The first thing I notice is the color– a deep, almost Crayola blue, cooling the warm undertones of my skin. The flowers wrap around my neck and across my chest. I love this dress, and have been complimented on it all morning. Yet, as the fluorescent lights bounce off my skin, I am struggling to like the image I see. I am looking in a middle school bathroom mirror, trying to convince myself that I don’t look ugly.
For most of the middle school girls that I teach, this, sadly, isn’t a new experience. I am not, however, in middle school, nor writing about feelings I had at 13. I am 31, standing in the bathroom at the school I teach in, trying to be okay with how I look.
It’s such a subtle change, I chastise myself a bit. All I did was remove the belt I’d had on earlier that day. It had been a nice tie of the outfit together, sure. But, this day, it had mostly been uncomfortable. I’m sitting much of the day (my students are watching a film), and belt sort of sits uncomfortably across my stomach. I also, at this point, just ate a big (and delicious) lunch. I’m done teaching for the day. I sit in my discomfort for a moment, then ask Why am I doing this to myself? Finally, I decide to take the belt off.
It’s fifteen minutes later when I look in the mirror and struggle with the person staring back at me. As I sit in the feelings, I try and ask why wearing a loose dress with no cinched waist feels so hard and makes me feel so insecure.
I could name a handful of things, I’m sure. Being a chubby kid and young woman, I still struggle to find the balance between celebrating the way my athletic body now feels without feeling the need to wear everything tight. I’ll put on a snug shirt and slim pencil skirt, look in the mirror, and have to remind myself that you don’t need to keep proving to people that you’re skinny now. It doesn’t actually matter, before changing into a more comfortable outfit I actually want to wear.
Now, at 31, I am working at being more comfortable in my skin. It’s still a challenge, though, every. single. morning. After running a 3:30 marathon a little more than a month ago, I haven’t run more than 7 miles at a time since. I just… haven’t wanted to.
So, because I’m not running 40 miles weeks, I catch myself still thinking I’m not “good enough” or fit enough. Like with the belt, I know that the change is small and barely noticeable. I have been working out every day (and having my wonderful partner join me!), and am arguably better shape now that I’ve incorporated weight training back into my fitness regimen. Though I know it has no real barometer on fitness, I’m the same size I was when I was marathoning. I know because I am, unfortunately, back to measuring myself nearly every day.
Which is, to be fair, another reason why the lack of belt is such a ridiculous thing to worry about. Why does everything I wear have to be cinched in, as if I need to prove that some part of me is small and, therefore, worthy? Why am I letting that decide whether or not I feel pretty?
I close my eyes, take a breathe, and relax my stomach. My belly goes soft, filled with the food I made it. Soft because it’s Friday at the end of a long week, and my body is in desperate need of some relaxation. Soft because I am, after a week with my partner, my friends, my therapist, finally relearning how to breathe again. Soft as my body goes through its ritual changes and prepares for the children I do not yet have, but hope some day to. Soft as a woman’s body is, sometimes. Soft as my mother’s body, my abuela’s body, the bodies of the women before me and like me who looked like me and who wore and wear dresses like this one.
The dress moves only slightly. With the belt, it would pull and tug at the fabric while pushing in my stomach. Now, without the belt, it flows over my belly, pushing out a little, caressing it, then flowing back down when I release the air and let my body relax. I do it again– watch my stomach move against the dress, try and love the sensation, and then watch as my body moves away from the dress.
It is not perfect. I am still working to like the image in the mirror. But, for the rest of the day, I will try not to put the belt back on, and instead revel in the feeling of loose comfort and bright colors that I know, deep down, are just as worthwhile as I have the power of being small be in my mind.