The dressing room has a brightly lit pedestal, and we look back at ourselves from three walls. We stand on it and twist our shoulders and hips, crane our necks, examining ourselves from all sides as infinite, increasingly crooked copies of ourselves list sideways and disappear into the murky darkness of the mirrored mirrored mirrored reflection.
We’ve all done it; fourteen-year-old girls and married women and middle aged women and old women do the anxious, preening dance that the mirrors inspire. But our gaze is always critical – how does the cloth fall? Does it show too much? Does it cover the right things? Is it really me?
The perfected female form – handed down to us through fine art books and museums from the Ancient Greeks – is a sculpted, smooth, white body without a head.
This paragon of beauty reminds us that our bodies are just objects: mere vessels for that which truly makes us human.
The eyes are the windows to the soul – it is no wonder then that the mannequins in the storefront have smooth, anonymous faces.
But that’s no different than the statues in the museums, their features weathered away by time and rain and nature, making lepers of the ones that still have heads. Otherwise, smooth, marble shoulders sweep up into elegant stumps, and we make eye contact with empty space.
Historically, young English lords made off the easily carried heads of the statues in Greece—the pillage of the Classical by the Romantic—and doing so, took with them whatever expressions those statutes might have made, the rest of us have to make do with what was left.
Friends, family, sales associates are always quick to remind us: the lights in the dressing room are unnaturally unflattering. But the critical gaze, the self-critical gaze, the critical self-gaze, knows every imperfection. We seek them out and itemize them, exacerbate them, magnify them, and when we gives them voice, we are met with confusion and incomprehension from our audience. There is nothing that will more quickly imbue us with a sense of alienation, of insanity, than attempting to explain our physical imperfections. Our audience—those same friends, family, sales associates—will always assure us that our flaws are either not as noticeable as they might appear, or that they cannot see those things that are so obvious to us. But we know they are there.
One of the two, either the eyes or the audience, has to be lying. Which to trust?
We know to doubt our own vision of ourselves, just as we are not as smart as we think we are, as commanding as we hope to be, or as confident as we pretend, we must equally not be as ugly as we imagine. But if we are not ugly, then how come the clothes never fit? How come we cannot find pants or shirts or sweaters that flatter our bodies? Our audience must be lying, because clearly we were made wrong, a store full of clothes none of which fit like they should, someone must fit into them…
If only it were easy for the secret to reveal itself: we are all built wrong, or rather, our bodies, as imagined—smooth, white, hard, all angles and swooping curves, no softness, no quiet surrenders to gravity or time, limited by musculature and tendon flexibility—are beyond the alchemy of elastic underwear, liposuction, gym memberships, early morning work outs, calorie counting, and anorexia. Our pathetically human flesh can never compare to life-like marble. We can only glitter in the sun with the help of expensive, mass manufactured powders, salves and elixirs that promise that lit from within glow.
All we can do is catalogue all we see when we stand on that pedestal and hope for the time, money, and energy to manufacture our best selves; rigid, stony perfection, on a box, inside a little velvet rope enclosure with a sign that says Please, do not touch.