to excuse myself, avoiding bright lights and open spaces the whole way. “I’m tired,” I told my friends, “I’m going to head home.”
And I really was tired. It’s exhausting, hating every inch of your own body. I wanted to sleep forever. I wanted my bed to swallow me. How could I have let the world see me like this?
For all the distress it caused, however, that day freed me.
My friends had seen the part of me I considered to be my worst, and they hadn’t rejected me for it. No one had whispered behind my back. They still texted me the next day to make plans. I was ok. As ok as a hollow, sad person completely absorbed in self-loathing could be. Once I had been seen, I realized there was no going back. Maybe I was gross legs girl now, but at least I was gross legs girl with friends. And if they didn’t care, maybe I could take a break from detesting myself for awhile.
In the weeks that followed, I felt less and less like a prisoner in my body. We moved to Serbia. It was even hotter there than it was in Prague, and I had even fewer reflective surfaces in my Belgrade apartment than I did before. I was confident enough to keep wearing the one pair of shorts I brought with me, and to buy another. I didn’t care if my dress was a little too short. I never looked at myself. What would be the point? I knew that I would never be good enough for me, but I seemed to be good enough for the people around me. That was ok, for the moment.
My confidence started to blossom and grow again. Perhaps that’s what comes with knowing your value isn’t entirely governed by your appearance. Perhaps that’s what happens when you surround yourself with amazing, accepting people.
One day in Serbia I wore a romper to a cafe. I ventured to the bathroom and was greeted with a massive, full length mirror, complete with a couple of harsh downlights.
And there I was.
My skin had been bad ever since I started sweating my ass off in Serbia, and I could see every flaw on my face.
The neckline felt unflattering to my arms.
The shorts showed every inch of leg cellulite in glorious, high definition detail.
I was completely paralyzed. I wanted to leave, to excuse myself, to go home where no one could look at me.
Then I breathed for a second. The friends who were there with me had already looked at me, and leaving in that moment wouldn’t change that. My roommate had told me I looked nice that morning. Everyone had greeted me just like they always did, with no malice or mockery. I looked at myself again, and suddenly all the flaws receded a little.
I walked away from that mirror, carefully holding the fragile pieces of my self-esteem together until I could escape from my reflection.
By the time I made it back to my table, I felt strong again. It was the first time I had gone to war with a mirror and won, and that victory snaked around me like armor.
My apartment in London came with a big old full length mirror, and the tiny size of my bedroom means I’m reflected in it pretty much 100% of the time.
Colder weather means I get to cover up, but I don’t relish the feeling of hiding my skin like I used to. When I threw my romper and sundresses into the space under my bed, I was actually a little sad. For the first time in my life, I had started understanding what people meant about hating real pants. Jeans felt like leg prisons. Saying goodbye to my summer wardrobe for the month meant saying goodbye to the breezy, pleasant comfort that came with wearing as little as possible.
Despite my new ability to quiet the panic that comes with seeing myself, every morning I stand in front of my full length mirror and take in every flaw that comes with being me. There are a lot of them. It takes real, valuable time out of my day. Sometimes I change my outfit. Sometimes I do it more than once. I never used to do that when I didn’t have my reflection to contend with.
They say you’re supposed to cut negative influences out of your life- mine is an object. A stupid thing that I can get rid of in the blink of an eye. I’m thinking of hanging a sheet over that mirror. Sorry in advance for what will surely devolve back into the disheveled appearance you’ve all come to know and love over the last couple of months.
So here’s to my rolls, and protrusions, and cellulite, and big arms, and round shoulders, and short legs. I hope you can all find a way to accept them, and in turn help me find a way to accept myself.