I open my eyes and immediately feel the twisted knot moving upwards from my gut. It lodges itself in my throat and my hands travel downward toward my stomach where my fingers wring out the skin and fat beneath them. Another day brings groans and whines and the default “Do I have to?” upon waking, but I make it to my feet and trudge towards the closet to find something that won’t cling. It’s a “puffy day,” as I innocently have titled it in talks with my therapist, and the puff turns me away from the denim and the slacks and anything with buttons, and towards the high-waist leggings that offer the illusion of a stomach that won’t stick out. Dresses are too tight and t-shirts too revealing, so blouses that button and sweaters that fold are best. Even still, I pull at the hemline and tug it toward my knees, hoping it’ll swallow me up whole and stop me from walking out the door and into the world where I know – I know – people are looking.
Food and I have long had a tumultuous relationship, but I’m logical enough to know I need the day’s energy. So I swig down a cup of coffee and I slather gluten-free toast (gluten makes me bloat) with butter and egg whites and wolf it down before I can convince myself to stop. By the time I’ve made it to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I already feel the sharp twist of regret. It starts in my toes and tingles its way into my heart, pulling my body, with every beat, in a different direction. I liken the feeling I get after a meal to the feeling one gets when he or she has just said a regretful goodbye – can I go back? Can I take it all away and start fresh? If I could, I’d do better. I’d have fruit, more veggies, more water – that must be the trick. I spit, and lift my eyes to the enemy of my mornings.
My enemy: slick and silver with a reflective face that shows me everything I don’t care to see.
We have a staring contest, and no matter how badly I want to look away, I can’t. I stare back and slowly she reveals every secret, one by one, until I can’t bear to look anymore. I can’t bear to look, so I shuffle away and resist the urge to find my enemy’s eyes once more when I pass by in the hallway. Shoes, lunch, out the door.
Work takes me away from the moments that I spend wrapped up in myself, but there are days when it swallows me whole. Bathroom breaks turn into sideways glances in the mirror, tugging on the fabric of my dress to make sure I can’t see the lopsided stomach that protrudes from the jersey across my torso. I smooth it out and smooth it out again, hoping that the harder I push my fingers into my skin, the more likely I am to see it disappear.
I come home and fuel myself again. Craving sweets, I bite into a chocolate or a caramel and though the taste is delightful, the pain I feel while swallowing is almost enough to make me choke it back up. I have, once or twice – coughed up a candy and spit it into the trash before it made its way fully down past my esophagus and into my stomach. The taste was enough. But, when I can’t or don’t stop myself, I offer up mental lashings and speak to myself in a way I would never allow another to. My brain bullies and prods, pushes until tears well in my eyes and my skin pricks up with goosebumps of sheer disgust. I pull on my spandex leggings and encourage myself through rounds of verbal brutality to get my ass to the gym. I go, and repeat on my way that it will help.
Truthfully, I think of nothing when weights are in my hands and sweat is pouring off the crown of my head. I catch the mirror and I tug on the bottom of my shirt to attempt to hide the bulge across my waistline, but I somehow feel better knowing that I’m doing something about it. In that moment, I can’t argue that I’m not being proactive. It’s like a mental clap back to the voice that tells me I need to flatten out. The voice is silenced for an hour, maybe two if I can squeeze it, but comes back the second the slick of my back hits the seat of my car.
Sitting in a car is the most uncomfortable time of my day, bar none. Slumped over with a seatbelt cutting into my belly, I tug at the belt to loosen its safe-hold across my waist and tighten my abdominal core until I can poke at the skin and feel something beneath the layer of extra padding. I pull on the fabric and watch for the wrinkles to fall perfectly in place—too many wrinkles is no good, but straight pulled offers only a clear view of the fat that flops over the waist belt, and that might be worse.
Second red light and already, sixteen texts have been sent back and forth with a friend about my appearance that evening.
“You see me often…do you think I look like I’ve gained weight?”
“Not even a little. You’re skinny AF” she replies, but I don’t believe her.
I justify kind responses by telling myself that the people close to me have to say those things.
Mothers are supposed to gawk over their daughters and grandmothers even more so. Friends wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t tell us how beautiful we looked on a night spent out and man-hunting. My therapist tells me to collect this evidence – to use it, tally it, keep a record of the compliments I receive in comparison with the negative feedback I receive. He gives me a knowing look when I tell him regularly that I rarely, if ever, receive the negative. All it takes is one comment, though, or a photo taken from the wrong angle, and the tallies made in soggy sand are washed away entirely. One “Are you sure you wear a size four?” and the counted-up compliments are crossed out by burning red X marks that turn them quickly null and void. One picture in which the stomach is out or the arm looks like a Christmas ham, and my eyes go blurry while my heart starts to grumble and stall.
I come home and I turn on the shower. Steam dresses my enemy in lace that hangs over her eyes and makes it hard for her to see me clearly. We watch each other in outlines and shapes but it isn’t until my body is washed and dried that the fog gets pulled away and the vision is clear again. I turn to the side and clutch the warm skin of my belly, pushing it up into the cavity of my ribs while I hunch my shoulders forward and suck in breath so quickly, so hard that my lungs ache. I choke on tears and somewhere between seeing the crystal reflection and not being able to breathe, they spill over. My cheeks are hot and my body is bare, yet it feels like a cage. Every day, I tear at its borders and bang on its bars and hope that the next morning, its foundation might be just a little bit weaker.