Everyone has a certain turn when they catch sight of themselves in the mirror. They arch an eyebrow, or hold their mouth closed with their cheeks sucked in. I smile. I smile when I am finished dressing up to go somewhere. I smile if I catch myself alone in the lift. I like my smile. I like myself when I smile.
Lately, I have noticed my left eye crinkles up a little whenever I smile, whether it is my no-teeth smile, or a toothy one. I love it! It makes me look kinder. It reminds me of my secondary school French teacher, Fru Dubois. She was one of the kindest teachers I ever had. That meant everything to adolescent me – self-conscious, frumpy, frizzy-haired was I, my mother the first to point out the changing angles of my growing nose. I never had the confidence to wear what the other kids were wearing because I imagined myself as the kid with the biggest arse a fifteen-year-old was ever saddled with. I would lock my bedroom door and dress in outfits I imagined would be stunning to the boys in my class if they were ever to catch me in them. I would undo my hair and let it float around my face and smile my bright smiles, a fifteen-year-old, desperately looking for approval of her outward self from her peers. But always, when I went to school, it would be in the one or two outfits I considered safe, my sweaters always long enough to cover my big bottom completely, my shoulders heavily padded with detachable pads I bought for myself from the haberdashery department of the store my mother shopped from, in an effort to balance them with my nether regions.
My mother had a vague idea that I considered my bottom to be a handicap I never hoped to overcome. But I doubt she ever considered it a problem serious enough to swoop in and rescue me from. She did try to help me with the fuzz on my upper lip that adolescence brought, and handed me tubes of depilatory creams to do away with similar peskiness in other areas of my body. But that was the extent of the grooming regimen she considered of any import to a young girl. I suppose this was partly deliberate as well – after all, we were in morally-depraved Europe and shunning a teenaged girl’s burgeoning youth and consequent yearnings was arguably the soundest course of action to unearthing that impossible Holy Grail for middle-class Pakistani parents : the Untouched, Innocent, Virtuous, Morally-Upright (or is it uptight…?) Good Girl. As a result, I felt deep embarrassment every time I heard the phrase ‘sweet sixteen’. There was nothing sweet about me at sixteen. I felt jiggly, dark, anything but the kind of girl that was the teenaged fantasy of every boy in my class.
When we returned to Pakistan, things improved considerably, mainly because I wasn’t the only one with hair everywhere God could think of putting it. I wasn’t the only one with hair the colour mine was or skin the colour mine was. In fact, a few years later, I began to discover how tweaking my diet a little could produce miracles in the mirror. Both my parents were still fully opposed to any contact with articles of makeup (my father paid me money to relieve me of the one lipstick I managed to sneakily buy myself in my third year of college). And they were never too pushed to help us follow the latest in fashion even back in Pakistan. But somehow, whatever I had heard, growing up as their child, managed to produce a strange, inexplicable pride in me that helped me to see beyond just the physical aspects of myself. They had always valued intelligence and integrity over all other human attributes. College allowed me to see that I had a bigger share of both than most of my peers. What’s more, I was reading fascinating things, forging new friendships, expressing myself more openly and more confidently than I had in years. Things were reasonable.
My body looked reasonable too. As much of it as I could see in the small mirror my sister and I had in our room on the upper floor of our two-storey house. But my butt was unchanged. Most days I was able to skirt this persistent tragedy of my life and do interesting things that made me happy. But the days that I caught sight of all of me in the full-length mirror in my mother’s room, I felt I was on the verge of being blinded by the hideousness of my body. I would turn sideways to reassure myself that from that particular angle I looked perfectly normal. But when I would turn again to face the mirror, there it was again. A wide, wide abdomen. A huge butt. I would be plunged into despair. When I came back to visit my parents after moving away, I found more than a few notebooks, writing pads and sketchbooks buried in a cabinet below my writing table that had just two words scribbled idly on their very last pages, ‘Ugly, fat.’
Except I didn’t feel that way at all after my marriage! I will never forget how desperately I asked my husband on our wedding night what he thought of my bum. He assured me I was the picture of beauty in every way. He admired my hair, my neck, my eyes, my body. But I wanted him to look more closely at what had convinced me of dying a spinster in my days of girlhood. I wanted him to see the peculiar shape of my bum. Some perverse desire to be told yes, that it really was the strangest sight to behold kept making me draw his attention to it. Poor man. He just couldn’t see what I couldn’t unsee.
I have moved on a considerable distance from those days of desperate melancholy. I still wish I had the kind of mono-butt models happily perk up in magazine spreads. But at 36, it dawned on me how much I love my body. My body worked hard during the days in which it was reviled, helping my parents get a handle on the impossible job of gardening, fallen on a family wholly unused to any menial labour. My arms, my hands scrubbed the front stoop of our house in all weathers and washed the floor of our kitchen every day. My body was able to give and derive pleasure in the beautiful bond of marriage. It grew three beautiful children inside it whom I love with my being. My arms held them and comforted them in their earliest days of infancy in a way no-one else could. My breasts produced milk enough to satisfy their hunger entirely. My heart and mind slogged through days filled with baby chatter and mountains of ironing while my husband worked impossible hours to establish his career. It saw me through mornings filled with hundreds of little chores, from the laundry to the groceries to cooking. My arms carted my children around our house, other cities to which we travelled, stores we went to. My back, my arms, I never had reason to doubt being able to count on. I felt pride whenever the doctor discussed my blood reports with me to comment on my ideal levels of cholesterol, my lipid profile. My body has been working hard each day of its forty-year-old life. It has cleaned itself from within as it was meant to, it has functioned to its optimum, as it was created to. And I am so grateful.
As two friends younger than me have recently fallen ill, one with a tumour in her head and the other with breast cancer, my new-found love for my body has deepened into respect. It is a comrade which has marched my spirit about, wordlessly, every single day that I wanted and needed it to, whether I abhorred it for the few extra pounds it had stowed away or looked wistfully at the abdomen it has been adamant to retain. I look at the crinkles around my eyes with amusement and affection. I have earned them. What a long, precious journey we’ve been on together!