Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mirror, Mirror

My daughter, who is seven, recently started ice skating lessons and today was the BIG performance. A rainbow sash, silver spangled belt, flouncy blue skirt, and a complicated (for a beginner) choreographed number to Kermit the Frog’s The Rainbow Connection. Oh, and did I mention an audience of 200? My daughter took it all in her usual hyped-up stride—running back and forth in the locker room while precariously perched atop her skates, sneaking handfuls of Gummi Bears she’d crammed into her jacket pocket, apathetically nervous about whether she might fall, but mostly interested in the congratulatory bouquet (purple flowers, Momma!) and stuffed animal she’d receive at the end of the spectacle.

On the ice? She sped through the tinsel curtain, attempted a spin, and immediately wiped out. But not down for the count. She vaulted back up on her feet, wiped the ice shavings from her knees, and continued on with the show—gliding and sliding and falling again. The entire time her face was lit up with excitement, joy. Even when she fell, there was no sign of self-conscious embarrassment. At the end of the number, she gave the audience an exuberant wave, which sent her teetering off balance again.

Certainly there were other girls her age who were better skaters, more graceful, more composed. In the locker room, these girls had their hair shellacked, stood mannequin-still while their mothers applied eye shadow, eye liner, mascara, lipstick, and far too much blush. Their self-containment was eerie. At one point, my daughter flicked her lucky penny across the locker room floor; it landed at one of the girls’ skates. My daughter leapt for the penny, all spindly arms and legs, her white performance turtleneck stained with Blue Slushee drips, and cackled. The look of disdain from the girl directed at my daughter was, for me, heartbreaking but for my daughter? She didn’t even register it but went on with the penny chase.

How have I raised a daughter who is so wonderfully unself-conscious when I am afflicted by my own disdainful self-consciousness? I have always hated my body. When I was a kid, I was gangly. My nickname in grammar school was less cruelly The Stork, but usually just Bones. For years, I took ballet lessons, longing to be one of those poised, lithesome beauties on Pointe and in a diaphanous tutu; instead, I flailed in my pirouettes, tripped into my grand jet├ęs, and wobbled out of my arabesques. The rest of the girls, in comparison, seemed compact, willowy, self-possessed, and they giggled at me as I fell out of form, as my tights bagged at my knees and ankles, at my chest which remained for years a perfect flat plane. And that wall-length mirror? I did everything I could to avoid meeting my eyes, unable to bear that awkward stick bug that stared back.

By the time I got to high school, I gave up ballet and took up booze as a more effective and quicker way to avoid looking at myself. And then I started cutting my arms, the cuts and scabs and scars made visible my self-loathing and attendant disconnection from my body. Fast forward to my thirties when anorexia and purging set up camp, all in an attempt to get smaller, to take up less room, to be invisible. I could manipulate and control my body, make it conform to the rules, force it into complete compliance, constrain all the unruly parts. I could, by consequence, become no one anyone would ever see. And then suddenly, family and friends did see—that I was sick and getting sicker. So off I went to hospitals and into Eating Disorder programs and got, at least in size and weight, Better. Healthier. Bigger. Three words that sting. I know I’m supposed to say, Oh! Glory Be! I’m not dying anymore. But I am not at home in this better, healthier, bigger body.

Case in point?
The other day Dr. B. asked me, “How can you bring Jamaica (and its peace and slowed pace) back to Meadville?”

My flip answer? “A whole lot of pot.” True but not exactly the answer he was looking for. “Besides,” I said, “Jamaica is already lost. I tried my best to keep my body out of the way of the camera, but Christopher managed to get me, bikini-clad, in a shot. I saw the photo today. That was it. I was horrified, in utter disdain for myself. What had I been thinking, walking around like that?” In an instant, the unself-consciousness I’d felt while in Jamaica evaporated the minute I saw myself in that mirror.

As if he could read my mind (which had been tabulating how long and far I’d need to run, how much less I’d need to eat in order to regain control), he said, “You can’t trust your perspective. You can’t be in control and sane. You need to yield to recovery."

The mirror, and by extension, the camera lie. They can’t record the two children my body housed. Or the tooth and nails fight I’ve been in to maintain a healthy weight. Or the battle scars on my arms that mark me as a survivor. Or the misconnections in my brain that can put that survival in deadly jeopardy. Which is why I took such delight in my daughter’s skating today. Sure, she flailed and stumbled and fell, but she was inside her body. What a joyful place to be.