I grab at the rounded flesh of my stomach and turn my head to gasp at the dimpled cellulite of my thighs in the mirror behind me. Angrily, I survey my now poorly-fitting bra (so worn through after 18 months of backpacking that the fabric now represents the greying folds of elephant skin), and bemoan my unflattering black cotton briefs purchased once upon a time from Tesco. Their elastic sags forlornly, as if they too have given up on this weary physique of mine.
Perhaps if I take off my ankle socks, my stubby legs (shaved last week) will appear somehow – magically – longer and slimmer.
I bend down and yank the holey fabric from my feet, wincing as I get an eyeful of my cake shelf folding over itself as I reach down.
“How are you getting on?” a happy voice trills through the curtain.
I stand suddenly upright like a deer in headlights, watching the reflection of the curtains anxiously. “Fine, thanks!” I call back quickly. The idea of the attractive teenager in her stylish skinny jeans and crisp white crop top looking at my half-naked form is more than I can bear. The last thing I need is for a 16 year old with the metabolism of grease lightning to witness what could be hers in a mere ten years.
Cursing all changing rooms across God’s green earth, I pick up the tight black exercise shorts and squeeze my legs into the tiny leg holes. Or perhaps they are actually arm holes to me now, I can’t be sure. The fabric instantly – without so much as a warning – sticks to me and sucks in my flesh, painfully pinching the fat on my hips. Looking a little more closely, I can see there is a clear camel toe where a smooth ladylike crotch area should be.
(I am not sure who came up with the term “camel toe”, but I hate them dearly. It is not my fault that I have a vagina.)
The cake shelf is spilling over the elasticated waist. I try to suck in my stomach, but whilst I can control my muscles, the excess fat (I am sorry, there is no pretty word that comes to mind) remains standing resolute.
I turn to the side. Even without the camel toe in view, the sight is not flattering. My stomach protrudes as though it were pregnant and my heart flutters with fear. I go through my cycles in my head. Nope, I’m just fat (there’s that word again.)
I feel as though I’ve squeezed through a tube and half popped out the other end, just like the Play Dough I used to force through all kinds of awkward shapes and cookie cutters as a kid. Only now the dough is my body fat and there’s nothing fun about it at all.
I examine my reflection more closely. Is that a spot on the top of my leg? Since when is it possible to get thigh acne – I have never once watched a YouTube beauty guru talk of such things? Does this mean that I am a disgusting freak? Or is it like that time in my adolescence when girls denied having body hair only to be secretly removing it all along, too ashamed to publicly admit its existence? Either way, the spot is very red and alarming.
I shuffle closer to the mirror, still sideways on, to get a good look at the monstrosity. The culprit in red is around one millimetre in diameter and sporting a white top hat, just for fun. I quickly flatten his top hat and dim his spotlight by pulling the shorts further down my leg.
Am I sure about the awfulness of these shorts? Perhaps this is just my lack of self-love talking. Maybe if I can think more positively and with more love, I can change the way I see myself in these shorts. Radical self-love is all the rage these days, after all. It’s a miracle cure for life’s ailments, if nothing else, or so I am told by various female internet entrepreneurs.
I try to keep my mind blank and face my reflection head on. I see the muffin top + camel toe combination once more, and face facts. These shorts are not worth an ounce of my humiliation, let alone my hard-earned money.
With a heavy heart I grab the next size up from the hook on the wall. I remember being a teenager and declaring that I would never – under no circumstance – ever be this size. I thought that anything above a size 10 was for fat people and mothers. Now I am acutely aware of how stupid this understanding of the female form was. Clearly I spent too many hours perusing teen magazines, watching The O.C and listening to my peers.
However, here I am…holding these shorts in the Forbidden Size. I pull them on with baited breath. As I awkwardly move, hopping from one foot to the other, I note the way that the lights somehow make me appear at least three times bigger than I thought I was at home standing before my bedroom mirror. The set-up seems to highlight every dimple of the skin, wobble, unwanted movement, and ounce of cellulite. This concerns me, I think briefly, because I thought that changing rooms lights and mirrors were supposed to make you look better? Perhaps I really am just that fat, I wonder incredulously.
Unfortunately, the Forbidden Size fits better than the last. These shorts definitely feel comfortable. If I forget their size, it actually feels like a blessing – no, a mercy – to have something about my waist that doesn’t humiliate it by constricting its blood supply.
I look at my bum in the mirror behind and feel my soul sink. The Forbidden Size is not big enough: I look like I am trying to wear the butt-cheek-hanging-out-the-shorts fashion. Are they really too small for me? Or is this just the fashion?
I stare sternly at my face in the mirror as I stress over my dilemma. I have never been good at this clothes and fashion malarchy. I don’t know what is in style and what is nothing but a hot mess. I have the tiniest beads of sweat forming on my hairline. My cheeks are flushed with an over-heated, stressed crimson (why don’t these places ever have air con?) The black khol that graced my eyes this morning is now smudged to my cheek bones. I look like a dolled up teenager at the end of a drink-fuelled night out. There is another crimson culprit chilling on my chin; he’s slowly but surely boiling to the surface, refusing to wear his top hat. Bastard.
“Argh!” I involuntarily groan aloud. With a swiftness that only frustration can inspire, I whip the shorts off and pull on the next size up.
Do they fit even better?! I am not sure. They look better on the bum – there is not a dimple of cellulite to be seen. However, they are slightly baggy at the front. A baggy camel toe.
I turn in a quick circle, giving myself a shrewd analysis.
I am not convinced.
I put the previous size on. My bum really does fall out.
But then I have a thought of inspiration and encouragement. Once I lose some weight – because as soon as I leave this changing room I am going on a diet (I like to call these promises the inevitable “Changing Room Vows”) – my bum will be much smaller and svelte. Perhaps this is the moment I have needed to get myself on track! This moment of dire realisation. I can practically feel myself buzzing with resolve. Maybe – just maybe – this changing room mirror is my very own Alan Sugar and Gordon Ramsey rolled into one big ball of misery and motivation. They are shouting at me to stop being so lazy and to get off my arse, eat some kale and join a gym. I could even get a juicer, I gasp with pleasure. Yes, that will make me more motivated and on point – if I spend money on these shorts and a juicer then I will have to get slimmer.
However, am I still prepared to have my butt hang out, even if it looks like a Victoria Secret model’s? I ask myself. Maybe not. Looking at my bum in the Forbidden Size, I can’t be sure that it would disappear enough to not peek out from these shorts.
I take them off and return to the size above the Forbidden Size. But the front of this size…it makes my crotch look like its a kangaroo’s pouch.
Let’s see the other pair on again.
And the next size up. Again.
I go back and forth like a madwoman until I can tell neither difference nor reason. And I am sweating profusely. My armpits are damp. And I still have a matching top to try on in at least three different sizes.
Heat flushes up through my legs the top of my neck and I suddenly can’t breathe as I flail in a mixture of humiliation and indecision.
Should I get the smaller size or the bigger size? Which would look worse on me? Kangaroo pouch or butt cheeks?
I strip back down to my underwear. A long tail of loose black thread falls forlornly down from my Tesco granny pants, the elastic stretched and the fabric half-hanging. I pause for a moment, just taking in the sight.
I bite my lip to stop the tears. I grab my well-worn leggings and settle back into their welcoming cosy depths, and button up my loose-fitting shirt.
I try to get the clothes back on their hangers, but I cannot get them to sit right. They look like misplaced unwanted creatures, watching me with trepidation. Will they be picked or returned to the masses?
Wiping the eye liner from my cheeks, I check my face and sniff back the private torture.
“Any good?” the smiling girl asks me when I finally emerge from out behind the curtain, very much like the small and meek Wizard of Oz.
I hand her back all of the items, except for the smaller pair of shorts. “Just these,” I say with a bright grin.
“Great!” And she takes the assortment of bedraggled clothes.
Walking back out into the bright lights, I muse over the pair of Forbidden shorts in my hands. I recall my exposed derrière. I see the digits signalling their size. I can’t. I just can’t.
So, I place them carefully back where I found them.
I walk out of the store empty handed, no Great British Pounds lighter, but somehow one hundred kilograms heavier.