The Mirror

By Andrew Edwards, PQ Monthly

I wake up freezing at 9:18 a.m. on the fifth of January and immediately make my way to the shower to warm up. Twenty minutes later, the bathroom mirror is fogged over with steam, and as I step out of the tub my blurred reflection is no more than a vague amalgam of flesh colors and human-like shapes. I take the damp hand towel from its hook beside the sink and wipe the mirror clear. The image of my naked body is now in glaring focus. As the steam dissipates, I wonder how many times in my 27 years I have carried out this ritual. How many thousands of showers have I taken, followed by even more thousands of minutes—if not hours—looking at myself in the mirror and, more often than not, feeling dissatisfied with what I see?

As a closeted gay adolescent with little athletic ability or interest, my relationship with my body was always a strained one. Before the growth spurt that added six inches to my height in one summer, I was chubby and wore my shirt while swimming. When puberty invaded my brain with unwelcome thoughts about the boys in the locker room, I couldn’t tell if what I was feeling was attraction or envy. As an awkward, bookish, too-tall high schooler who somehow hung around with two football jocks and a track star, I was so self-conscious about how skinny I was that I refused to wear short sleeves to school.

The common thread throughout those years, and one that remained tied to me into adulthood, was that I constantly—even obsessively—thought about my body and wished for a different one. I spent hours mentally dissecting it in the mirror, noting every square centimeter of skin and physical feature that needed improving. The list filled volumes. My disgust was perhaps disproportionate to the actual state of my body, but self-loathing is rarely rational. So, at 23, I resolved to wrest control from my insecurities and joined a gym.

My reasons for working out—I can recognize now—were rooted in pure, plain vanity. Becoming healthier was a welcome side effect of exercise, but it wasn’t the impetus, or the goal. What schlepped me to the weight room at 24 Hour Fitness every day was the idea of pecs that bulged through my shirt and biceps with veins like a topographical map. I choked down protein shakes and counted calories so that I could finally look like those guys in the locker room (who I now knew I had both envied and desired). I became a true cliché—“juicehead!” my best friend mocked. My genes may have precluded the specific musculature in my fantasy, but for the first time it seemed possible that I might attain a body I was contented with. The more I sweated—the fitter I became—the more I obsessed.

Which, of course, was exactly the wrong way to go about silencing the disapproving voice in my head. Every time I piled more weight onto the bench press or spent an extra ten frenzied minutes on the spin bike, his hiss grew louder and more condescending. “More,” he demanded. “More. That’s not enough. You’re not enough.” Obsession begets obsession, it turns out, and with every workout my hypercriticism reached a new and dizzying level. I now honed in on unwelcome aspects of my anatomy with a scalpel’s precision. After a few years of diligent weightlifting, and with a body my adolescent self would have undoubtedly admired, I was spending more time frowning into the mirror than ever before.

So here I stand, at the start of the year. It’s the season of the resolution, when gyms become more crowded than airports and the Internet transforms into one giant support group for the juice-cleansing masses. I’m naked, water dripping from my hair and fingertips and pooling on the brown linoleum, staring myself down like so many times before. But this time it’s different. It occurs to me: It’s been three months since I last went to the gym—the longest break in four years of mostly consistent attendance. Three months that spanned Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday, and 2 billion calories.

And it’s been precisely as long since I carried out that timeless bathroom ritual of self-excoriation. My body is pale from underexposure, pudgy from overindulgence, and I feel OK. No, I feel great—satisfied, even. Somewhere over the past season, the cycle broke. I can’t pinpoint when or how or why, but I can feel the shift as palpably as I can the January cold. Maybe it’s the change in habit. Maybe it’s growing up, or being in love. I don’t think it matters. Eventually I will make my return to the gym—I have grown fond of feeling healthy. But obsession? That’s so last year.