Six years old.
My parents have a foreign exchange student coming to our house for dinner—a young, handsome Austrian man—I met him once before at an AFS dinner.
My primary concern is how I look for his arrival. I labor in front of my toy make up compact trying to make beautiful the plain face which stares back at me. An impossible task, I resort instead to wearing my best jewelry; a pair of cheap clip on cloisonné earrings in the shape of Japanese fans my father brought back for me from a business trip to Japan.
I flirt shamelessly with our dinner guest the entire night, truly believing I have the power to seduce him if only by the magic of the colorful fans dangling from my ears.
I am devastated when I am sent to my room at bedtime, after having made zero impression on anyone at the party.
12 years old
New girl in a new town, again. I have a crush on my next door neighbor, a boy six years older than me. I moon over him, batting my eyelashes and doing my best impression of the seductresses I read about when I lay under the piano with my stacks of Emily Bronte and The Mists of Avalon.
I cut my long blonde hair short trying to impress him, beg my mother for some underwear other than “granny panties,” and wear extra concealer and blush to cover the troublesome zits ravaging my adolescent skin.
When he tries to have sex with me, whispering in my ear that no one can know because his friends will laugh at him since I am so young—and I push him away and he becomes infuriated and sets out to humiliate me for years afterwards around town—I feel guilty.
I had asked for it, after all.
18 years old
During freshmen year of college, my aunt invites me out to lunch to what I consider a chic restaurant in the city. I am very nervous to go, as I always feel like a bumbling fool around her. As usual, I believe that if I can appear beautiful, nothing else is relevant.
I carefully choose a tight black skirt and a cropped grey shirt to wear, black suede pumps and black stockings. I think I looked kind of fabulous—like Christie Brinkley’s homely, but comparatively gorgeous, not-famous twin.
My aunt picks me up and looks me up and down, saying nothing. She is wearing flow-y pants in her signature cobalt blue with modest lapis lazuli studs. When we get out of the car at the restaurant, she askes, “What are you thinking when you put on an outfit like that?”
I am mortified. What does she mean?
I decide I hate her and her stupid silk pants and her tasteful lipstick. What the hell does she know about beauty anyway?
25 years old
I am sitting in a train station with my boyfriend in New York. We are there because we have nowhere else to be. We are addicted to drugs and have been evicted from two apartments in a row. We have not eaten in several days.
To pass the time, my boyfriend sketches pictures of naked women on a napkin. He is trying to explain to me the difference between adequate girls and “smoking hot” girls. The adequate girls look a lot like me—I have (he says) a “long” butt, evidenced by the fact that my jeans pocket ends before the crease in my ass, hips that are too wide, breasts that are too small.
If, he continues, I got a boob job, it would balance out my hips and make me—no, not a 10, that is too much to be hoped for, but at least an eight, where now I am a solid six.
I look down at my filthy sweater, one of only two tops that I now possess, and feel the heat rise to my face. Every girl in the world is more beautiful than me.
27 years old
Despite the fact that I am still addicted to drugs, after a year of homelessness I now have a place to live. I have become a dancer, and make money from the way that I look. Even so, I know it is the dark lights, the fake eyelashes, the acrylic nails, the stiletto heels, the spandex dresses and the alcohol my customers drink which make me seem attractive.
In the naked light of un-made up day, no one wants to look at me.
29 years old
One of my customers thinks he is in love with me. He gives me a blank check and tells me to get my boob job, if that’s what will make me happy. I tell him it will.
When I come out of surgery I am in excruciating pain. I lay on the couch for a month sobbing and taking Valium, but then I run out of money so I go back to work. The three inch scars under my breasts look like bloody smiles.
32 years old
I am pregnant. I have left behind my life of drugs and dancing and am married, sober, “normal.” I watch with dread as my body changes. I work out compulsively, eat very little and almost have a breakdown when my stepdaughter asks me wickedly “what it’s like to be fat.”
I become invisible. I am being consumed by a parasite. I feel cursed by my womanhood.
40 years old
My son is eight—the love of my life. I am healthy, still happily married, a yoga teacher, a writer.
I decide to throw a 40th birthday party for myself. I call it “Sour 40” because my step daughter just turned “Sweet 16.”
Regardless of all my accomplishments, what concerns me most about this party is how I will look. I cut out carbs, double my cardio, shop compulsively for the “right” dress. “Right” meaning it will make me look more like that diagram my boyfriend drew on a napkin in the train station all those years ago.
44 years old
My body is changing in more insidious ways than when I was pregnant. I check it each day to see how far gone I am. I wonder what it would feel like to trade this body for an hour with the body I had when I was 25.
Still, there are long periods of time when I don’t think about how I look, when my body, my mind and my spirit are integrated. I see that I am more than the sum of my body parts.
But what the future will bring?
Will I ever understand why I put on those cloisonné earrings and expected them to change me, or let the neighbor boy feel me up and then mock me, or wore a tight skirt to impress my aunt, or sat there while my boyfriend drew cartoons of women I was supposed to look like, or allowed my body to be ripped open and distorted, or felt anything other than empowered by my procreative ability?
Will I ever be able to look in a mirror and just say Yes?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: musics the name at Flickr