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The First Time
As the last layer of clothing peeled off—a loose tee shirt, cut low to emphasize and draped to conceal—my throat closed in panic. Even as the fabric pulled over my hair, teasing the split ends up into the humid air, I kept my eyes trained at the mirror, staring straight into my own face. My eyes were wide and expressionless, the green-flecked blue eerily bright in the fluorescent light. Even though I tried not to think, I wished that this moment was a little more romantic: The lighting lower and less clinically harsh, the setting plush and velvet instead of stark and wallpapered, and a sense of deep calm and certainty in my breast instead of this clenching, gripping terror.
“Well?” Came the demand from outside the door. “Are you coming out?”
I breathed in deeply, simultaneously sucking in my stomach. No, I thought, don’t. Don’t try. I could not will my body into concavity. I could not flatten my skin with my fingers, like smoothing wrinkles out of cloth. This was me in my entirety. I dropped my eyes to my toes and dragged my gaze up my body, cataloging and organizing. Toes, meticulously painted no matter the season, on large feet that make shoe shopping a hassle. Prettily curved calves that extended for miles below a pair of shorts, connecting to strong thighs with the soft spread of cellulite between them that would not sweat away. Arms too weak for pushups in gym class but strong enough to hold a baby or carry twenty four books, exactly. Tiger stripes of stretch marks across my chest, the cloth binding my chest swelling my breasts upwards against gravity. And then—there.
The warzone. The breaking point. It distorted and expanded, swelling in the mirror like a warped funhouse reflection. The white skin glowed, illuminating all that I detested about myself. My stomach. The seat of my weak self-control—it guiltily bloated from an indulgent scoop of ice-cream. My stomach, the loathed. It defied all attempts to sweat it away with cardio. It refused to flatten by crunches and skipped snacks. My stomach, the hated. I wrapped it, bound it, concealed it, confined it—and yet, it refused to be ignored.
Sometimes, I could view it without complete disgust. Sometimes, if the light was low and my mind was calm and kind, I could see my stomach as feminine and pretty, a soft curve that wrapped around my body. But soon I would be arching my back, trying to distract from its obvious existence, and turning so my back shadows my sides.
“I…” my voice squeaks as I attempt to speak. “I need a minute,” I force out.
“Okay,” came the reply, sweet and willing. “I’ll be here when you’re ready. Take your time.”
I heard footsteps retreat, and I sank onto the metal chair, my bare legs prickling with raised goose-bumps. I clenched my teeth together, willing myself to ignore the spill of my stomach on my legs. It’s not like you’re fat, I reminded myself. Your proportions are just…different. Different, as in not the slim, boyish cut of the junior girls in magazines. Not fat, exactly, just not slim. The body of someone who has completed adolescence ahead of schedule. Not abnormal, just mature.
I had been a chubby child who carried memories of her weight into adolescence. I was the girl who preferred to read in a field rather than run through it, the child who caught ideas while others caught butterflies. But then, I realized my mistake: In my quest for imaginary transcendence, I had forgotten about my physical body. By the time I realized this, my mind was strong but my body was weak. I was unbalanced and utterly hopeless that I would ever reach equilibrium.
I raised my eyes to the mirror once more, staring hard at myself, furrowing my plucked eyebrows. No. This was not how I would step out of this room, my arms crossed over my midsection and my eyes on the tiled floor. I had forced myself to become stronger, pushing past my panic when I went to the gym alone, parking myself on a machine for untold hours and sweating my past into oblivion. I had gained control of my mind, taking hunger born from boredom in hand and gritting my teeth as I accepted salad as my meal, again. Discipline had become my mantra and I was stronger, happier, and healthier than ever before. I would not step out desperately trying to conceal myself once again.
I stood, still glaring at myself, furiously pulsing the same message: You are strong, you are strong, you are strong. Before I could think another thought, I turned my back on the mirror and slid out the lock to the door, pushing through it.
The light of the dressing room assaulted my body at all angles and I stood in the doorway awkwardly. Lauren turned around, her hands falling away from her cellphone as she stared at me.
“Oh my god,” she said, “you look hot!”
I smiled shyly, tucking my blonde hair behind my twice-pierced ears. I turned around so she could see how the back tied, and how the bottom folded over. I reached up and tied the knot on the halter string a little tighter as she surveyed me. She nodded in approval, her smile white and wide.
“Wow,” she said, “you really, really look good.”
“Can you believe,” I said, willing my lip not to tremble, “this is the first time I have ever worn a bikini?”