I hadn’t been in a gym since 8th grade, a time now buried under more than twenty-five years. Memories surfaced of the forced showers we faked by tucking our bra straps beneath the towel and extending a splashed arm to the teacher, and of prying looks from peers as miserable about their bodies as I was. At one school in Pittsburgh, we were made to swim in horrid regulation suits, the right size always unavailable. Small and thin, I was cloaked in the sagging, heavy blue cotton of swimsuits which grew enormous when wet, their straps lengthening so as not to provide cover for my tiny breasts. I have returned to the women’s locker room--transformed, one would think, by the years--to find some things about me and other women unchanged.
I now lift weights and lounge in the sauna and whirlpool three times a week. In a sense I feel very different, in my chosen attire, among grown men and women at work on their bodies. I hadn’t ever been athletic, but once I began going (with friends just after my divorce), I felt happy to be part of it. As with any place, it is and is not what it is assumed to be: yes, it is packed with narcissists, but no, not everyone is a meathead on the make. A moderate number are people recovering from injuries or managing diseases like diabetes, and we talk about how much difference the club has made to them. I like the sporty friendliness, the physical intimacy with strangers that I don’t find anywhere else. The retreat from the intellect relaxes me; the top-40 radio soothes me. I like looking at all the bodies, and I like being looked at, and even approached, by men.
Women approach me, too, in pleasant ways sometimes, older ones mostly. They may ask how to use a machine or complain about the maintenance of the club, common ways to strike up small talk. But many women confuse me with their comments about my body, a phenomenon I’m accustomed to, but here a far more frequent occurrence. All through my life people have spoken to me about my weight (uncommonly low), but at the gym, given the emphasis on appearance, it’s a matter I find myself wondering about quite often. I have never known what to say in response to a comment like, “You are so skinny!” Is it a compliment? Should I say thank you? Since the tone doesn’t sound like praise, I’d feel foolish, as though it were a non sequitur to respond with thanks, as well as a lie, since I am not thankful. If not, should I go into an explanation of some kind?
I have been underweight all my life. At my highest all-time weight, I am now about 15 pounds under what the charts recommend for a woman almost 5’8” (129-136, for a small frame, I think it is). At unhappy points in my life, I have looked terribly skinny, my weight dropping as I lost my appetite, the obverse of the case for my friends who gain weight when they are depressed. I was reminded of this recently when an old best friend from seventh grade called and we commiserated about our continuing, opposite struggle. At happy points, like now, I feel as though my body is supposed to look this way: minimal, fragile, slight. My parents and siblings, though not as thin as I am, tend to be slender, and I don’t think I’ll become a bigger person, with added flesh all over my body, if I put on poundage now, even with the weight-lifting. I’d probably prefer to have a fuller figure (I know I would have when I was younger), though I am used to the one I’ve got. I suppose I am lucky to be grateful for every pound of myself.
Like many women, I am uncertain about how I look. One month the media tell us waifs are hot and the next it’s voluptuous women; if we look at the covers of magazines in the check-out line, we may remeasure our own lips, eyebrows, and hair, walking away devalued, a little wretched. A man may flirt with me, telling me I’m beautiful, and then a woman will tell me, in horrified alarm, that she’s never seen anyone as skinny as I am. I find the extremes unbelievable, but I’m unsettled. Do I look wonderful or horrible? I feel like the character in a Lorrie Moore story who wonders how anyone can recognize her, since she “seem[s] not to have a look of her own, or any look whatsoever.” She gets rid of a hallway mirror because her image startles her, always different and unrecognizable. I examine myself in all the mirrors at the gym because I don’t know how I look. Since I appear to people so variably, I doubt my pleasure or displeasure in the image I see. Looking longer and from more angles doesn’t help me, which is part of the reason I am examining my image with words; it’s a visual symptom of something much larger than me, something I can’t see the whole of.
Last week, a woman called across the locker room as I expectantly mounted the scale, “You must weigh 50 pounds!” I paused for a moment, my back to her, stung by the hostility in her tone and words. I had gained a pound and a little, but my pleasure in that was abruptly displaced. I wondered what I could say, hating the position she put me in, and came out with something lame about trying to gain weight. What I should have said, I thought later, was, “Isn’t it awful what chemotherapy does to you?” When she gasped, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know you had cancer. I’m so sorry!” I would say, “I don’t have cancer, but you should think about what the hell you say to people.” A male friend laughed when I told him that version, but suggested that I just ought to have said, “Yeah, about that.”
One woman came up behind me at the gym, saying in a hoarse voice, “I bet you can eat whatever you want.” Turning around to see her, I felt moved to tell her how much I have suffered trying to gain weight. Her jaw dropped as, I guessed, she realized a thin woman might not have it all. There was none of the hostility in her voice or her face that makes it so hard for me to find the right response to others who comment, though I didn’t like the feeling of having exposed a vulnerable part of myself to satisfy the curiosity of a stranger.
I shouldn’t have to explain myself to anyone, however much I feel the demand to do it. The awkwardness in not responding, and not responding in an easy-going way, usually scares me into an explanation. I’m afraid to be seen as over-sensitive or rude, so I make what I can of the unpleasant contact.
Women bond about fat thighs, a friend told me, and they don’t know what to say to me. I’m not the easiest woman to bond with, perhaps, but for reasons that seem more substantial to me than having thin thighs. Maybe women can’t be expected to bond easily, given all the competition, rooted in the measure of sections of our bodies, separating us wholly from each other.
There’s a skinnier woman than I at the gym. I worry about her and can’t help staring. I watch her on the stationary bike, and I wish she’d stop. In the shower room, I see her naked back, all ridged with ribs. I imagine she is anorexic, just as some people may think I am. I don’t know anything about her, but I want to know about her weight. I remind myself of the woman who told me to “eat about 300 more of those pastries” or others like my pushy ex-mother-in-law, unnaturally eager to see me eat. I think that if I can understand why I feel disturbed by this woman at the gym, maybe I can forgive other women their behavior with me.
I once badly wanted to tell a woman in the locker room something about her appearance. Her face was covered with acne, a very severe case, and I knew of a product I could recommend. But I realized that she might be in the care of a fine dermatologist, just starting treatment. And if she weren’t, I had to admit, it wasn’t a damned bit of my business, however sorry I was about what I imagined her pain to be. If she had been my friend, I might have waited for her to raise the subject and learn what her situation was, only then determining whether a product plug would be helpful. I’m not claiming to have impeccable manners, only describing the consideration I believe these urges warrant.
The desire to comment surely comes sometimes from compassion. My thinness seems to create anxiety in nurturing women who may believe that with some steady nudging, all will be well. I think they believe that if I would just eat, I’d gain weight. Friends who dine with me are relieved to witness my normal consumption, often saying something like, “At least you do eat.” I hear impatience, whichI only now recognize is what I feel with a nephew of mine. At six, he has become too thin, it seems to me, and won’t eat enough: I struggle with my anger at him, anger fueled by fear that he won’t be healthy or he won’t be liked. The sight of a bony limb triggers the instinct to care, even if it must be imposed at the cost of gentleness or grace.
I also understand a wish to connect, while ordinary barriers are out of view. I am very curious about the lives of people I see every few days and don’t know at all. I wonder about the pretty white-haired woman, in her eighties, certainly, whose body is feathery with wrinkles, a powdery, vaporous presence against the bank of lockers. She makes me less afraid to get old. I want to know who loves her, and if anyone tells her how beautiful she is. I’m honored to see the body of the man I imagine is a war veteran, gruesomely scarred, with legs uneven and one arm all but lost. We talk a little now that I’m not afraid, and he is sweet with me. Once he splashed me with cold water on his fingertips as I sat half in the whirlpool, playing with me like an affectionate father.
When we see other bodies, our own bodies don’t look like strange things to us. For a little while we see them whole, not as collections of parts, limbs, expanses of flesh we conceal or display as well as possible. My sister told me she can’t see herself as she walks across a room, that she has no picture of herself in her head. She may imagine her legs, remembering a boyfriend’s comment that women looked attractive to him who moved their whole legs as they walked, not just the knees and below. Or she may see or think about another part of her body as she moves, with uneasy, disconnected self-consciousness. As though afflicted by a kind of blindness--a psychosomatic tunnel vision of self--she cannot see an entire image.
As a way of seeing, we measure ourselves against each other in the locker room. We look not so much to judge ourselves more or less fit, young, or shapely, but to learn how to assemble ourselves into three-dimensional bodies in space. Mirrors are poor tools; even three-way mirrors only offer splinters, flat shots of a mass in motion and mostly out of sight. Just as we sometimes understand our thoughts only upon expressing them aloud (as we witness someone else learning the shape of those thoughts ), we need other bodies and other eyes as tools to see ourselves.
Two people at the mirror make better sense of it, as each can compare the other’sbody to the image and read the loose translation of a body’s reflection. I have an early memory of looking at my mother’s face (next to mine) as she looked at herself, shocked at how long and twisted her nose appeared in the mirror when it looked unremarkable in real life. I recognized that my image must be altered, too, and though I asked, I didn’t find out how.
In front of a mirror in the locker room one evening, a young woman appeared beside me, unloading her bag on the thigh-level shelf and beginning to undress. Looking indirectly at her image while peering directly into my own eyes as I applied makeup, I witnessed what looked like a strip-tease. She lingered long between taking off her bathing suit and putting on her bra, in a way I had never seen in the gym. She gazed at herself as she turned slowly, her bare ass framed in red silk, T-back panties. Alone, away from the lockers where most people dress, we were steps from the private changing rooms some shy women use (though when I saw a woman walk nude into one, towel at her side, I wondered if I had been wrong to presume they are for the modest). I believe, in spite of my male friends’ insistence that this woman must have been performing for me, that she was showing her body to herself by presenting it to the mirror, beside a rough equivalent. A body--not even an audience; she never engaged my glance--needed only to be there, I remember thinking in the midst of that peculiar invisibility. Her unsmiling silence, her fixed absorption in the performance made her seem oblivious, but I know that she chose to stand quite close beside me in a large cluster of empty dressing alcoves. A body would help her see-- or believe she saw with clarity and accuracy--a whole picture of the person she is outside the mirror. I walked away before we exchanged a word or a direct look, though we had stood there full, disorienting minutes, contiguous bodies acknowledging only the mirror’s nudity, the mirror’s intimate yet faceless knowing of each other, the mirror’s odd place in our relationships to ourselves.
The confusion about my body comes from placing my trust in the sources of reflection. Since I cannot see much for myself--only limbs, my nose when I cross my eyes, the front of my torso and a little behind me when I stretch--I am likely to lean heavily on the arm of the stranger who offers me a way to see myself. I listen intently to a man who will solve the mystery of how I appear in the world; I want a woman’s answer to the question I asked that day in the mirror with my mother. Strangers have this information I don’t have, I imagine, information about me that I can’t get however thoroughlyI like to think I know myself. Even the mirror seems to read the details of my appearance with enviable impartiality at any given moment; a pane of reflective glass has this capacity that I must, in my helplessness, rely upon.
How simple it is to ignore the mutability of my appearance and the variety of possible perspectives on it. How complex it seems to sort out the importance of any of this, as my body advances in age, never to look just the same to any person or mirror for very long. The stupidity of concerning myself with knowing what I look like is obvious, but ubiquitous reminders of the need to manage my “look” or “looks” make it seem essential, as well. To revel in the collection of information from many sources is perhaps the best answer for me. In my doctoral work I conducted ethnographic research, which has disposed me to gather, consider, gather, reconsider, and, finally, to try to see patterns in diverse data. With this attitude of discovery and theory-building, I can look with fascination at the vast range of response a body can elicit over time.
In the study of my body, I am struck by how little information I actually want and how impossible it is to know even that little. And perhaps something not small at all is at the heart of my question. I think I want to know if I am deserving of love, especially my own, in a culture that equates beauty with love. We face the walls of mirrors at the gym with questions about our beauty, much as the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves did, but now some of us are asking about the fairness of it all. I want to be the fairest I can be, to myself and to other women whose vision of themselves is made narrow by the clutter of competition. How could it be fair to myself to depend on a stranger to tell me if I am worthy of love? Why would anyone ask a mirror?
Published by Puerto del Sol