When my evening flight to visit my son was derailed, I knew there was only one thing that could ease the mortal wound Southwest had inflicted – a trip to TJ Maxx. Birthday gift cards were eating a hole in my wallet, clamoring for clothes that might show my waist a little grace. My closet mocked me each morning with outfits that were “so close” to fitting – but, “so close” doesn’t work when you can’t zip your pants and society demands you wear pants in public.
While I was scouring the racks for the next size up I began an internal dialogue, berating myself for everything I’d eaten and drank since last Christmas. I did the math on the gym membership that was rarely used since March. The thoughts came on as quickly and persistently as the extra holiday pounds had.
While I was in the dressing room with my allotted ten items, I heard a woman in the room across from me speaking harshly, in hushed tones to someone.
“This is never going to fit you. Just look at your stomach.”
“You are so ugly. Why are you so ugly?”
“I hate you for making me come here.”
I felt physically ill imagining the daughter who was at the other end of this degrading, verbal dress-down. My heart broke as my mind spin-cycled through the ways to rescue this poor child. Do I let management know? Do I intervene myself? No one deserves to be talked to like this. I couldn’t stand by and let this awful woman fill this girl’s head with garbage like that.
As I slowly opened my door, I saw the woman who belonged to the voice of the disparaging comments. She was scowling at her target in the three-way mirror. I was poised to confront her about how she was speaking to her daughter when I realized she was alone. Her focus on her flaws deepened as she auditioned the dress and she growled at all three of her images.
“Fat, fat, fat.”
“This isn’t going to work. You look terrible, just terrible.”
“What made you think you could wear horizontal stripes?”
The conversations I regularly had in my head about myself weren’t much different than the words that were boiling out of this woman’s mouth.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I think you look lovely.” (I don’t often use the word lovely, but telling her she was stunning felt creepy in a ‘take me back to your apartment’ kind of way. And she did…look lovely, that is.)
She glared briefly at me and pretended not to hear me. I said it again, louder.
“I said, I think you look lovely.”
She quickly turned towards me, and I prepared to get my ass kicked at the home of the Maxx for the Minimum. Instead, her frown melted into disbelief. Clearly, she had never spoken to herself with such kindness.
She latched onto her stomach beneath the knit dress and said, “You’re crazy. What about this? Look at all of this fat. I’m disgusting. You’re lucky. You don’t have to worry about any of that.”
Now, I don’t usually strip for strangers. At least, not for free, and definitely not sober. But, I lifted my shirt then and there and bared the remnants of three pregnancies, a handful of surgeries, buckets of wine, pounds of chocolate and the changes in metabolism menopause left me as a parting gift.
I squeezed my fat for extra emphasis and said, “See? I have it too. Some of the best women I know have this. There’s nothing wrong with this, or with you. You are beautiful.”
I told her to look in the mirror again and see how the neckline drew attention to her eyes, notice how the color of the dress made her skin radiate, and how the sleeves made her arms look fierce.
She made a face, either processing the compliments or wondering how long it would take security to remove the half-naked woman harassing her outside of Room 8.
She gazed at herself in the mirror for a moment as if seeing herself more clearly and then smiled ever so slightly. She turned to me, her voice quivering, and told me that she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had said that she was beautiful.
The woman retreated to her dressing room and we each finished trying on our clothes in quiet. A few minutes later there was a knock on my door. I don’t typically entertain visitors in TJ Maxx and I wondered if word had gotten out that I was giving free peeps. I opened the door, and there was the lovely woman, asking for a hug.
She put her hands on my shoulders, looked me kindly in the eye and said, “Thank you. I really needed to hear what you said today. I’ll never forget it.”
She went on to say, “I thought about my stomach a lot as I was trying on the last few things. I’ve had five children and I just went through a divorce. I’ve been taking care of my mother who has cancer. I work full-time and I adore wine and cheese. There’s nothing I would change about how I’m living. In fact, I’m doing pretty much everything right. I’ve been through a lot and I AM beautiful. I don’t know why I’m so hard on myself.”
I told her that most women are much too hard on ourselves – that she had to learn to be kinder and gentler…that it starts with her. We say things to our mirrors that would get us fired from work, ruin friendships or merit a visit from social services if we spouted those words to our children. Yet, we have these vile external and internal dialogues with our reflections, without realizing the damage they cause, the bad habits they form. Our words become our reflection of ourselves. And no one needs to see that.
She nodded emotionally and gave me another hug. We said goodbye and she went to pay for her purchases. As for me, I still had two more pairs of pants to try on. I took a deep breath, made friends with the girl in the three-way mirror and reminded her she was lovely, even if the pants didn’t quite fit.