How to Really, Truly See Yourself
A requiem for lost time and a primer for the future
I spent my twenties fantasizing about having a three-dimensional mold of my body. What did I look like not just in the mirror but in space? How much room did I take up? I once or twice saw magazine articles about artists who made plaster molds of pregnant people’s bellies, rotund and planetary in their magnificence, the bright white of the plaster a form of illumination. These artists lived in New York City, like I did; one of my favorite things about living in Manhattan was that, for the price of a subway token, I could travel to the Village, or the Bowery, or Tribeca and visit the studios and haunts I read about in Vogue, W, and Mademoiselle, the massive rooms with cement floors, with air that smelled like clay and paint and was lit with the genius of, for instance, capturing the shapely curves of gestation, of big, taut bellies. I never knocked on the doors though — I lingered on the sidewalk, my reflection like glaze on the window, obscuring whatever there was to see inside.
If I’d been a bit more brave, I’d have gotten one of these molds of myself. Instead, self-conscious about my desire, which did not involve pregnancy, I pined. And I invented other means of measurement. There I am, in the dark railroad apartment in Harlem, holding my jeans in front of me, my hands awkwardly stretched inside the waistband, peering into the cavity where my stomach and ass and thighs went, trying to get a sense of how much space I filled up. I’d cinch an inch and imagine how I might look if and when I weighed less, and then another inch, and another. Or I took the familiar bit of string from my sewing kit and wrapped it around my stomach, making the ends touch. I’d suck in and pull the string tighter, then snip it, then lay the string in an oval shape on my blanket, roughly the shape of my middle, again trying to discern how big I was to other people.
On the surface, I was just trying to understand what a size X looked like. (This was before the days when you could Google that information). I just wanted facts.
But inherent in this activity was something darker: the erroneous belief that one, especially a woman and Black person, could take up too much space, an amount of space…