I’m standing in front of that full length mirror again, the one behind the door, staring at my reflection with my head cocked to the side. From this angle things don’t look so bad. The shadows in this corner of the room cloud the bumps and cellulite I know have taken up permanent residence on my thighs; they have since my late college days, though they took a bit of a break during my reckless mid-twenties, but have made a comeback and appear comfortable enough to stay for the long haul.
I turn to the left and suck in my stomach, a little pouch that has become a fixture since the birth of my daughter. It’s not so bad, I think. It could be worse. I’m 35, lazy, and the kind of working mom who doesn’t really prioritize exercise in favor of an extra 30 minutes of sleep. I read the fitness blogs, flip through advice in magazine pages, and set my alarm clock every morning for enough time to work in a decent exercise plan and a shower before getting everyone else ready for their day. But the truth is, I’ll take the sleep any day of the week over a flatter stomach or slimmer thighs. Though you’d think otherwise if you sat in my head long enough to hear my inner dialog for even five minutes out of any given day at any given time. (You should hear me in a fitting room.)
Up and down, from my polished toes to the top of my slightly graying mane, I squint, turn, exhale, and inhale once more. It doesn’t matter the angle, I’m equal parts impressed and disappointed. If I’d just exercise a little I’d be just fine. I’m short enough to be petite and pretty if I’d care to lose those 30 minutes in the morning. No taller than my mother who measures an even 5' 0", I’m a more slender version of she, with flabby teacher arms and a dimpled ass, the kind that might have been forgivable if I were 22. But I’m 35 and at this point, it’s just average, which might have been ok somewhere in the Midwest in a small town with a normal job. But I live in Miami and cover beauty and fashion for a living — a job that once seemed glamorous and covetable but now just makes me feel vapid and out of place.
I suck in my stomach once more and curve my body in that way I’ve seen models do on photo shoots when they’re trying to convince the camera they’re naturally shaped that jaggedly. I hold my breath and for a second, with the right squint, peering through my long, dark lashes, I feel ok. But when I let it go I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the second full-length mirror I keep across the room and I see myself again — short, round, haphazardly kept. And too damn lazy to do a thing about it. Lies, I let out under my breath. All lies.
I remember the mirror in my sunlit Key West hotel room, the one with the ocean view and the twenty-somethings traipsing around just below my window in bikinis by the pool, and remember how I cried because I’d only packed shorts and mini dresses (save for one pair of backup jeans) because I’d had a body-proud moment while packing in front of these two deceptive, dark-enough, strategically placed mirrors. My husband held me and I spent the weekend in a half-drunk stupor flaunting my dimpled ass through the rainbow-striped intersections of Duval Street. And I wondered what I’d tell my daughter.
I wondered if she’d ever have these moments, these internal bashings and pep talks, these come-to-Jesus moments I have every time I need to put on anything that skims my knees. These long conversations in the mirror I have to factor into my “getting ready” routine every single time I need to pull on something other than black yoga pants and a forgiving tunic.
I think of myself in the 4th grade, crouching by my desk to store my books before running out to Phys Ed and for the first time realizing the spread of my thighs in full view for everyone to see. Had they always noticed?
And I remember the time just after that, entering the seventh grade, drastically slimmer following a summer of braces that made it too painful to eat and a growth spurt that put curves and indentations in all the right places. My mother had whispered to her best friend how relieved she was that I’d finally slimmed down. She had all but given up on me years before, leaving me to dress not unlike an overweight boy when her patience ran thin in the dressing rooms meant for much more delicate girls. I vowed to myself never to make my daughter feel this way, so inherently disappointing.
She appears, just around the corner of the door, and peeks her head in, looking up at me with those big brown eyes. Her lashes are just like mine, long and dark. She’ll never need even a wisp of mascara in her entire life, but I wonder if she’ll have a drawer full of shapewear in every variety solely dedicated to taming the ripples of her thighs. I doubt it. She’s so much better than me. So much more optimistic. So perfectly made. And I silently pray that she’ll think better of herself.
I remember crying on the bed of the ultrasound room, hands pressed hard against my face, when the technician proudly announced, “It’s a girl!” My husband wept with joy and put his arms around me while I thought over and over, What the fuck am I going to do with a girl?
She’s here now, peering up at me, and giggling a little as she slips by the cracked door and hugs my leg with her full body. She turns her little head and rests her face on my thigh, an aptly shaped cushion she enjoys sleeping on most nights. When she lets go, she smacks my bare butt, laughing as she runs away. This is her favorite game, catching me in my bra and underwear to playfully slap me and throw her head back in laughter as she flees. She doesn’t care what size it is or that it’s dimpled and soft. She only knows it belongs to Mommy and makes for some serious amusement.
One more look, one more sideways glance, and I sigh as I turn away. I begin to pull on a long skirt and fitted top. My husband comes up from behind and hugs his arms around my waist. I feel his breath on my neck as he rests his head on my shoulder. I breathe in and close my eyes, enjoying the moment. I have it all and it’s all I can do to reduce it to that relentless monolog. I can’t remember any other way. And it sickens me. “You look great,” he says before letting go. And I know he means it. And for a second, I try to believe it, too.
It’s the only thing I’ve ever known. The comparison, the self-doubt, the morbid insecurity — they’ve all been with me for as long as I can remember looking in the mirror and feeling so deflated. And I pray so hard, just like I always did growing up and into this skin, silently and with my eyes closed tightly, Please, God, please let me be happy. And I hate myself for caring and letting it weigh so heavily upon me. I hate the way it makes me feel, the way it makes me defensive, the way it negates every other wonderful thing I’ve ever done or been a part of.
One last look in the mirror, now fully dressed and with high heels on, perfume lightly lingering on my skin, skirt flowing around me, jewelry glistening on my wrist. Every hair is in place, makeup buffed and carefully applied. And on my 35th birthday, on the other side of this door, is everything that should matter instead. I dim the lights, watch my reflection darken and fade, and swing back the door, chin up and shoulders back.