Content Warning: This story contains a character with an eating disorder.
“Do I really look like that?”
The reflection in the mirror mouths her words back to her and they taste heavy. Laden with the three blemishes lining her jaw. With the offensive slouch of her right eyelid, contrasting the perfect upright contour of her left. With the unbearable disarray of her brows. She read once that people perceive themselves to be three times more attractive than they actually are as a matter of survival. There are some things that she wishes she did not know.
She believes that to be in harmony with oneself is to be irresistible, to be symmetrical like a perfect living geometry. Utterly inhuman and divine as art itself, transcendent of this life. It is healthy to want to be more, she thinks, to aim yourself upwards. Her slouching lid twitches in the mirror. She is not what she wants to be, and her reflection confirms it.
“Do I really look like that?” she says again.
A frown from the mirror.
“I suppose I do. It’ll have to do.”
There is a party tonight and she has spent the past hour pinning her hair into a tidy nest on her head and evening out her skin tone with different powders. With golden lids and eyelashes like hung drapery, she imagines herself to be Cleopatra, impenetrable, although she isn’t. She likes to dress up because it is a way of reimagining herself, and she has always had a creative streak that causes her to write poetry in her journals and find blood blooming from a fresh cut romantic. She clasps a gold chain around her neck and completes the costume of herself.
The small glimmering diamond pendant that was her grandmother’s comes to rest in the intimate valley of flatness at the center of her chest. Odd that this is one of her favorite places on her body. It may be something about the way that it persists against time, a natural rebellion as the rest of her body has given way to the swell of womanhood. Her breasts hang now at nineteen and her hips sometimes feel like that of a horse or some other grand beast, in the way that she is too aware of how they sway and throw her entire body into an accidental seduction.
She remembers when she was little, how her aunt had consoled her when she suffered over her adolescent loneliness. She would lament in an anguish genuine that no boys liked her much. Her Aunt Tess explained that the magic was in the hips, and that one day she wouldn’t even have to think about it and boys would trail her like bumbling pups. Aunt Tess had been very beautiful, she knew from the photo albums. And now she herself had arrived at this place of easy sex and such visibility, such palpable and quantifiable attraction. She is relieved and hates herself for being so aware. She knows exactly the weight of her vanity; an online post of her face will be rewarded with one hundred and fifty or so likes, while a photo which displays the slender angles of her neck, the curvature of her spine or clavicle, will have an easy return of three hundred.
Her worth is known.
In many ways, the woman that she now is has betrayed the girl that she was and does so every day with her hard walk and high gaze. It is in a woman’s nature to destroy her inner girl, to gobble her up entirely and dab the corners of her mouth in a most coquettish fashion, so as not to smudge her ruby grin. The girl remains yet, though, like a set of bleached fossils in the burgeoning woman’s soul. It is this girl who cries for bygone times, who brings tears to the woman’s eyes as she looks in the mirror and does not recognize herself. The woman does so love her residual flatness, though, that place where her heart resides just below, the forever songbird nestled in her ribcage. It is a place which has always been flat, which always will be no matter what.
She moves from the small mirror at her desk which she uses for makeup and more intimate appraisals to the long mirror attached to her closet door, which displays the full length of her body. Somewhere between large and small, thin and wide, she finds herself fully unremarkable at best. Accessories are her savior, and she adorns a belt which cinches her waist to accentuate those important, damned hips. Her jeans are faded blue, a softened material which looks as if they may have been found in the recesses of her mother’s wardrobe. Her mother did not keep old things, though, so this pair was bought for $59.99 at a local boutique. The woman who sold her the jeans had insisted, “These will do amazing things for your figure!” The jeans are a style shaped for “curvy” girls.
She is a “curvy” girl.
But the saleswoman was all teeth and did not smile with her eyes at all. The girl suspected that the saleswoman did not think she could pull the jeans off and in no way believed that they would flatter her. Women who smiled with their teeth and no eyes were sharks, the girl knew. She did not become fully aware of the saleswoman’s false kindness until after she bought the pants and left, though. Without meaning to, the girl had been swept up in the social game that anonymous strangers play in such situations; she often succumbs to this without meaning to, and in such moments feels herself switch to a chattering autopilot without even realizing. She grins back at the world equally with excessive teeth and no eyes.
Only once the moment has passed and her facial muscles return to a normal, less twitching state does she realize that she had been completely outside of herself and had not truly interacted with anybody. Two imagined people having an imagined conversation, a Seller and a Buyer, not a she and a her at all. Not a self, but a creature so heavily masked that she cannot find the seam to peel it from her face.
Every time she feels this happen, she resolves to truly inhabit herself and be better next time. She craves so deeply to inhabit her body but always fails to remember certain spaces: her toes, fingers, forehead, for example. Ever out of harmony with herself, and it shows. Sometimes she forgets altogether how to act, how to form words, how to play the human part. A dull fish stare takes over her face and nothing but bubbles bloom in her head, and whoever her partner is eventually realizes that this round of the game has been ruined, and then they apologize because they’ve got to be going now.
She has aspirations to surpass herself. To conjoin her selves. To destroy her selves. To become one, true, impenetrable image of herself. She doesn’t really know what that means. She just knows that the different faces she wears occasionally don’t settle well, and it makes her sick enough to lose her appetite.
Some days she does not eat at all because her appetite cannot be found, and these are good days. The growl of her stomach is a comfort for the way it cannot touch her mind, does not make her want to eat or feel, and when this happens she smiles triumphantly at everyone she encounters and the game is easy. Her hunger resounds from her as an ethereal sense of power and her hollowness confirms that she is in control of herself, finally. These are happy days. They become sad days only retrospectively, when she feels sick from fatigue, too much bitter success. Today is just this sort of happy day, and it is in fact the third happy day in a small marathon of them. Her last meal was 72 hours ago—a delicious granny smith apple (73 g) and a piece of toast (45 g) with peanut butter (28 g). A total of 146 grams or 373 calories; the exact weight of her sins can be measured and known on the kitchen scale. 146 grams of weakness, 146 grams of failure, of fresh fat seared to her bones. If she thinks about it too much, she feels sick. Sometimes she vomits.
Those 146 grams combined with the elation she feels for the party tonight have been more than enough fuel to keep her going, and she feels beautiful. Sort of. In the full-length mirror, she observes herself with sharp eyes and finds that her collarbones are nicely contoured, her eyes wide and haunting. Her hips are still wide, but they don’t seem bulbous right now. The mirror relays that she is not fat, but it only does this when her stomach is churning and shrunken. Her ribs protrude gorgeously when she lifts her shirt and arches her back, and she breathes easier seeing them. She takes out her phone and snaps a few pictures of herself: one from the front, one from the side.
Tonight, she will be drinking at the party, and she knows she should eat something so she doesn’t get sick. Not the puking kind of sick, but the passing out in the corner, heart racing kind of sick that makes people, including herself, afraid. She doesn’t want anyone to become worried for a number of reasons: she doesn’t want to be a bother to anyone, and she doesn’t want to “get better” yet. She has to get worse before she can get better. She has goals. But she is not stupid, and she knows she has to eat something.
There are some foods which the mirror deems safe. These foods include popcorn, nonfat yogurt, and chocolate covered pretzels. She decides she will have a handful of popcorn and a few chocolate-covered pretzels because she’s done so well that she can afford a treat, and chocolate is her favorite. The popcorn is just for volume.
She sits cross-legged in front of the mirror and watches herself eat one piece of popcorn at a time. The mirrored reflection observes her coldly while she chews and it makes it hard to swallow. Like stage fright. The reflection seems to threaten that one wrong move could make her swell like a balloon, and then she would look nothing like Cleopatra. One bite too many and she will transform from powerful seductress, bearer of the hips, to a gelatinous cow, one of those castaways on a commercial dairy farm that have trembling haunches teeming with flies and the promise of a half-life. She chugs some water to help flush the popcorn down and then counts 5 chocolate covered pretzels from the bag. The mirror has eyes like broken glass.
She puts the first pretzel in her mouth and chews, slowly. She moans, actually moans, and the mirror does too. Just one won’t hurt, and neither will two. The sugar hits her bloodstream like ecstasy and she may as well have mainlined the pretzels because she’s in euphoria and her eyes are closed. The reflection is gone for now, and the frenzy begins.
Two pretzels become four and now she’s chewing with all abandon. The pretzels are sliding down her throat, and she loves the way that they feel. Every swallow brings a new rush as her esophagus bulges, writhes, squeezes the bites down like a masterful anaconda. She doesn’t want it to end, so when she finishes the portion of five in her palm she leaps for the bag and takes more, more, more. Minutes later the bag is empty, and her stomach is in agony, too empty gone too full. She doesn’t want to look in the mirror, but she has to.
Her eyes prick with tears. All at once, she is transformed. Her collarbones are feeble lines coated in thick, fatty skin, and she finds it hard to believe that she has ribs at all. Her thighs are tree trunks, not youthful saplings but the gargantuan monsters of an old-growth forest. Her hips—her hips!—could scarcely fit in the seat of her car at this point. She knows how her fat spreads when she sits, and now it will spread too far and she will become nothing but a trembling puddle of shame. The mirror insists that her face is bloated and round, and she thinks she looks like a sad, pitiful creature. She looks like a full moon that has decked itself in garland for an astronaut landing party, only they will never arrive because, well, the moon is that awkward girl who self-respecting people avoid eye contact with, instead orbiting the lithe creatures who shed light like the sun. She looks down at her hand and her fingers are the most grotesque, odd sausages. Her painted nails look like a sorry effort to improve a hopeless situation, then she notices that there is chocolate left on her fingertips, under her nails. Bile rises in her throat. She runs to the bathroom and shoves her chocolate coated fingers into her mouth, feeling for that sweet spot to open the floodgates and reverse the damage.
She vomits until she is empty again.
When it is all over, she returns to the mirror. She is shaking and defeated. The mirror looks at her grimly. The reflection still looks huge and bloated, but slightly less monstrous. She doesn’t understand how she can change so quickly, but the mirror insists upon her transformation. She takes out her phone again and takes more pictures: again, one from the front, one from the side. As well as these, she takes one of just her hand, of her upper thigh, of her naked breasts, and of the backs of her ankles, which is a difficult angle to capture. She sits down again in front of the mirror and analyzes.
First, she looks at the photos she took from before the pretzels, when she was certainly thin, powerful, beautiful. And there she is, not looking fat or anything. It’s a relief to see this vision of herself. Next, she pulls up the photos that she has just taken of her new sorry state. She swipes back and forth between the two photos, before and after, the same angle, the same girl. She compares them with scrutiny. They look almost exactly the same.
She looks at the photos she has taken of her various body parts then. Removed from the rest of her body, from her immediate mind, she realizes that they are not as large as they are in the mirror. It is a relief to see this, and she breathes a bit easier. She isn’t sure whether the mirror or the photograph is more trustworthy, but photographs are kinder. Her thigh is quite small, normal at the very worst when it is frozen in time and space. The back of her ankle has an encouraging contour which shows that she does not have enough excess fat, or perhaps the right build, to have those mortifying cankles. When she chops herself up like this and looks at the bits and pieces, she feels much smaller and more manageable. More easily digestible.
She moves the photos she has just taken into a special photo album on her phone which requires a password to access. Inside, there are hundreds of photos of her dismembered body. A bicep here, her jawline there. She keeps these photos nearby so that when the mirror begins to scream, she can remind herself of what else she might be. There is a relief in seeing herself as series of complete objects instead of a fractured person. Just bits of flesh and bones.
It’s time to go now, and she is exhausted and ready for a drink. This always happens when she gets ready for parties. She hopes she’ll have some fun once she has had enough jungle juice to forget herself. There will be some boy to take advantage of her as there always is, and she will let him because it feels good to be wanted, to not be truly known. It completes the costume of herself when others believe it.
She looks in the mirror, and the mirror-girl looks back at her. Together they wipe a fleck of pretzel vomit off of their lip and apply a shining pink gloss. They look at one another with hatred, mourning, and exhaustion, and whisper, “You bitch.”