The women's restroom in any place--a club, a restaurant, an airport, a mall--is a hub of anthropological activity. Spend any time in these spaces that range in atmosphere and style from harshly lit NASA lab-chic to first class ladies' lounge on the Titanic and you'll bear witness to the collective baggage and struggles all women seem to carry.
There's the harried mom wrestling three kids into the stall with her. She's telling one to leave the paper alone and the others to stop dancing around. From her tone you can tell this is probably the third bathroom pit stop she's made today. She stumbles out of the stall, washes her hands, and avoids looking at herself in the mirror.
There's the moody teen waiting for her friend to finish up at the sink. The friend is complaining about how fat she is (she isn't), how she'll never be ready for bathing suit season, how she just needs to lose that extra ten pounds. The friend rolls her eyes, but she takes in her own legs, her own thighs reflected in the mirror. She frowns.
There's the middle-aged woman stylishly dressed, fussing over her hair. Another woman wearing yoga clothes washes her hands next to her. She tries not to gawk at the well-dressed woman who sighs and clucks her tongue in irritation over what she considers her unruly appearance as she applies lipstick. The woman in the yoga clothes gives her the side-eye and you can almost see the thought bubbles hovering above her head: I wish I had lips like her, hair like her, skin like her.
It's a funky public ritual we're all subconsciously undertaking in these places: parading our body shame in front of each other because we, also weirdly, think that no one is watching. It's as if the women's restroom is like the Bermuda Triangle where we can dump out our insecurities, where we can air what we think of as our flaws and physical downfalls and leave them there as if they don't exist at all.
But they do exist. They are very real things these "too much" and "not enough" and "wish I had" attitudes we cultivate about our bodies expressed in the exasperated sigh, the wrinkled brow, the roll of eyes in disgust when a woman looks at herself in profile before balling up her paper towel and heading back out into the "real world." We all share this language, we all know what it means. We all seem a little powerless to stop it.
Recently I was on a long road trip and needed to stop at one of the service plazas off the highway to use the bathroom. I don't have any full-length mirrors in my house. This is not a political thing, it's a practical thing; when we moved into the house we never got around to tacking one up on the back of a closet or bathroom door. Who knew laziness could lead to social consciousness?
The bathroom appeared empty when I opened the door and was greeted with my nearly full-length reflection. I was dressed in a pair of favorite, boot-cut curvy jeans and an equally favorite sweater. My eyes honed in on my hips. They looked particularly pronounced and I felt a small surge of something that I hadn't felt before all of those times standing at the bathroom mirror with other woman shaming my crazy hair and freckles next to the woman with straight blonde hair and Nordic features.
What I felt was joy.
I felt a jolt of happiness for my mass, my mattering. My body gives me presence, it gives me power. It carries me in a most profound way.
Thinking I was completely alone, I turned this way and that in front of the mirror. I did a little roll-shimmy with those hips (you know the one). It was then that I happened to notice a woman who had just come out of the stall and was walking toward the sink. She was trying not to look at me. A small smirk played at the edge of her lips. I could tell she was trying not to laugh.
I smiled broadly and laughed for her. "Sometimes you just gotta shake it, you know?" I said in an attempt to make her feel less strange, but really I was the one that needed the reassurance. Because this feel-the-love-for-your-body-IN-your-body thing was sadly foreign.
But I think that's what it takes to heal the damage we inflict on ourselves every single day. It's more than seizing on positive mantras or holding the media and beauty industry accountable for the body ideals they try and sell us. Women need to feel their worth literally in the soles of their feet. And once we do, we need to show each other what that looks like, to help each other see the beauty we all embody, to learn to speak a new language the next time we're standing beside each other at the bathroom sink.