The Mirror Image

Shoulder-length brown hair frames her heart-shaped face. Her T-shirt is pink, her leggings pink and white striped, and her jumbled teeth speak of orthodontia bills to come.
She's about 8 years old, and she holds her mother's hand as they walk into my Tremont boutique.

"This is going to be a nice place!" she proclaims. "It smells so good!" Her voice is loud and very clear.

It's a busy afternoon. One customer is looking for dresses that won't cling to her belly. Her friend will not wear anything sleeveless. Another gal is after new jeans but is sensitive about the shape of her derriere.

The knowledge that most women hate their bodies is as fundamental to the American psyche as the world is round and Donald Trump has ridiculous hair. I understood this when I opened my store last fall. But I could never have guessed the sheer pervasiveness and depth of this self-loathing until I got a daily glimpse behind the fitting room curtains.

Nearly everyone wants to lose weight. Those who aren't actively dieting still crave ever-firmer bodies. Upper arms, tummies and rear ends are easily America's Most Hated Body Parts, but even minor frets, such as toe length and freckles, come into play. We all feel an obligation to be supermodels, as if anything less is an enormous personal failing.

I have come to realize that when most women go shopping, it's not really clothes that they're after. Rather, it's simply to not hate what they see in the mirror.

Little Pink Leggings stays close to her mother's side, stroking a jersey dress here, a silky top there. She sometimes plunges her entire head into a row of clothes, rubbing her cheeks from side to side. I flinch inwardly, trying not to think of what she might be leaving behind.

"These feel nice, Mommy! I think you should try this one on!" Mom smiles and tells her daughter she always finds the best stuff.

Soon, I lead them back to the fitting rooms. Hates Her Arms tells Looking for Jeans that she is planning a cayenne pepper cleanse because "you can lose 10 pounds the first day!" Both wonder if denim whiskering makes hips look "even huger."

Little Pink Leggings flings herself in a chair. She jumps back up, pulls the chair screeching across the floor a few feet and resettles herself.

"OK, I'm all set, Mommy! Tell me about everything! Show me your outfits!"

Mom does just that. "There are four small rooms back here, hanging with long white curtains. There is a big mirror on the facing wall," she says, her voice practiced and smooth.

It is only then that I realize Little Pink Leggings is blind.

"This dress is pale green, and it has a long ruffle down the right side. It has a straight skirt; the fabric sparkles a bit •"

She emerges in the dress and pauses before her daughter's chair. Little Pink Leggings reaches forward and runs her hands down her mom's side, her head cocked intently.

As Mom gazes in the mirror, she decides she needs a different size. After petting the dress again, Little Pink Leggings declares, "I can find it! I know exactly where we got it!"

"OK, honey. Ask the lady if you need help."

I follow her as she races out to the sales floor. After some hesitant steps, she heads to the correct rack. Within a few touches, she has the right one. I make sure it's the desired size, and Little Pink Leggings triumphantly takes it to her mom.

"This one fits a little better," she soon tells the girl. "I might be too hippy for it, though."

Little Pink Leggings sighs.

"You always say that, Mommy," she answers. "I sometimes think it's good that I don't know what I look like."

Her innocent sentence, in that clear voice, falls as softly as frost on the hothouse atmosphere of the fitting rooms. There is a moment of utter stillness, a snag in the fabric of our personal truths. I see discomfort of a different sort on the women's faces, and in my own reflection in the big mirror, the silent witness to so much self-induced misery.

With the tiniest catch in her voice, Mom makes a joke. "So is that your excuse for all the jelly on your face?"

Little Pink Leggings goes off in a gale of giggly protests.

The moment passes, but the frost lingers.

Looking for Jeans chooses a pair in whisker-free wash. Hates Her Arms settles on a top without another word about how the sight of her upper arms will surely invite society's scorn.

Little Pink Leggings leaves with her mother, carrying the green dress, the striped shopping bag swinging merrily from her arm.

After everyone leaves, I return to the fitting rooms to put them back to rights. But I leave the chair where Little Pink Leggings dragged it. Perhaps she shifted it to a better place.

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