School starts next week, so I’m sitting in a stall across from the stall where my teenage daughter is trying on clothes. I can see her bare feet, toes pointed together like I keep mine when I’m not sure about things. Every few minutes she opens the door to show me another pair of jeans, and I smile and say, “What do you think?”
The floor is laminate with black and white speckles. It looks like television static unless you get too close, and then the shapes start to make faces. Pop music is droning over the speakers, mostly men with breathy voices singing about women they’ve either conquered or can’t forget.
There’s a sticker on the three-angle mirror that says, “We love bargains as much as you do. Shoplifters will be prosecuted.” It’s an if/then statement. If you steal from us, then there won’t be any good stuff for anybody.
When I was a kid that warning made me think of missionaries who got burned alive and stoned, because I couldn’t keep prosecuted and persecuted straight. Still, I figured that whatever happened to thieves served them right.
That was before I realized there were so many more ways to steal than stuffing a sweater in a purse and sneaking it out the door. Now I’m old enough to know that everyone is tempted to take something forbidden at some point — illicit affection, or tainted admiration, or dishonest employment, or improper pleasure — and so when I look around and see all that gets stolen, I wonder that there are any bargains left in the world.
“Does this look okay?” my daughter asks, popping out of her stall. “You’re beautiful,” I answer, which is true, no matter what she is wearing. “What do you think?” I ask. She disappears, unsatisfied.
A few weeks ago we were in another dressing room together when a woman started talking to me. I don’t get dressed up any more than I have to, but she said I looked like the sort of person who knew how to pick out clothes. She needed a dress to wear to her niece’s wedding, and she wanted my help deciding between two. I told her I didn’t know much, but I’d give her my opinion.
She was anxious about this wedding because a new thyroid condition had caused her to gain 30 lbs, and while she talked, she kept apologizing, pressing her hands into her stomach and hips while the tags on her dress flipped around. She said that if only I’d met her a few years ago, I would have seen the real her.
I didn’t see anything wrong with her at all. She was lovely. But since she wouldn’t believe that, I told her that I had jiggly arms underneath my shirt, and then I shook them to show her and she relaxed a little bit.
After she turned around a few times I said, “Well go try on the other one, and let me compare.” The second one was splendid, and I made a big fuss over it, even though I could tell she liked the first one better.
She decided to buy them both, and I knew that meant the morning of the wedding would come and she would stand in her bedroom trying each dress on ten times, feeling like they both were mistakes, and then she would start to feel like she was a mistake herself. But in that dressing room she let me coo and cluck over her because the world is dangerous, and we need somebody to believe in us before we get out in it. People talk about how mean women are to each other, and sometimes we are. But in dressing rooms and waiting rooms we tend to be safe. We know when to keep our claws in.
I remember the first time I had a mammogram, how that nurse led me to a room where a bunch of us sat in a line, obediently covered in those candy pink flannel wraps, holding our breasts to our chests and flipping through magazines that we didn’t care anything about. We were all embarrassed and scared. The older women were kind to me, and I tried to be polite, but I couldn’t tell you anything I said to them, because I was too nervous to think.
I tried to be brave, but I cried when my turn came, in part because it hurt so much, but there was something even worse than the pain. This was the first time in my life I’d felt like nothing more than a piece of flesh. I’d had intellectual problems with secular humanism before my mammogram, but standing there in that room with a massive x-ray machine, I caught a glimpse of what it would mean for a person to be nothing but organized cells. All at once I caught the horror and the indignity of atheism.
The technician took hold of my body as if it were meat and smashed it between plastic, told me to hold my breath while a piece of metal was pushed up into my collar bone, and then she got a worried look she wouldn’t explain, did it all a second time, and sent me to sonogram. I lay there on that table shaking, explaining to the radiologist that I had to be okay, because I had little kids at home. I got out my phone and showed him and the nurse a picture of my family, as if they could slam a button and fix reality if I were persuasive enough.
I don’t know why that was so traumatic. Nobody was cruel. Nobody was impatient. Still, I could tell that whatever my news was, good or bad, it would be added to a chart and filed through a computer. Every woman in that waiting room, no matter what her story entailed, was business as usual.
I’ve jumped through this hoop several times now, and I’ve only seen one woman in that waiting room wear the pink gown as if a mammogram were just another appointment in a busy day. She was some sort of professional with a real haircut and her nails done, and she wouldn’t even look at me in the eyes. Maybe power came easier for her than fear. All the rest of us have walked softly in those spaces, and we have become one another’s daughters and grandmothers, mentioning children, and grandchildren, and saying silent prayers for one another, and meaning them.
A beautiful Asian woman is walking out to look in the big dressing room mirror. I would guess that her lineage might be connected somehow to the southern part of China. I once spent three weeks in China, and I was amazed that even in those hot, crowded streets most of the women moved with a marked gracefulness. Their feet were hardly subject to gravity. Perhaps this gal in the dressing room has lived in America all her life, but she moves with that same fluidity.
She turns around to look at her backside in the mirror with her hair in a floppy ponytail and her pretty mouth in a scrunch. She places her hands on her rump two or three times looking over her shoulder. I don’t know what she’s worried about. She’s perfect. I would tell her that if she asked me what I thought, but she doesn’t.
There is a pile of jeans in the floor in my daughter’s stall. A few of the huge tags are visible, and one promises her a better backside if we buy them. My daughter and I laughed at that when we pulled them off the rack; it’s such a stupid gimmick. Still, they were on sale, so she’s trying them on. She’s a sensible girl, middle child, gentle and generous.
Another tag shows a purple-faced woman singing into a glittered microphone. A stadium full of listeners is waving at her. I suppose they wouldn’t sell many jeans offering to help teenage girls dominate biology class.
The preacher talked this morning about how women should be taken seriously by the church, but I wasn’t paying too much attention because I was helping my little boy trace around my hand on the bulletin and wondering how the skin on the backs of my hands got so wrinkled.
“Woe to the Pharisees,” the preacher said, and then he talked some more and we prayed. I looked down while closing my eyes and saw the veins inside my ankles. I have those big Dorris family veins, which bothers me, so I had to take a breath and remember that such things are vanity, vanity.
They tell women not to think about any of this. They say that if we hide our hearts in Jesus deeply enough that everything we aren’t will fall into a tidy place, and sometimes that’s true. Maybe it’s always true if we keep going in. But I’ve also seen brilliant young girls stay lonely for years while snotty, greedy beauties get rescued and re-rescued. I’ve seen decent men leave good wives for bad girlfriends.
“There is life for woman without a man,” we are reminded, and that is absolutely correct. But it’s one thing to decide to fly solo, and another to be betrayed and have to change plans. There are awful deaths that God grows some women through, classrooms that nobody would choose on their own. Women who learn real praise and security through such times have passed through war.
I don’t like it when religious people sexualize holy things, and a lot of modern worship seems to be moving in that direction lately. When worshippers start swaying around, burning off earthly longings and frustrations, I get uncomfortable. Sometimes it seems like they are trying to get emotional kicks out of an imaginary divine boyfriend. But when you take out all that’s wrong with sensuality in worship, there is something beautiful and mysterious about the idea of the church waiting for a bridegroom. I think that’s why the Bible gives us that image. I don’t understand the metaphor completely, but I do think it means that the sorts of heartaches that are brutal on this earth won’t end on this earth. And I think it means that women are more than x-rayed meat, and wrinkles, and dress sizes, and thyroid conditions, and toes pointed together while looking into a mirror.
A little girl in an aqua dress pops out of a dressing room stall. She’s maybe nine. She has a perfect suntan and white blonde hair that looks like it’s been in the swimming pool all summer long. Bright blue eyes.
“This looks good, Mom!” she cheers before she even looks in the mirror. When she finally sees herself, she grins and twirls around.
Her mother sounds tired. “You have to pick one or the other. We’re just getting one.” The girl knows the lyrics to the pop song on the radio, and she starts singing them into the mirror. I don’t like seeing it. She’s too little to sing songs like that.
My own daughter opens her door with a look of relief on her face. This pair of jeans looks great, and she knows it.
“You’re beautiful,” I tell her. She glances in the mirror, turning back and forth, and I wonder if she sees the whole truth, that she is the sort of woman who is strong, and creative, and powerful, and tender. She is daring, and curious, and glorious. Watching her life makes me remember that even while we are all puttering around here, trying on the stuff of this earth, we are also waiting for a new one.
“I like those,” I say. “What do you think?”
“They’ll do,” she says. Then she looks at me and smiles.
– – –
Painting: “Young Woman at the Mirror” by Berthe Morisot (1880)
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.