Before I get in the shower, there’s always that moment of staring at myself naked like I don’t see myself every day. Like there’s something new to be found: better, worse, different, in need of something else, whatever it is. Looking at my body like it’s unfamiliar, with scrutiny. Does everyone do that? I don’t know.
This is in the Lopatcong pool bathroom in the summer. You don’t have to open a door to get in the bathroom, you just walk through a cinderblock hallway, past a trophy case. Our swim team hasn’t put a trophy in that case in a cool eight years, but we have swagger like we do. We’re the misfits of our summer league and it carries a certain amount of sarcastic pride.
I’m 12. I’m so bad at flip turns that it’s comical. I’m in the bathroom, staring at my face in the mirror. It’s morning bright outside, already humid. The flecks of dust are snowy in the light coming through the window above the sink, my skin flakes off my face when I touch it. I’ve been using new acne stuff at night: benzoyl peroxide Oxy pads. I haven’t had my first kiss yet. I’m in a one-piece swimsuit, I peel a strap off my shoulder. Fluorescent white skin beams brighter than the outside, I smile at my tan. “Brown as a bean!” my mom will say.
All this time spent looking at myself while everyone else does laps. I run the water in the sink. I stare at my face and wonder if I’m pretty.
This is in my tile-floored dorm room at Rutgers University in Demarest hall, the artsy dorm known for it’s mixed-gender bathrooms and aggressive progressiveness. I’ve just purged my closet of everything that I think doesn’t make me attractive, doesn’t flatter my birth control blessed C cups and trendy haircut sensibilities.
I’ve just cut my hair into a pixie situation and I’m enamored with it but it makes me feel like I have to strive for a level of feminine that I didn’t before. Standing in front of a full-length mirror, I look at my body and hair and outfit and decide that I’m pretty. Pretty enough to go out.
I spend most of my time in the dorm room of a guy who makes space for me in his life, who I call “friend” like a threat. It’s before ‘friend zone’ is a thing. That day, I get drunk at a football game and cry. I alienate myself from a bunch of people that way, just temporarily though. Drinking and crying and apologizing and staying sober to create distance from your time as the drunk, crying, apologizing girl is somewhat of a sport at state school. So I stop saying “you’re my friend” and start saying less. I stop saying much at all.
This is in the dining hall and we’re sitting there, you and I, and I’m wearing a tight black dress — the kind you buy for $10 at Forever 21 — and a button-down shirt that’s almost just as long as the dress. And combat boots, fake leather. With less than $30 on my body, I pile $45 worth of bad food onto a tray in systematic trips: sandwich bar. Salad bar. Cereal bar. Toast. Nutella. Doing this for the rest of the year, I’ll put $1000 worth of meal plan on my body in the form of 15 extra pounds.
This is in the dining hall that day in the black dress and I’m complaining: “I can’t stop eating, I feel disgusting.”
You stare at me and say nothing, eat and say nothing, and then: “that guy behind you watched you the whole time you walked there and back. People watch you. You don’t get it do you?”
This is now, in 2015, at my desk, hair salty from the beach a day ago. Sweating in a cheap H&M dress, thinking about what it means to look pretty. What it means to decide you’re pretty. What it means to act like it.
All of my petty insecurities are always realized through other people: watching my friends contort their mouths into pouts to put on lipstick, raise their eyebrows at the sight of a mirror. Watching a guy scramble for the blankets as soon as it’s over, even though he’s sweaty. I look at these behaviors — “they probably mean nothing” on a loop in my head – and project my feelings hard. I think about how they’re being too critical of themselves, I wonder if I’m that critical. I am too critical, I decide.
I decided a lot of things about myself based on other people. Did everyone do that? I don’t know.