Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Stranger in the Mirror

I was 15, a sophomore in high school. I had a penchant for knee-high rainbow socks worn with combat boots and florescent laces, for my brother’s baggy hand-me-down Levi’s, hems dirty and shredded, for a ragged blue hoodie so decrepit with age that my mother begged me endlessly to throw it out. I raced from class to class, shouting greetings to friends across the quad, a tiny blur of white-blonde hair streaking across campus. I was an honors student, involved in sports, clubs and theatre. My teachers called me Sunshine. I was happy.

Aside from constantly bemoaning my pale skin, I had never given much thought about what I looked like. Having grown up a gangly, tree-climbing tomboy, I was fairly content with what I saw in the mirror. After spending most of my life thinking that my scrawny, awkward self was as good as it would get, puberty had come as a pleasant surprise. Could be worse, I figured.

I was dating (if such a term can be applied to holding hands at lunchtime) a younger boy a year behind me in school. He had a mischievous grin, fluffy hair that flirtatious cheerleaders loved to ruffle, and he strode the halls with his bag slung jauntily over his thin shoulders.

We hadn’t been a couple long when one day, out by the tennis courts, he pulled me close, kissed me breezily, leaned his head against mine and said "You know, you would have such a great body if only you had a smaller waist."

After school, I raced headlong into my poster-bedecked bedroom, flung my backpack in a corner, and discarded all of my clothes. I stood naked in front of my full-length mirror, the same one I had danced in front of that morning, blaring mid-90s pop and lipsynching my heart out. As I stood examining myself, I suddenly realized in a sinking rush of anxiety that he was right. I twisted and turned, eyes raking every inch, appraising, aware. All that pale, pasty skin...where was my waist? And what was wrong with my calves? How about that squishy part on my inner thigh? The soft curve of my hipbone looked foreign - I wanted hollows. How had I not noticed all of my flaws?

At 16, I began modeling. After I had my first San Francisco photo shoot, my mother took me to Johnny Rockets on Chestnut Street to celebrate. Walking in with my hair curled and coiffed, chapped lips freshly glossed, I searched my pockets for nickels to plug into the mini jukeboxes on the counters. Pressing the smudged keys, I played myself my favorites - The Ronettes, Elvis, The Beach Boys. I wish they all could be California girls... Sitting on the red leather stool next to my elegant, confident mother, I was glamorous and mature in my pancake photo shoot make-up. We ordered burgers, extra-crispy fries and thick vanilla shakes, giggling, planning, conspiring together. Just the girls - us versus the world.

A year later, I returned home after a summer at theatre school before my senior year. In my month away I had feasted on cafeteria food, my roommate and I smuggling fat bagels and Rice Krispie treats to our dorm for midnight snacks, hitting up the vending machine for Red-Hots on our way to class. The week of my arrival home, I visited my photographer in San Francisco to add new pictures to my portfolio. The studio was deep in the garment district in a crumbling building with a maze of high-ceilinged cavernous hallways. Between shots, I changed into a new outfit in the small dressing room and overheard a conversation in the next room.

"She looks great. She’s gained some weight. Needed to, she was so thin."
There was a sigh, a strained chuckle, and my mother.
"Oh. Well. We’re working on that. We’re trying to lose it."

Naked in the dressing room, one leg halfway into a pair of palazzo pants, ear against the door, I sighed too. I hadn’t realized it, but I was holding my breath.

Eleven years later, there is still no telling what I will see when I look in the mirror. At 15, something broke in my mind, and suddenly I was covered in flaws which since that moment have taunted me daily. I am dimly aware that the person reflected back at me is not the same person that the rest of the world sees. Every day I fight to know this.

In college, I ran into the old boyfriend. We had somehow ended up at the same university, and I saw him wandering past the bookstore one day, cotton candy tufts of hair tousled by the ocean breeze. He called out to me, gave me a hug, told me how great it was to see me, that he’d love to find some time to catch up.

I looked at him, standing on the steps of the campus center in the mid-afternoon sun. I saw the years of struggle and dysfunction. I saw the obsession, the fixation that was bigger and brighter than me. I saw myself at 15, and I saw a little boy in front of me.

"Do you remember what you said to me in high school?"
As I relayed his teenage critique of my pubescent shape, his eyes squinted, then widened. He laid his hands on my shoulders, looked into my eyes and said "I am so sorry. You are absolutely beautiful."

And sometimes, more now than ever, I know he’s right.

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