A good mirror is hard to find, so I make a list.
1. The one in my parents’ bedroom is freestanding and full-length, an elegant rectangle on a brass tripod stand. It makes me look alright, I suppose, if I arch my back, suck in my belly and bend my knees a bit.
2. My torso is intolerably short in the passenger window of a minivan parked on my street. It sometimes looks fine, actually, but only when I squint.
3. If I stand on a chair in my kitchen, lift up my shirt and push my breasts up to my neck, I can appreciate the curve of my waist, reflected in a cabinet door.
Here is where I admit that I have no idea what the hell I look like.
I can’t tell you what my partner sees when they look at my body, nor what my coworkers see when I turn on my Zoom camera. I struggle to build my digital avatar. Yes, I have brown hair and brown eyes. No, I am not very tall. Beyond that—the shape of my face, the width of my hips and thighs—is a mystery to me. I’ve searched for myself in puddles and in bathwater, in dressing rooms and at golden hour. Pictures and videos show me someone brand new, so I look harder; not for beauty, not always, but for some consistent self-outline.
The textbook term for this absence of definitive knowledge is “body dysmorphic disorder” (BDD), also known as body dysmorphia. A person with BDD may worry about the overall appearance of their body, and may perceive a specific flaw in their physical appearance that other people don’t notice, or that doesn’t even exist. Whether the flaw is real or imagined isn’t the point—though it matters a lot, of course, to the person with body dysmorphia. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders categorizes the condition as an obsessive-compulsive disorder because that’s what we do: obsess over our bodies, then engage in compulsions, like looking into cosmetic procedures and checking for our flaws in the mirror over and over again.
Research on BDD is limited. I read an article that says 2 percent of young people have this condition, and that it affects people of all genders. Another suggests that someone with body dysmorphia can worry about an average of five to seven body parts over their lifetime. Multiple studies link BDD with abnormal visual processing, with struggling to see what is theoretically right in front of you, and this is what I tell my friends instead of insisting that I’m “bad with faces.” One study suggests that 90 percent of perceived flaws involve a person’s head or facial features. For me, it’s always involved, with unparalleled passion, my chest.
Nora Ephron’s breasts, she once wrote for Esquire, were the hang-up of her life. I can relate to that. I’ve believed since puberty that mine are “too big,” which is difficult to define because the “right” size is subjective and informed by hegemonic beauty ideals. How do I qualify my breasts on the page? I won’t even try. Instead, I will provide you with two reference points: first, there is the memory of being fifteen years old and seeing a classmate hold her breasts in her hands and say, “look, mine fit perfectly!” And then there is the memory of overhearing my mother ask a doctor, later that same year, if my teen breasts were supposed to, you know, “hang like that?”
The writer John Paul Brammer describes body dysmorphia as a “constant paranoia of being seen.” He writes, “In my mind’s eye, my body is a funhouse distortion, shifting and warping in grotesque ways, and the world around me becomes a wilderness of mirrors.” In high school, arguably the ultimate wilderness of mirrors, it was common for me to cancel plans at the last minute. I couldn’t leave the house; I had become too distressed by my own reflection. “You don’t see yourself properly,” my mother would complain. She was right. Back then, I didn’t have the language to articulate what I saw and couldn’t see.
We assume that we know our own bodies. We describe them as temples, cages, a wonderland, the sum of our choices. The body is embedded within our language. Knowing something like the back of your hand means that you know it well. But what happens when you can’t access that information? How do you navigate a world that not only expects you to know what you look like, but to also keep changing parts of yourself to fit a socially manufactured mould?
In the early 1970s, four graduate students at the California Institute of the Arts bought breast-enhancing creams and devices advertised to women in magazines. Nancy Youdelman, one of the students, tried each product, while her collaborators took daily measurements and photographs of her body over the course of a month. They presented the images in their university library alongside their notes, the advertisements and their correspondence with different companies, and titled the installation I Tried Everything.
I stood at the display case a few months ago at the Museum of Modern Art and observed the black and white prints of Youdelman’s body. She was topless in each image, often holding a measuring tape and stretching out her arms. I could see my own head reflected in the glass, too, the outline of my tortoiseshell frames resting under Youdelman’s nipples. Below the photograph taken on day four of the project, Youdelman writes: “I’m really afraid that it really will work and I’m afraid that it won’t work.”
At seventeen, I found a tube of bust-enhancing cream in the bathroom of a relative’s apartment. I’d never seen anything like it before. I remember that it was almost empty. The woman it belonged to was middle-aged and married, and my mother and I laughed about this later on. What does she need that thing for? Privately, I wondered: do those feelings go away? I had assumed I’d grow out of them. That I’d wake up at forty-five and not want to change a single thing about my body ever again. Was Youdelman really afraid that her experiment wouldn’t work? Who can resist giving in to the siren call of self-optimization?
These questions are part of the project’s punchline. The point of I Tried Everything is the way the artists use “serious” anthropological methods and language to make fun of our culture’s obsession with physical appearance and the cult of individual body enhancement. “Ashamed of your bosom?” asks a yellowed magazine clipping in the MoMA display case. “Realize the full potential of your figure today! Yes, you can have a big bosom … amazing results!”
Decades after I Tried Everything, the cultural theorist Rosalind Gill would write about the “makeover paradigm,” a post-feminist concept that “requires people (predominantly women) to believe first that they or their life is lacking or flawed in some way,” and second, “that it is amenable to reinvention or transformation” by following “expert” advice. Realize the full potential of your figure today! Through this lens, the body becomes a project, something to endlessly monitor and improve. Who you are requires similar vigilance. If the body, as Gill writes, is “constructed as a window to the individual’s interior life” in post-feminist media culture, then the goal becomes the pursuit of a more “successful” version of yourself.
I consider the relationship between my identity and my physical body and fall short. I’m not sure that my body is a window to anything, except, perhaps, how I am feeling. I have a readable face. I am queer, but I don’t think you can tell just by looking at me. I think of the song “Ring of Keys,” from the Fun Home musical (based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir). It’s performed during a scene where a young Alison notices an “old-school butch” walk into a diner. Alison understands something about her own identity just by looking at her: “Your swagger and your bearing / and the just-right clothes you’re wearing / Your short hair and your dungarees / And your lace up boots (…) I know you / I know you / I know you.”
Maybe what I’m looking for is a moment of recognition. It is human, I think, to look for echoes of yourself out in the world—to want to see yourself reflected in a celebrity doppelgänger, in a film, in a friend. To hope that you’ll see someone walk through the door and recognize a part of yourself in them. To hope that they’ll recognize part of themselves in you, too.
A few days before Quebec lifts its second pandemic curfew, I book a surgical consult for a breast reduction. My screen time is up 27 percent that week, for a daily average of ten hours and thirty-five minutes. Not too bad. I’ve been taking online classes during the day and I keep my Zoom camera turned off. I sometimes imagine myself slipping out of my skin, leaving behind a misshapen, outgrown husk.
When someone asks me why I booked the consultation, why now, I have the desire to say it was impulsive. This is a half-truth. I don’t remember the minute, or even the month, I started to consider the surgery, but I can tell you what came before: the sharp underwire, the tight white polo of my Catholic school uniform, the years of unease in front of cameras and in fitting rooms. The pleas for a grade school classmate to draw me, please, just once, so that I could see myself through their eyes. The way, as a teenager, I would dissect a friend’s response whenever I brought up wanting to change my body. (Blink once for “your tits are too big,” twice for “it’s all in your head.”) Fuck it. Why not now?
Many of the clinics I call in May 2021 are full up; beyond the backlog, there was—and still is—a rising demand for cosmetic procedures, which researchers attribute to the popularity of video conferencing and the idea of “Zoom dysmorphia.” Being endlessly exposed to our own distorted reflections, they contend, can cause BDD-adjacent thoughts and behaviours. I luck out with a cancellation spot a few weeks later.
This is how it happens: I take off my bra. Show the surgeon the grooves in my shoulders. I mention back pain and gravity and how I had to quit dance class in tenth grade. Too much weight; too many mirrors. I schedule my surgery for the summer. In June, I come home from St. Mary’s Hospital and cover my bathroom mirror with pink and yellow construction paper. I tell my partner that I am teaching myself patience. Surgeons call breast reductions “the happy surgery” because of their high patient satisfaction rate, but it can take months for skin to settle into a more “natural” shape and position, and a year for scars to fade into thin, flat lines. No point in peeking while I am still in progress—a body between a Before and an After.
During my recovery, I watch whatever videos TikTok decides I want to see, which is a mix of BetterHelp ads and women trying on clothes after their breast reductions. I fall asleep scrolling through r/Reduction, a community on Reddit where people discuss their personal experiences with the surgery. Many users share uncensored images of their swollen, oozing bodies and title their posts: Size/shape wrong? and Incredibly uneven nipples. I find it comforting. The people on TikTok seem too eager, too pleased with their results.
Therapy and medication like SSRIs can treat the compulsions that define body dysmorphia: the rituals, the rumination, the feelings of shame and anxiety. But there is no cure for the condition. I tell myself not to expect the surgery to “fix” me or somehow align what I see in the mirror with what really exists. I know better than to hope. Still, some secret part of me (the same part that will take every candle-blown wish to my grave, just in case) wants to believe I am the exception.
In July, three weeks after my surgery, I start watching the sunset from the parking lot behind Saint Joseph’s Oratory. I recognize other near-daily pilgrims: couples walking their dogs, teenagers smoking by the wayside chapel. At home, the construction paper is peeling off my bathroom mirror, so I take it down to catch a glimpse of what people now see when they stare back at me. I’m dreading this reveal. The surgeon has promised to make my new chest “proportional to my frame,” and I’m not sure how to tell him I don’t know what he means.
How does the body become a project?
I study my image. Catalogue every new way my body is failing me: how the skin beneath my brow bone folds down to my lash line; how the chests on r/Reduction seem to be healing better and faster than mine; how even my torso looks off today. More compressed, maybe. I google “how to make eyes look less hooded.” Search for “best treatment keloid scars” and order two packs of silicone tape. Then I look up “short torso how to tell” and watch a video called What Kind of Torso Are You? It Changes EVERYTHING.
How do you quit troubleshooting yourself?
Lately, I’ve been trying to think my way out of the obsession. I consider The Second Body, a book by Daisy Hildyard about the relationship between the body and climate change. Hildyard suggests that all living things possess two bodies: an individual, physical body, and another that extends beyond itself and into the world, mapping onto local and global ecosystems. She rejects the idea that the human body has strict, sealed boundaries. We are “always all over the place,” she argues, physically reaching into the world and changing it, just as it changes us.
I find a similar expansiveness in Alex V Green’s Xtra essay “Go ahead, transition.” Green denies the existence of a fixed “self” or identity and makes the case for trans and non-binary medical transition, suggesting that our personal relationships with gender and sexuality keep evolving: “Everything I want and everything I am was once a phase, and one day it will be over. And that’s okay,” they write. “Everything is subject to change; we are always, in some form, in transition.”
I keep returning to these texts the way I return to any reflective surface: set for an epiphany. I imagine how easy it will feel to abandon my quest for a consistent self-image—how obvious the end of this essay will become—once I internalize Hildyard’s and Green’s rejection of the whole, static body. I’ve already embraced the ebb and flow of certainty when it comes to my queer identity. Queerness, to me, re-envisions desire and community, and celebrates possibility. Why can’t I extend that same perspective to what I see in the mirror?
I wish I could say that I have. That after all of this, after my surgery and everything I’ve read, I am enlightened. I’d like to say “who cares what I look like!” and mean it. To promise that I will quit searching for a single, definitive truth about my body. I’m just not there yet. For now, I will settle for curiosity: what would it look like for me to try?
One year after my breast reduction, I learn that Reddit user starkhoneybloom doesn’t like my nudes. It’s a rite of passage on r/Reduction to share NSFW images of your results after a year. We celebrate these posts, not only because they interrupt the feed’s stream of grisly newly operated bodies, but also because they remind us that we are still healing. That our chests will eventually look nothing like they do at three, or even six, months after the surgery.
I upload my own images on a Saturday evening. You’re welcome. I wait for the praise. When I receive the first notification, I’m at my friend Noah’s apartment for a games night.
starkhoneybloom: I mean they’re pretty uneven, how do you feel about that?
I excuse myself to use the bathroom.
starkhoneybloom: if I was looking to get surgery and saw that it would scare the shit out of me.
Besides mirror-gazing, people with body dysmorphia regularly seek reassurance from others about their looks. It’s a compulsion. The purpose is to feel less anxious, but the effect is temporary. So, when my partner tells me what my brain wants to hear, I tend not to believe them. They would never admit that my torso looks “weirdly short, actually.” They love me; they’re just being nice.
No one loves me on Reddit. No one has to be nice. And here is starkhoneybloom, confirming what I have known all along: that my new body is a failure. My breast reduction was a huge, terrible mistake. I start to come apart. I delete my post, then my whole account, even the app from my phone. What else don’t I know about myself? What else can’t I see?
In the other room, I can hear my friends arguing over the game. Something about the timer going off. Someone is laughing. Someone is begging for a do-over. Someone knocks on the bathroom door. It’s my turn to play.
I am partial to Noah’s bathroom mirror. It’s wide and well-lit, and if I stand on my toes, I can almost see my reflection from the waist up. Today, I’m wearing a green satin scarf top, the type I would have struggled to go out in only a year ago. I snap a mirror selfie that I will later scrutinize to death. I want to remember this moment. I want to remember myself in this mirror, with Noah’s mini model of the Parthenon on the shelf behind me, and the sound of laughter in the next room.
When I add this mirror to my list, it’s because of where it is, and who it belongs to. ⁂
Angelina Mazza is a writer and fact-checker from Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in This Magazine, Mayday, Underblong, the Poetry Foundation’s VS podcast and Cosmonauts Avenue. Find her online @angejmazza.