Sometimes it takes seeing yourself in someone else to appreciate your own health and beauty.
Aleena and I were snuggled on her velvet comforter, browsing through her Snapchat memories (a feature that shows users pictures from the past), when a picture from two years prior appeared in the feed. It was a shameless mirror selfie: her shoulders flexed, ripped abs poking out from below a sports bra.
It was a lighthearted image, probably taken in a moment of bold self-confidence or made in an attempt to flirt with another girl. When she saw it, though, instead of laughing or reminiscing about the past, her face fell.
“I wish I still looked like that,” she said.
I turned to her. She was clad in a similar sports bra and propped up on her elbow so that her shoulder flexed in the same way as it did in the picture. She had identical, flirty dimples dotting her cheeks. I laughed.
“Babe, you still look like that,” I said.
She rolled her eyes, and I leaned in to kiss her forehead.
“You know what I mean,” she said, glancing at her stomach, her thighs.
She was right. Her face was a little fuller. Her belly curved into her hips in a softer way than her jagged, younger body once did. But the differences were barely noticeable. If anything, the softness only made her more stunning. I felt lucky to have my hands pressed to her hips.
Despite several, delicate attempts to tell her that she was more beautiful now than in the picture, I conceded that my reassurance probably wouldn’t make any difference. I knew because I had played the same comparison game with my old pictures.
I hardly had any photographs saved into my Snapchat memories. Despite spending my teenage years incessantly communicating through the app, I almost never kept the photos, and when I did, I didn’t often look back at them. In the years since, my body had changed more than Aleena’s had, and I didn’t like to reminisce about it.
As a competitive figure skater for most of my young life, I found the focus on my body and its relative size impossible to ignore. When I was 16, I left my home and my parents in Arizona to train in Colorado Springs, where I was immersed in the culture of an aesthetic sport, simultaneously thriving and suffering under the constant pressure to succeed.
I appeared to be strong and successful, and in many ways I was, but that old me was also fragile. My cheeks were sunken, hollow. My collarbones jutted. My hair hung long and stringy, as if weighed down by my adolescent sadness. I spent many of those years with an eating disorder, and any pictures from that time showed a version of me that was overwhelmingly empty.
Eventually, I realized I needed to recover if I wanted to keep up with the physical demands of my sport, so I submerged myself in the body positivity movement, and worked to gain back my weight and my strength. The person I was in old photographs was nothing like the person I had become.
By the time I met Aleena, I had long since stopped skipping meals, but I still felt a pang of hurt when I came across old images of my thinner self. While I didn’t miss the years of self-loathing, it was hard to believe how bad the starving was when I came across mirror-selfies in my camera feed.
Snapshots from my skinnier past didn’t show the way I would faint after working out; they didn’t show my bruised skin or the way my hair fell out in clumps. When I looked back at the old selfies, all I saw was the way the light caught my cheekbones back when my face was thinner.
Aleena was the first woman I ever seriously dated. Every physical milestone with her felt monumental. We spent hours talking in my car before our first kiss. We brushed each other’s arms on dates but didn’t act on it. For months, when needing to change clothes, we’d blush, then leave the room to undress privately.
So that day when we were lying in our underwear and surfing Snapchat, my hands had trembled as they’d traced their way from her jeans to the skin just below her waistband. She had been nervous too — perhaps because of my inexperience. She had glanced away, avoiding my eager, anxious gaze. Soon we were draped across her velvet comforter in our underwear, seeing each other’s bodies for the first time.
When Aleena realized I could see the backs of her thighs, she said, “Don’t look at my stretch marks.”
I looked away and then slowly looked back. After a moment, I let my finger draw along a stretch mark that zigzagged down the back of her leg. She didn’t tense or pull away but looked embarrassed, as if she could no longer hide a brutal secret.
“You’re so beautiful,” I said. The words sounded clichéd. I wished I had said something better. I knew I couldn’t erase all the times Aleena had been told her body was wrong with an adjective so simple as “beautiful.”
She nodded but I could sense her lingering discomfort. We snuggled a little longer and tried to force ourselves to relax. I breathed and eased into our closeness.
After a few minutes of cuddling, her phone buzzed. She picked it up to check Snapchat, and that’s what led to our interaction on the memories feature, with her staring at her former self, both of us haunted by our experiences with smaller bodies. Despite years of working to overcome my disappointment with my own body, I wasn’t sure what to tell Aleena to alleviate her own perceived flaws.
She was the loveliest human being I had ever seen. Her hair bounced in dark, perfect ringlets. Her eyes batted enormous lashes that caught the attention of everyone around her. Her body was athletic, feminine and visibly strong.
By Karina Manta