Pauline Campos | Longreads | January 2018 | 14 minutes (3,469 words)
In the winter of 2011, in the dressing room at Target, I get caught up in an existential crisis. While trying on bathing suits, I find myself toggling between two drastically different views of myself: one is informed by the harsh words my mother verbalized so many years ago, probably without meaning to hurt me or realizing I was internalizing everything she said; the other by my young daughter’s unconditionally loving view of me.
In the midst of this crisis, I must perform a juggling act: I need to treat myself and my body kindly, not only for my benefit, but for my daughter’s too. I can’t pass on to her the body shame I alone somehow absorbed — the only one of my mother’s five daughters who’s wrestled with eating disorders.
“Mama, that one’s pretty!” my daughter shouts when I try on the blue one-piece.
I frown at my reflection in the unforgiving dressing room mirror. The lights are too bright. Beneath the glare, I see a too-fat woman with too-full hips and a too-round belly shoved into not-enough Lycra. There is fat where muscle had once been, cellulite hiding definition lost long before I got pregnant almost five years earlier. As my eyes follow the lines of my body from my head to my toes, I hear my mother’s voice and see what her words once described. My daughter, however, only sees her mama in a pretty blue bathing suit.
“I don’t like the way this one fits,” I say, evasively. “Let’s try that black one on and see how it looks.”
Innocent eyes blink up at me.
We are shopping because of a last minute birthday party invitation — a pool party, and it is tomorrow. At the time we are living in Arizona, and although I miss the changing of seasons, I can’t really complain about what I am missing while my daughter is thrilled about the chance to go swimming with her friends. She already has a bathing suit, thanks to regular swimming lessons. I do not. My husband hasn’t seen me in one since before we were married.
The black suit is…disappointing. Or rather, the body within it isn’t living up to the standards of beauty set so deeply within. It could work, except it is a bit too tight around the stomach and my boobs are spilling out of the top. I see lumps and bumps and cellulite. I keep hearing my mother’s voice. And seeing my daughter’s eyes. I keep my expression neutral and smile at her reflection.
“Let’s keep looking,” I say.
Trusting eyes blink back at me.
“Okay, mama,” my daughter says.