Last night I was leaving Victoria’s Secret in the University Mall, tell-tale pink shopping bag filled with underwear smaller than I’d ever thought I’d wear again, when I caught sight of myself in a storefront window. I’m not a mirror-gazer, never have been, so lately when I catch glimpses of myself I am continually surprised by my smaller figure. I walked away with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. These days there is an undercurrent of joy throughout my days and nights due to my recent and hard-won 43 pound weight loss. But in that moment a memory pushed its way into my thoughts, and the force of it made me sit down on the slatted wood benches in the mall’s center.
It must have been about a dozen years ago, my son Carlos was three or four years old. We had been shopping for clothes for him and had just left a child’s clothing store near Victoria’s Secret when I saw a huge woman in the store’s window. Oh, she was so big and looked so very tired. It wasn’t until I saw the small, smiling boy beside her that I realized it was me.
It was as if a massive, dark weight had slung itself around my shoulders and it was all I could do to stand upright. A moan caught in my throat and, still holding Carlos’ hand, I hobbled over to the same wooden benches and fell into them. Then I sat there, packages still clasped in one hand, my son’s in the other, and sobbed, my shoulders hunched, people furtively watching as they walked by. Carlos stared into my face, his eyes frightened, “Mommy? What’s wrong Mommy? Why are you crying?” I couldn’t answer him. What could I have said, anyway? It’s alright, Carlos, Mommy’s just sad because she can’t believe she allowed herself to get this big, this out of breath, this…out of control?
It would take me years of healing and therapy and personal exploration to figure out the answers to a toddler’s simple question: why was I crying? But on that day, the shame of crying in public was nothing compared to the fact that I was scaring my son, and it only made me cry harder.
I stopped crying, eventually, and soothed myself with an Auntie Anne’s almond crunch pretzel, self-medicating with empty calories. As I sat in the same spot last night, taking up much less space on the mall bench, I felt shame wash over me all over again. But I’ve come so far, why does the memory still feel shameful? Wasn’t that large reflection, so many years ago, of someone who didn’t exist anymore? Hasn’t she been replaced by the increasingly fit version I see in the window now? Though my lifestyle has changed dramatically over the past eight months, I know that keeping the smaller version will be something I have to work on every day for the rest of my life.
As I sat there, I watched a slim, 30-something woman shopper in skinny jeans pass by me and wondered what her relationship to food was. Did she have to work each day to keep herself in check? Did she sometimes wish she could lie in bed with a book instead of going to the gym? When she looks at her reflection, does she see how fabulous she looks in her True Religion jeans, or do her eyes go straight to the tiny amount of flesh that spills over the waistband?
The truth is, I don’t have a clue what “normal” women see when they look in the mirror. Actually, I don’t have a clue what “normal” is anymore. But I am sure it’s unlikely the majority of skinny women feel really satisfied about it, some probably see that 3 lb. of fat as encumbering and unflattering as everything I’ve lost so far and more. Why are we so hard on our mirror image selves?
As the sounds of the mall came back, snatches of conversation and choruses of hip hop spilling from the American Eagle store two doors down, I wondered what I would say to that woman I was all those years ago sitting on the same bench? What would she think if she saw me now? Would it be comforting to know that the insulation would come off one day, or would it be too sad to know that it would take 11 years to heal enough to do it?