Emma took a deep breath and lowered her face into the water. It was so shallow she could see the bottom so clearly as the water swished back and forth. She blinked once and reached one hand up to let her light brown hair go. The hair fell into the water and floated to the top, soaked now. She nodded her head once, and then shook it. Then, she pulled her head out, gasping for air.
"I wish you wouldn't do that," Lisa said disapprovingly as she swung her long legs across the edge of the bed. Emma looked up at her friend, noticing Lisa's dark eyes narrowing as she followed the line of water dripping from a strand of Emma's hair.
"Why?" Emma asked coolly, pulling a towel out from underneath her knees and wrapping it around her head. "It's fun."
"It's masochistic," Lisa said flatly. She rubbed at her stomach. "God, I'm so fat."
"And that's not anorexia?" Emma asked with a laugh. "Well, we sure found each other. The girl who enjoys seeing how long she can go without breathing and the girl who doesn't eat."
"I eat," Lisa protested. "I'm just so bloated now, you know?"
"Anorexics suffer from denial," Emma said, standing up and gazing at herself in the mirror. "Girls with bulimia less so. It's something about the fact that bulimic girls realize that self-inflicted vomiting isn't good. Refraining from eating is more mental."
"I eat," repeated Lisa, now joining Emma at the mirror. "But seriously. Look at this. I can't dance like this."
"If you don't eat, you won't dance at all," Emma murmured, hiding a grin behind the clean towel. "I'm going to go again, so close your eyes. You should try it. It's like a high, I swear." She unwrapped the towel from around her head and placed it gently beside the bathroom sink. She shook her hair out and looked at Lisa expectantly.
"I'll pass," Lisa said, rolling her eyes. "I'm going to try those stretches again."
"Those looked painful."
"They are." Lisa lowered herself to the floor and grimaced. "This hurts like hell."
"And then you say I'm masochistic," Emma muttered.
"Well, this is for art, so unless you think drowning yourself is artistic, you lose," Lisa snapped, now leaning forward until her forehead touched her knees. She whimpered slightly, but held the position.
Emma turned back towards the mirror. What an ugly face, she thought to herself. Such crinkled skin. Such stringy hair. Only her eyes were nice, that gentle blue that seemed to shine throughout anything. And water enhanced the color of her eyes… So here she went again.
She held it out for a minute, and when she resurfaced, she laughed gleefully. "Did you see that?" she asked Lisa happily. "I could do this forever and ever." Lisa, from her uncomfortable position on the floor, merely grunted. Emma looked at herself in the mirror again. There. That was much better. Her eyes fairly glowed now, and her skin looked smoother and creamier, like on those commercials on TV. Even her long, hawkish nose looked smaller and cuter now. It was true that water made her beautiful. And her hair shone now, like it did for those women on the ads for shampoo and conditioner. Emma was beautiful.
Lisa pulled herself out of stretch fifteen just as her phone rang. It was her mother, calling to remind her that they were going to eat dinner at Marcy Deckle's house. Lisa didn't particularly like Marcy, but their mothers were friends, and Marcy was one of the most popular girls in school. It couldn't hurt to make connections like those.
"I'm going," Lisa announced, stretching one final time and standing up. Emma, who had been glued to the mirror for the last five minutes, turned.
"Oh," she said simply. "Where?"
"Marcy's house." Emma snorted.
"Bring me back an incriminating photo."
"You shouldn't talk that way about someone who can make your life a living hell," Lisa scolded as she collected her things. Emma raised her eyebrows and pushed back her wet hair.
"Worse than it already is?" she asked. "I think not. Have fun." With that, she turned back to the sink and dunked her head underwater. Lisa waved and left. Sometimes she didn't understand Emma. Sometimes, though, she understood her too much. As she waited for her mother outside, she wondered what food would be served at a girl like Marcy Deckle's house. There might be some sort of expensive fish, or maybe steaks… Lisa felt her stomach rumble at the thought of such luxury. The thought of such food sustained her all the way to Marcy's home.
Lisa stared in awe at the home. Marcy's mother strode forward, smiling sweetly as she greeted Lisa's mother. The two walked away, leaving Lisa alone with Marcy.
"Hi," Lisa said, smiling awkwardly. Marcy said nothing. Lisa looked around nervously and waved a hand around. "This is a nice house. I mean, really beautiful."
"It's fine," Marcy said flatly. There was no emotion in her voice, almost like a robot was talking and not the most popular girl in school. Marcy was staring straight ahead at Lisa, her eyes resting on Lisa's stomach.
"I'm going to go to the bathroom," muttered Lisa, stepping quickly out of Marcy's line of vision, feeling uncomfortable. "Which way is it?" The other girl pointed wordlessly, and Lisa hurried there. Once she got into the bathroom, she locked the door and stared at herself in the mirror. With a groan, she leaned against the door and let out a long stream of air. She lifted her shirt up and carefully scrutinized the body Marcy seemed to be watching so intently. Yes, there was definitely a line of heaviness along her ribcage, and another bulge around her waistline.
"Lisa? We're in the dining room." Lisa's mother's voice floated in through the door.
"Just a minute!" she called back. "I'm almost done." Lisa could already smell the food: heavy steaks, rich sauces, elegantly arranged cheeses… She could see it all. But she could also see the fat hanging off her body. One meal would hurt more than it would help. Lisa sucked her stomach in and looked in the mirror again, unable to hold back a smile. She could do it. This was how it should be. Lisa was beautiful.
Marcy could feel herself being dragged along through dinner. There was nothing left to feel as she listened to her mother blabber on and on. Once her mother asked if she, Marcy, felt alright, and the simple lie was taken so easily. Soon Marcy would be even better, locked alone in her room, with only pretty thoughts to occupy her mind until morning.
She got up groggily the next morning. It was all boring routine, preparing for school was. Throwing together an outfit was easy: just grab something. Anything Marcy chose to wear would instantly be considered cool. Putting on make-up was easy: just hide the obvious. Doing homework was easy: just copy someone else's. Getting her backpack ready was harder. Her mother always insisted on organizing it, but Marcy had learned to keep her far away from what was important to her. Only Marcy knew what was in her backpack.
When she got to school, everything on the checklist was checked off and done. She had her posse following her, and any minute boyfriend Ian would appear. Marcy wondered how she was surviving this slow, monotonous reality, and her mind traveled to a small baggie that lay at the bottom of her backpack. Thank god for pills. They really did help. One quick trip and all the troubles in the world fell away and loosened up.
"Hey, babe." Marcy let Ian wrap her up just a moment before school. His hugs always felt strong, resulting in Marcy feeling weak. She smiled up at him, and let him kiss her. Moments like these almost made her happy, but then she caught sight of his beautiful face and his muscular body. At that point, she simply felt happiness slip away into oblivion. She was hideous by comparison, after all. How could anybody think something like this great and sexy?
"Hi," she said back, relaxing so that he could hold her from behind and cover her neck with kisses.
"I missed you," he murmured. Marcy said nothing. She reached a finger up to her face and touched the small pimple developing there. Feeling tears of shame rising up, she buried her head in his chest.
"I missed you too," she whispered, but she didn't mean him.
Seventh period came. The bell would ring in ten minutes. Feeling closed up and boxed in, Marcy asked the teacher if she could go to the nurse and be excused, saying that she didn't feel well. The teacher let her out, and Marcy escaped into the empty hallway. Unable to take it anymore, she reached into her backpack and pulled out the baggie. One pill was all it took. She placed it on the back of her tongue and swallowed. Quickly, before anyone could spot her, she dropped the baggie into the open pocket, zipped up her bag, and ran in the direction of the bathroom.
Marcy stood in front of the cracked mirror. Her hands gripped the sink tightly as she stared at her distorted face. Her ugly, twisted face. She turned on the stream of water and washed her face, waiting patiently. Only another minute or two… Her face swam in the mirror before her, those sharp eyes glaring beneath plucked eyebrows. It was so tiring, taking care of this face. No matter how hard she tried, it was never enough. Her face was always so imperfect and so fake, needing layers and layers of makeup just to make it easy on the eye. Inside was worse. Marcy felt the ache deep within her body and knew that her insides were just as ugly. She felt her body tense up, but then she loosened her muscles and waited a moment. Then…
Marcy smiled. Already her harsh features were relaxing into something gentler and prettier. The pimple had all but disappeared. Her skin smoothed over, making make-up unnecessary and pointless. She was able to smile, able to show of two rows of perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. She was able to let her hair down and move around freely. Everything glowed. She giggled as she stared into the cracked mirror. Two noses, two faces, two mouths… She couldn't hold it back anymore, and Marcy laughed out. She reached one trembling finger out and stroked the beautiful person in the mirror. That was a pretty girl. Marcy was beautiful.
Ian lifted up the first set of weights to the sound of his sister, Delia, playing the flute. He grunted each time he heaved them up, and then sighed with relief when he let them go. It was tiring, working out. He stopped every few moments to take a quick drink of water and wipe the sweat off his face.
Ian stopped the moment his phone rang, and answered it. "Hello?"
"Hey!" He instantly recognized Marcy's voice and suddenly felt self-conscious, like she was watching him. "How're you doing?" She was laughing madly, though from what, he had no idea.
"Oh, just working out," he said simply. "You?"
"I'm at home." Her voice was that unnatural loud it got sometimes, when Marcy was in her chipper and reckless moods that frightened Ian. "Just hanging out."
"Listen, I've got to keep working. We'll talk later, okay babe?"
"No prob," Marcy giggled. "See you later!" Ian heard the click at the other end and let out a sigh of relief. He always felt uncomfortable during work-outs, like someone might see him and comment on his body. Ian lowered the phone and stared at himself in the full-length mirror along one wall. He peeled the sweaty shirt from off his back and lay it down on the bench. He could see his chest and arm muscles rippling as he moved.
Two years. Two years of hard work on his upper body had been for this. Ian was no longer a scrawny geek with looks that were wasted on some small kid nobody cared a rat's ass about. He had a gorgeous, popular girlfriend, for god's sake. He had the best abs in the whole school.
Not quite, said a quiet voice in the back of his head. Jimmy the Quarterback had better abs, and bench-pressed more. Harley Wendell had the largest chest muscles of anyone in school. Jason Brimstone was the strongest boy in school. Ian wrapped bulky arms around his body, suddenly feeling exposed and weak.
"Yo," he heard a voice from behind him. Delia, his younger sister by a year, entered the room and nodded her head in acknowledgement. "Put a shirt on. You're all sweaty."
"And you're all covered," he shot back. Delia blushed and pulled the large sweater around her tighter.
"I'm modest," she snapped. "Nothing wrong with that. At least I didn't bloat my muscles up 'cause I thought girls would like me better if I had better abs." Now it was Ian's turn to blush, and the red crawled up his neck, past his cheeks, and finally settled on his ears.
"They're not bloated," he said scathingly. "This is what a muscular body looks like. Not that you'd even know what a body would look like."
"No, that's what a lame-o body builder looks like," Delia snapped. "Fuck that. I'm going to my room." She stomped out of the room, leaving a shirtless Ian alone in the room, standing in front of the mirror, staring at his body.
Ian ran one thick finger along the edge of his stomach. He then lifted his fingers to his arms. The muscles were strong there, but when he tried to lift the wooden bench in the corner, he found that it was heavy. Too heavy, in fact. It startled him, and he nearly dropped it on his foot. He sat down on the bench and gently rested his head on his lap. Maybe Delia was right, and his muscles just looked good. Worried now, he pressed in on his stomach. It was strong, but not nearly strong enough.
Ian jumped up and sat down at one of the machines. He set the weight high and began to push and pull, grunting and nearly crying from the pain. He had to work harder. He had to achieve the perfect body. As he worked, he caught sight of himself in the mirror, and let out a delighted laugh. Ian was beautiful.
Delia lay on her bed, both arms wrapped tightly around her body. She could hear Ian's voice ringing in her head. And you're all covered. And you're all covered. Her fingers gripped the edges of her hips tightly, squeezing as though by pressing down on them she could make them disappear.
She'd hated this body since the beginning of puberty. It hadn't taken very long realize it. After years of being told that she'd get the chance to grow up into something beautiful and gorgeous, at age eleven she suddenly found herself in the awkward situation of strangely large hips and a curved body. While (thankfully, she thought) her breasts were small, the rest of her body was stick thin, curvy, and elegant. A perfect ass for a guy to grab. Her grip tightened around her body and she squeezed tight. She closed her eyes hard and silently wished she could just disappear. She could hear the sound of Ian in the work-room, his yelps of pain and his occasional triumphant exclamation. Without even realizing it, she fell asleep, curled up in that position, holding her sides tightly, pressing everything in on itself.
She woke up the next morning, showered, and got dressed for school. She pulled on a pair of old cargo pants that were much too wide, a loose sweatshirt that hung off her body bulkily, and pulled her hair back in the simplest pony-tail in existence. Satisfied, she arrived at school with a heavy back-pack and her head bent down.
There were always voices in the halls. Boys yelling at her. Mocking her. It was because of how she looked, she knew. She knew that they'd laugh harder and harder for the rest of her life. Forever and ever. Hearing them call out to her, she pulled the sweatshirt around her body and lowered her head even more, careful not to look up at anyone.
"Hey, Ugly!" a boy called along the way. Another, nearby, yelled out, "Hey, man, you're such an effeminate dude, how come?" and laughed. Delia ignored them, and side-stepped into the girl's bathroom. "Hey, why are you going to the girl's bathroom, man?" The boy laughed as the door shut behind Delia.
A brown-haired girl at the end of the bathroom suddenly pulled her head out of the stream of water. Her face was wet and her nose red, but she was smiling. She looked at Delia for a moment, and then, giggling quietly, skidded out of the room. The water continued to flow straight into the skin, and Delia, rather confused and disturbed, quickly turned the faucet off. She found herself staring at herself in a broken, cracked mirror, gazing into a face that was so marred by the shattered glass. A quiet chuckle behind her made Delia turn around. A girl stepped out of a stall, smiling slightly. Delia recognized her immediately as Ian's girlfriend, but the other girl seemed not to notice Delia and left the bathroom with the same satisfied smile. Delia crouched back against the wall and pulled the sweatshirt around her body tighter, so that it covered the butt of her jeans, so that it muffled her curves, so that it effectively hid her body. And so she smiled. Delia was beautiful.
Just like everybody else.
Dedicated to anyone who has ever felt that they need to do something to make themselves beautiful.