The Ravages of an Unloved Life

I call this moment here comes the glow. Like the relationship between the time of an act and its outcome, my skin takes on the burning, knowing it has to bear for only a short while until relief comes flooding. I never worry about the hot water scalding my body. For a bathroom filled with steam, I’ll pay anything. When I slide the curtain over to the side, I take a moment before lifting my head, and every time, I’m successful in blotting out my image in the mirror. I’m like a child playing hide-and-seek. I grab a towel off the rack and wipe myself dry, the whole time making sure the mist is there, framed in the square corners of the mirror and acting as the perfect veil, keeping me from having to look at myself. There are days I see the blurry image—a figure moving swiftly, a thick arm reaching over, my underbelly poking out and without shame. Stooped shoulders. Trunks of thighs planted on cold vintage tiles. The breasts, smooth slopes that round sharply underneath and sit unmoving.

I shouldn’t know so much about my body for all the years I’ve been running from it, but I do now. Things took a turn when I received a termination on my lease at the end of June. When looking for a new home, I suppose one mainly concerns oneself with the cost and location and the state of the place being leased. I spent hours at a computer screen scrolling through low-quality images of rooms unfurnished, rooms furnished but needing more work, rooms with stained carpets, rooms with a patio, and rooms without. And rooms with mirrors. Mirrors everywhere. When I signed the new agreement to live with my current lessor, Ms. Sanchez, an eighty-five-year-old tango dancer of Mexican and Basque heritage, I immediately threw myself into an unpleasant maze of reflections.

I still don’t know why anyone would want a view of themselves sprinkling chili flakes into a pot of curry, but a mirror sits right across the counter in the kitchen. They are all over, in different shapes and sizes, and at nearly every corner of my new home. Three mirrors in the bathroom and one more, just outside the hall leading to my room, a lovely space with natural light pouring through its blinds. Inside my room is a mirrored closet door that takes up half the wall, and when I asked to hang a curtain over it, my request was declined. Right next to it is a chest of drawers and above it, of course, is a long rectangular mirror, and leaning close to its sides is my growing collection of books. I have Austin Kleon’s Keep Going propped up straight on the stacked pile, serving as a nice companion to a printed A4 sheet of Maya Angelou’s words: My mission in life is not merely to survive but to thrive. And yet I cannot go two steps without seeing, without instinctively stopping myself from looking, without becoming mindful of what I have tried to escape but must survive. My body.

When I stand in front of a mirror, on my own accord, I am squeezing a red chemical peel from a glass dropper on my face. A treatment designed to shed layers of dead skin. Everything I know about exfoliating, I learned on YouTube. I read reviews on products. More than nine thousand people give four tiny yellow stars. It’s all the assurance I need, and in this way, I collect data, place orders with money I have left of my stipend, and wait impatiently for the one thing that will change my life to arrive in the mail. For this to work, I need to remember every step. In my notes, I write: Cleanse, pat face dry, spread evenly on face, avoid eyes! Set timer for ten minutes, wash with cool water. On a new line, I add in huge capital letters—ten minutes only. This is because of my tendency to think that the longer I keep the chemical on my face, the faster I will gain a clear and radiant skin. But the experts caution this is bad, and I believe them. After my routine, I moisturize and moisturize some more and on top of that, a thin film of sunscreen. My face rests, heavy as a mask and so shiny I look like I was plunged into an oil bath.

Last week, as I sat in the kitchen of the only Black family I know in America, my pastor’s mother worked on my hair. I had rows of outgrown French braids and hadn’t washed my hair in two months. I bent over a sink as warm water gushed from a tap and sweet relief spread across my nape and through my hair. Shampoo. The smell of shea butter and castor oil rose to my face. Tender fingers buried deep in my hair and massaged with gentle pressure. When it was time to detangle, Ms. Darlene couldn’t part my hair at the scalp. It was a thick mess. We spent hours pulling out knots until at last I could feel the thistles of the brush pass smoothly over my scalp. The whole time she kept saying, “You’ve got to love your hair. Two months is a long time to go without washing. Take care of it. You’ve got to love you, girl.” I cried, both from the ache spreading through my head from the tugging at my scalp and, really, from the truth I knew so well in what she was saying. I asked her what would happen if I cut my hair, all of it, and I was not joking. She held a pair of scissors in her hand, and as she trimmed the weak ends of my hair, right there in that moment I wanted every strand off my head. Shaved clean. I would watch the tufts fall and gather at my feet, and it wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to me, because I see no way it would make any difference. That day, I went home with a neat set of cornrows, red eyes, a runny nose, and a painful ache in my chest.

The problem with veering between seeking perfection and succumbing to self-pity is knowing I can never attain the former but not accepting it enough to stop searching for it. And when I fail at this pursuit, I hide, slowly contort myself until my own body is foreign to me. There is always a method to this erasure. I unhook a bra strap under every oversize T-shirt. I pull underwear up my legs before a towel comes sliding down. I keep the lights off and maneuver through the dark until my hand lands on something to cover myself. On video calls with family—when I can no longer avoid them—I hold the phone at an angle, stretched far from my face. I’m never too close to the screen, I want to spare them (and myself) from having to pay attention to any detail or, really, any unpleasant pixelated views of hyperpigmentation. During remote classes, my favorite feature on Zoom is the Hide Self-View. I’m right there, everyone sees that I am, but I am invisible only to myself. It’s a game that engulfs me, but I play it well.

Whenever a friend tries to take a selfie, I joke and say, “Take the phone back, back, back. Yes, that’s perfect. My beauty is only from a distance.” Everyone I’ve said it to laughs, naturally. And I’ll scroll through clusters of closely identical photos looking for single shots where my nose isn’t the prominent feature on my face, where my eyes aren’t so wide apart, where my mouth isn’t slightly too wide, and my lower lip is tucked inside the pocket of my gum to keep from hanging loose. As though the slight turn of a head, the slow pull of cheeks to the eyes, a second of smiling just right—not too wide so all my teeth show and not too restrained as to look forced—will change how I look.

I would tell my mother about this deep-seated sense of unattractiveness I feel, but I can imagine her response, in a voice first filled with confusion that anyone would bother about what she deems a trivial matter, and then deep with conviction as she reminds me that my body is a temple of God, that I was made in his image and likeness. Fearfully and wonderfully. She will blame the Internet access in America; unlike Ghana, where purchasing a data bundle is expensive and I used to restrict the time I spent scrolling through a feed of filtered truths, America is abundant and I take and take. “This America,” she would say in an imploring voice, “you have to keep your eyes open.”

All I am I want to throw on an altar. Piece by piece. A sacrifice no one will see coming.

In my last relationship, the man I was with showered me with admiration. His validation was a cushion I rested my whole being on. When it ended, the affirmation I sought fractured too. People, no matter how unkind, take their one good thing with them when they walk away. “You’re beautiful,” he would say, while letting his hand brush against mine or while cupping my cheek. I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t grow tired of hearing it, either. For one thing, I yearned to hear it more, and he knew this well. A woman’s body should feel it belongs, even when flitting between delusion and truth.

I do not expect to be beautiful. What I do hope for is an acceptance of what I am. But, no, I lie. I do very much, with all my heart, want to be all things beautiful. And by this I do not mean the beauty of the heart or the graceful and noble charm that embodies a person. I want the splendor of a set jaw, the even texture of skin, and proportionately sized features. A heavenly symmetry. A face so flawless I wouldn’t mind a second look at myself.

I have not been formally diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, but when I heard Dr. Annemarie O’Connor, a clinical psychologist, speak about how people tend to obsess over a physical flaw that others cannot see, I wanted to exclaim—she’d named the threat that repelled me. A shame-based disorder. A distorted perception. The aim of this excessive visual focus on the body is “to look acceptable and normal.”

Now the thing to fear is the norm that a broken world projects, one that I consume eagerly and desperately.

My favorite book by Toni Morrison is The Bluest Eye. For all the right reasons that cut through me so deeply. That a girl can be so aware of the ghastly feeling of ugliness. Now, whether her reflection is contrived, irrational, or as real as the sound of her voice is nothing compared to what it does to her mind. What I’ve come to learn about myself is that I do not mind sitting in the aftermath of self-sabotage, submerged in it fully.

With more clarity than I’m used to, I can remember a specific photograph of me in a purple dress; I must have been six or seven when it was taken. It was a simple picture, and I looked happy. Was I beautiful? Was I innocent? Far more alive and present than I’ll ever allow myself to be? Perhaps. And everything in me wants to go back to a time when insecurities did not claw me from behind and reveal themselves slowly to me. A time when I made no room for contemplating what was acceptable about this vessel, this body of mine, with its permanent misadventures.

I know when it is coming, the breakdown. It is frequent now. My body jerking back and forth to the rhythm of its own shock, its inability to accept the fullness of what it is. Our relationship is barbed and fractured—the one between my body and me—and my hands are always the device that both soothes and deforms its landscape. I scratch my nails over my face in frustration and dab a cotton pad of witch hazel on acne scars, staining my tear-streaked cheeks. It stings. I clip a peg over my nose to give shape to its flatness. I quit taking lowfat milk and skip breakfast for weeks so that I can slide a spoonful of vanilla ice cream onto my tongue. Out of a seven-day workout to lose belly fat, I make it to the fourth day and have no recollection of why I began, why before it, the only meaningful desire I had was to trim my waist, carve it away in a shape so slender and distinct it would alter the trajectory of my life. It is this kind of indiscipline that drives me to the edge of insanity, and yet somehow I know what lurks underneath is the fear that I’ll check all the boxes and still recognize all my flaws because they are precisely what I’m looking for.

With the world as it is now, quiet, empty, and deadly, it is inevitable that my sense of inferiority will burrow deep, my comparison having heightened from all the time I have to look at and wish for everything outside myself. I feel my body submitting to a pattern of numbness, hour by hour, drawn deep into a tunnel that goes on forever. A dark darkness. A lonely loneliness. I’m all by myself in this bed. Lying here coiled, with my knees almost touching my chin, I feel for the first time a hum, an urgent longing for something more than merely surviving. I want to put away everything that has convinced me otherwise.

I stand in front of the mirror, what Ms. Sanchez calls the eyes to the soul. I look at myself, finally look at myself. The woman that I am, the presence that I carry. Eyes agleam. It is a penetrating expression shooting through every weathered year of internalized self-loathing. The image that looks back at me is weary and fighting back tears. I unclench my fists, relax my shoulders. The release is unfamiliar to me. A surrender charged with what I know to be mercy.

I shall not be my own enemy. Not today. No validation in the world can make up for the grace I withhold from myself. And should I be hurled into the throes of sorrow, I hope to God it’s not one I bring on myself. I stay still. I do not erupt in tears, but I grieve the life I think I want, where the damage is just as good as what it strips from me and I know instantly what I don’t want. A life of shadows, a catastrophe lying in wait, an act of disappearance sparked by the assaults of my own hand. I take my face in, the caverns of my body, every bloated and shrinking nook, and I look on with a tenderness I’ve never offered myself before. I see me, and for the first time it is not as horrifying as I imagined it would be. Not even in the least.

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