When I was 23-years-old, I walked into a funhouse. I am now 28 and I still haven’t found my way out. The mazes are supposed to be easy to escape, right? Children go in there all the time and giggle at their misshapen selves, flopping their arms and sticking their tongues out.
But for me, the mirrors are the ones that are cackling. They distort my head and body like I’m on a bad acid trip I can never come down from. Fresh out of the shower, I stand in front of each funhouse mirror, examining its particular brand of evil. Whose body is this and who has invaded mine? One mirror enlarges my love handles until they’re all I can see. Great white sharks swallowing my self-esteem. I suppose I must have missed the memo on what there is to love.
Another mirror amplifies my stretch marks on the backs of my thighs, a gigantic magnifying glass held by the gods of insecurity. I rub firming lotion on them, praying that it will be my elixir. Perhaps I can erase them like profanity on a whiteboard. But it turns out they’re written in permanent marker.
A third reflection reveals my bloated face, the swollen jowls where my jaw line used to be. I suck on the inside of my cheeks to reveal my cheekbones. I remind myself to make a coffee mask. That may take away some of the bloating. Maybe I will finally feel pretty.
The last looking glass shows pouches of fat where my six-pack used to be. I squeeze it between my pointer finger and thumb, imagining a knife in my other hand. It feels cool against my palm. I imagine running it along each section of fat, flirting with my bare skin. I get closer and closer each time. I think of Tyler Durden and all the soap he could make. I drop the imaginary knife in the sink and step on the scale. 135 pounds. That can’t be right. I stare at myself and see 250.
I look around. There are exit signs all around, none of which will liberate me. Try as I may to escape, I feel stranded in front of my own face.
I open the bottom drawer containing the starter kit for body dysmorphia and pull out a bottle that says “Thermo active serum. For abdomen and buttocks. Used for the treatment of the appearance of cellulite.” I’m not even sure if I have any cellulite, but better start combatting it now, just in case. For those of you who have never fallen victim to this particular Amazon suggestion, this product feels as if the imaginary gods have taken that humongous magnifying glass out on a hot, sunny day and set fire to every one of your fat cells. Once applied, I wash my hands and stand there waiting for the molten lava to cool down. The mirror snarls and I snarl back. The pain feels good.
Once dry, I head to my bedroom to get dressed. There are reminders of my college basketball career all around me. Navy practice shorts and jersey. Lebron sneakers. Countless pairs of tall socks, in nearly every color. I put on my 2011 basketball outfit like self-confidence is a dress you can slip into whenever you’re feeling down. But I don’t feel any different. The rolls don’t melt away. My skin doesn’t tighten. I wonder if I worked out hard enough today, if I should run a few more miles.
I close my eyes and try to remember the invincibility of the first 22 years of my life. Being the youngest child traveling from my brother’s basketball games to my sister’s ice skating lessons, fast food quickly became a staple in my diet. This habit persisted throughout high school, where I would regularly binge on McDonald’s or Burger King before soccer or basketball games and still somehow manage to perform at a peak level.
In college, we ran sprint after sprint at practice, pushing ourselves until our legs nearly collapsed. Afterward, my teammates and I walked to the school cafeteria and worship the art of the buffet-style meal. One cheeseburger, two pieces of pizza, nachos with the works, chicken wings, and a waffle if it was still early. I shoveled the food down, not once wondering whether the cheeseburger and pizza slices would both store themselves in my hips, or if one would choose my belly instead.
Then there was Edward 40-hands, in which we’d tape 40’s to our hands and weren’t allowed to remove them until we finished both bottles. Or how about Power Hour, the dreadful game involving taking a shot of beer every minute? College was a whirlwind of endless beer and encouragement to keep drinking. Wednesdays there were 75 cent drinks at the local college bar, Thursdays were $1 drinks at the same classy establishment, and so on. There was always an excuse to drink and drink heavily. There was a reason that colleges across the country referred to the weight gain in a student’s first year as the “Freshman 15.” The term never even crossed my mind.
Thoughts about weight gain would have been absurd to me. I didn’t consider my body very often, except when I tore my ACL in my knee and put on a few pounds. I can remember whining and calling myself fat but not really meaning it. It was just one of those things you learned to say as a female growing up in a world plagued by ridiculous fad diets, miracle weight loss pills, and liposuction.
“I’m so fat.”
“My ass looks gross in this dress.”
“Ugh, my thighs are huge.”
“Can you see my love handles?”
But those were just words to me. In reality, I never truly had body image issues. My vision wasn’t impaired, my mind was clear, and I knew I looked healthy and perfectly fine.
But that was then and this is now, and the mind has a funny way of changing, of contorting over the years. Those gluttonous meals were replaced with salads and a compulsive avoidance of carbs. The workouts designed to increase strength and endurance were replaced with high-intensity, fat-burning exercises also known as torture devices. Glancing at a menu became painful, scanning the page for something I wouldn’t feel guilty about for hours or even days after. Watching my friends order desserts became a one-woman spectator sport I could never win.
This is my hell.
And if I think about it, there was no sudden shift or fall. My descent into hell was gradual. Each month was a step down the dark and murky stairwell, each mirror was a grotesque photograph hanging on the wall, and every insult aimed at myself was the monster’s coaxing call. And follow his call I did.
I don’t really remember the descent so well. I was in sort of a trance, hypnotized by an inch here, an inch there, chub rub, and reflections that wouldn’t stop screaming.
I don’t really remember the descent so well. I just know that when I arrived, the first thing I asked was if they had a treadmill I could use.