Alyssa Milano smiles from behind me. Mia Hamm in her college uniform is here, too, looking strong and serious, concentrating on a point just beyond my shoulder.
The whole female cast of “Beverly Hills, 90210” gazes past me and into the mirror and Sheryl Swoopes in her Texas Tech uniform stares intently just above my head, her body sweaty and intense.
I am eleven-years-old, standing in front of my bedroom mirror.
It is a full-length mirror that hangs from my closet door. Images of women surround me: athletes and beautiful characters from TV. The posters cover my peach walls; those diverse and womanly forms greeting my eyeballs each day as I wake and get dressed for school. Right now, I have half an hour to get ready.
While the sun cuts soft slants of yellow light across my carpet, I stand naked in front of my mirror, astonished by what I see.
My body has started to grow.
My incoming breasts jut out at awkward angles, like goofy eyeballs looking askance. My belly button caves into my stomach too much, emphasizing the lump of my belly that has started to plump. And what I can’t take my eyes off of is the small tuft of pubic hair that has just started to grow. When did that happen? When did this belly appear? I stand, naked, unable to look away from this body that resembles an alien’s head. The breasts as eyes, the belly button as a nose, and the pubic hair as a puckered mouth. The women on my walls stare at me in the mirror. I stare at myself, eyes widening at the sight of this alien body.
I am disgusted, aghast. I do not recognize this as my own. This body that is not something I find attractive, strong. I tear my eyes off of the reflection of myself, compare what I have seen with the images of Sheryl Swoopes and Mia Hamm, how their bodies are muscular, admirable, perfect. These things are not me. I glance back at my body and that alien face stares back.
I stand on the edge of my bathtub before I hop in the shower. It has been eighteen years since I first witnessed the alien in the mirror. I am now approaching thirty years old, and here I am again, naked in front of a mirror.
Each morning after my run, I scrutinize my naked body before showering. The bathroom mirror stops mid-abdomen, so in order to see everything, I stand on the edge of the bathtub, holding onto the shower curtain rod to keep myself balanced. Can I see my ribcage poking through my skin?
With one arm raised holding onto the rod, I take a deep breath and look for my ribs. Next, I flex my arms, trying to see if the muscles are toned. I move my gaze down to my hips and squint at the stretch marks there. Three crawl around the right side of my body and four longer lines show themselves on my left. The bright lights above the mirror do nothing to hide these white lines. I look at my face, pulling my sight away from the hips that disgust me, and see that my brow is furrowing, an unpleasant look that makes my eyebrows look bushier. This, I hate.
I look at my face, pulling my sight away from the hips that disgust me, and see that my brow is furrowing, an unpleasant look that makes my eyebrows look bushier. This, I hate.
I keep checking out my body, inventorying its attributes to see if anything has changed for the better. The yellow tiled wall behind me fades into the background as I tabulate the details. Dark distracting mole above belly button. Small breasts and tiny nose barely able to be seen. Ridiculously tiny ears. Wide, veiny feet. The hated protrusion of hips, of upper thighs. Embarrassing freckles speckled on my skin. The stomach that swells too much. The regretful lines of scars on my arms, grotesque souvenirs from a few years back when I made permanent tally marks for moments that felt too hard. The looking is becoming too much for me. I pull my sight away from the mirror, disappointed, as always.
Next to the mirror in my childhood bedroom is a picture of my sister and me from the first day of school. I’m starting fourth grade, she’s in seventh. In the picture, her legs are lean and toned, and her fourteen-year-old breasts have already grown into mature forms. I stand next to her, the awkward younger sister: lopsided smile, freckled face, bushy eyebrows and bulging knees. My sister is wearing denim cut-offs, and the angles of her knees are perfect, sharp, precise. I turn to the mirror, to my own legs, the flesh that is starting to grow near the kneecaps, the skin that is too soft.
My sister is wearing denim cut-offs, and the angles of her knees are perfect, sharp, precise. I turn to the mirror, to my own legs, the flesh that is starting to grow near the kneecaps, the skin that is too soft.
Out in the world, I am constantly looking at other women, constantly taken aback by their beautiful, complete forms. Women with enticing curves (my sister). Women with huggable skin (my mother). Butch women (my softball coach). Femme women (my teacher). Women with grace (my favorite actresses), women with strength (my favorite athletes), women with a sense of confidence and wisdom about them (my grandmother), women who walk around this world as if they own themselves, this place. This is how I see women: each different, each beautiful.
And then I look back at me. I am not any of these women. I doubt I ever will be.
As I step down from the bathtub, I wonder how other people see me, if they compare me to their own bodies. What it is I think they see: a stocky body with too-big thighs. A woman always stumbling over herself, who is convinced that she is ungraceful and always doing things in the wrong way. Distracting bushy eyebrows and a nose so small it gets lost on this face. A body like a sack of potatoes. Glancing back into the mirror, I stare into the blue eyes that have stared back at me for as long as I’ve been alive, eyes that have assessed this body my entire life.
Standing there, I get the urge to see all of my body all at once, to view it with just my eyes—not with my subjective perception, my history of self-hatred, my judgments.
Standing there, I get the urge to see all of my body all at once, to view it with just my eyes—not with my subjective perception, my history of self-hatred, my judgments. I want to really see the truth through these blue eyes, to look objectively at my physical self.
I have an idea.
The eyes are surprisingly easy to pull out. Like hard-boiled eggs, they are soft but firm, holding their form but bending to the touch. The bathroom darkens for a second; I feel my eyeballs rolling in my palm, and extend my arm. The eyes blink open. In the periphery of their vision is my forearm full of scars. The scars no longer look like guilt or shame. They are simply facts of injury, growth, and regeneration.
The stretch marks of my hips indicate that I am an adult, a woman who has experienced this world and this body for many years. I see distinguishing freckles, a stomach that looks full, happy, and arms that are the perfect size for how I use them. I scan the facts of my body with my eyeballs in my hand, bypassing the mirror and looking at this form, alive and beautiful.
The eyes continue to scroll over my flesh, and I am surprised to see my sister’s body—the form I always thought embodied perfection. I thought I looked nothing like her, my body too cumbersome to move with her confident grace. But with these eyeballs in my hand, with the screen of self-doubt removed, and without the brain that always tells me not good enough, I see our physical similarities in the particular angle of my knee.
I observe, also, the smallness of my mother’s breasts and our exact same wide feet. I see my grandmother’s button nose and my aunt’s bushy eyebrows. I see these amazing reminders of where I came from, the facts that make me who I am. For a moment, I am confused. Just a second ago, I saw these things through the mirror and I was disgusted. Now, eyeballs in hand, I see these elements as acceptable, beautiful even. I stand, staring at my body without the use of a mirror, and I consider how I never thought I could pull off this sort of beauty. I thought I was born to be ugly. That is what the mirror always seemed to confirm: that my body was a grotesque, alien form. But when I hold my eyeballs in my hand, I see a body that fits itself perfectly, from the complimentary features of my face to the strong feet that have carried me far.
I observe, also, the smallness of my mother’s breasts and our exact same wide feet. I see my grandmother’s button nose and my aunt’s bushy eyebrows. I see these amazing reminders of where I came from…
For twenty-nine years I turned to the mirror in order to judge my self-worth. What I now realize is that the mirror has always contained a fractured reflection and that my image in a mirror has always been something to scrutinize. But now the mirror is no longer threatening; it is just a reflection. The filter of self-loathing has been removed, and I simply see me.
Pushing my eyes into their sockets, I climb back onto the edge of the bathtub. The body is there, a stable thing, a 5’4” collection of bones, blood, and flesh. Instead of seeing my ass as unseemly lumps, I see the playful bubble of my butt. I don’t suck in my stomach. There is no need to. I can see my body as lovely in its natural state, naked and relaxed. It is the body that carries my soul through the world, it my very own body, alive.