My work clothes don't fit so well anymore. I bought a lot of them years ago, when I was skinnier. When my mom saw me in an old pencil skirt she said, "I don't think you're a pencil anymore, honey. You're more of a pen, or a marker."
We laughed a lot, but it's true. A trip to Macy's was in order, and since they were having a sale, we headed over that evening.
The doors slid open and the clothing displays went as far as the eye can see. The mannequins cocked their hips spunkily and leaned back, their legs impossibly long, cold and shiny. There were walls of purses, heaps of hats and towering stacks of sweaters in every imaginable jewel tone. Bright pink sale stickers decorated a generous number of racks. There was almost no chance that I would not be able to find a pencil skirt, a silk blouse and a modest dress that could be paired with my new electric blue stilettos without scandalizing anyone at work. Actually, I was pretty sure I'd be able to find a few other things, too. A cute faux fur vest, maybe. A flowy, hippie-chic top. A clingy maxi skirt in a bright color. Endless possibilities! Maybe there'd be time to look at the bags! Maybe I'd go crazy and get something with fringe.
Everything was more expensive than I thought it would be, but I told myself that 25% off was a great deal and took a heap of really cute clothes back to the dressing room. Full of naïve hope, I pulled the first flowy top on.
My reflection appeared to be mocking me. I leaned closer, perplexed. Did I really look like that? It was like a yeti had helped itself to Taylor Swift's closet.
"OK, no," I said, cheerfully enough, and tried the next thing -- a silk blouse that could be good for work. It looked like a sack. But then again, I've been reading a lot in bed, squinting at the little glowing rectangle of my phone, riveted by scene after grotesque scene of intestine-spilling medieval war in Game of Thrones. My eyesight is probably going. I'm probably seeing sackcloth everywhere I look.
The first pencil skirt was shockingly translucent. The line of my underwear looked like a vein crawling across my butt, and above the waistline, my stomach, doughy and pale, pooched out. The double mirrors, angled cruelly, gave me an explicit rundown of what was going wrong in the back.
My mom came in and started trying her stuff on in the same dressing room. We were wearing the same underwear and bra (except mine was really padded), it turned out. We had chosen the same dress somehow, and she looked better in it.
I caught myself trying to fix myself every time I tried a new article of clothing on. I'd suck my stomach in, try to strain my neck longer, fluff my straggling hair. Suck, strain, fluff. Suck, strain, fluff. Over and over, going through the motions of a losing battle.
And suddenly it all came rushing back.
A lifetime punctuated by the horror of my reflection in the dressing room mirrors at department stores. Almost always with my mom, shopping for work-appropriate clothes. There was a sale, so we had to hurry over, last minute. And then I had to suddenly find out what I really looked like. It came rushing back: A lifetime of oaths sworn hastily in the hard bluish light -- I will get that nose job. I will lose the weight. I will never slouch again. I will never go outside again.
All of this stuff that I write about body image, forcing myself to think it through, making myself make sense of it, refusing to allow myself to slide down that chute into effortless self-loathing or endless self-criticism. All of it -- and I am defeated by Macy's. By the dressing room. By the double mirrors and the sight of my own pale, exposed flesh.
I tried to pretend I wasn't beginning to sink into a pit of bottomless despair. I tried to pretend I was just trying on clothing. No big deal.
But a familiar terrible suspicion was gnawing a hole in my brain. And into the hole seeped a gooey, poisonous certainty that this was The Truth. That this was the word of God, here in the Macy's dressing room. This face, with the sorry, thin, mouse-brown hair and the thick, domineering nose, this lumpy body with the scattered, lingering back pimples and chubby upper arms and dimpling thighs and pipsqueak, forgettable breasts -- THIS was the real me. The true me. The me I've been hiding from. The me I've been hiding under thicker clothing and poorer lighting. The me I've been trying to ignore. The me I'd have to squint at sideways, in the dim, in order to ever appreciate.
I have learned that when you're presented with a few options, the worst one is probably the truth. (Where did I learn that? It's not right! It's a myth!)
And then what?
It wasn't one of those days.
Bending over, I was embarrassed. My stomach folded over itself, lapping, packing tighter. I felt as though my body was escaping me, spilling over, uncontrollable. My profile was surprisingly beaked, unavoidable. I usually pretend it isn't, because I can't see it, but in the angled dressing room mirror, I couldn't get away from it. I looked like a different person from the side. A more difficult person. Someone I didn't know and didn't want to know. Someone I couldn't imagine mastering.
My mom found two dresses. They looked awesome.
If you lost weight... said the voice in my head, always ready to offer the same suggestion, no matter what. Because sometimes that seems like the only thing I can actually control. A nose job did not save my profile. My neck will not get longer. But I can lose weight. I can be thinner.
I looked away from my own eyes in the mirror. I was at the bottom of the pile of clothes. Nothing looked good. Instead, everything looked like a sad little joke.
And I found myself wondering about those women who say things like "I don't care about that stuff. I just don't worry about my appearance. It just doesn't occur to me." Women have said that to me before. Women comment on this blog to tell me that they don't understand me when I talk about all this beauty stuff, because they just don't think that way. And I think, "That's cool. Good for you!" But in the dressing room I felt like they were impossible. Like they couldn't really exist. Like they were lying. Do they shop mail order all the time? What is the trick?
Or maybe they are thinner than me. Maybe they are prettier. Maybe they have better faces. I'm often surprised by how beautiful women are. Sometimes I think the majority of women are beautiful, and I am in the complicated, unfortunate minority.
I went back for a second round. Nothing looked good again.
I bought two things, anyway, out of defeat. Things that only looked marginally better than other things. 25% off did not seem like that much, in the end.
I was starving and also didn't want to ever eat again. We stopped at the grocery store and all of the prepared food had been cleaned out except for baked goods. The rugelach looked amazing.
"Should I?" I asked my mom. "Would you have some?"
"No," she said. "I'm trying to lose weight."
"I don't want to gain more weight," I said.
"Then don't eat them." She walked away, in search of healthy things.
I stood in front of the cookies for a long time.
The next day, back home in the city, I was going out to meet a friend in the Village. I put on hand-me-down jeans, an old peasant top and slouchy boots. I looked good. I looked closer. Good enough to be true, too? Was my flat, ordinary mirror lying to me? Was the lighting not glaring and fluorescent enough to expose my tragic abundance of unsolvable beauty problems? Would I blithely imagine myself somewhat acceptable -- even reasonably OK -- until that time when fate swept me up and deposited me back in another Macy's dressing room?
I pivoted, kicked up a foot to show off a slouchy boot. Sexy! Why did I look so good? How was it possible? Something was wrong.
Something was right: "You look great!" said my friend, when we met at W. 4th and 6th. "So New York City!" The biggest compliment, from a girl born and raised here.
We found a café, and I ordered rugelach.
It was delicious. I decided not to try to lose weight.
I decided not to go back to Macy's. After all, truth is relative. There are probably a lot of real me's. I like the one who lives outside of Macy's. And Express always has pencil skirts. A few of them may even come in marker size.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake