When Bathing by Natalie Kim

Image from The Mighty

CW: body dysmorphia and discussion of eating disorders

I am both familiar and alien to myself. I realize this most when I get ready for a shower. 

I undress by first reaching behind my neck and digging a fingernail into the clasp of my cross necklace. When I twiddle with the pendant I most often see my seventh-grade self crying in my closet, lights off, pinching the softness all over my body. Other times I hear Psalm 56: “You’ve stored my many tears in Your bottle—not one will be lost. For they are all recorded in Your book of remembrance.”1 One Saturday during senior year of high school, in the midst of my most recent (and most secretive) relapse into anorexia, I bought the necklace with my mother’s Amex. 

Then I take out my earrings, that is, the two of which my parents are aware. My other piercings are still healing. For my thirteenth birthday my mother agreed to take me to a tattoo and piercing shop. A classmate had recommended I go to Diablo Rojo, where the artists were supposedly very hygienic and skillful and kind. When my mother and I stepped through the shop’s vermillion doorway and out of the infernal Texas heat, we were greeted by various depictions of devils and more vermillion paint. Thankfully Jason, the piercing artist, agreed to do the lobe piercings even though I did not have any government-issued forms of ID with me (I had my St. —’s Episcopal School ID, with which I had often purchased pencil lead and sweet tea from the bookstore). Thirty minutes after my mother signed the parental consent form, I gleefully observed my reflection in the minivan window, feeling as if I had gotten a flu shot in each ear lobe. 

It was that year I taught my body to eat itself, and so I’ve always felt a strange connection to the fiery doorway. Five years later, I took things into my legally-adult, gaunt hands, and I paid a few visits and several hundred dollars to my friend Diablo. Now my ears have twelve holes. My stigmata. Now they remind me of the self I put to death on the cross, a girl whose rib cage jutted out like Jesus’ always does in the paintings. Like my decoratively impaled ears, she was beautiful in a grotesque way. But she is dead now, and I pray she remains so. That resurrection would mean only destruction. All of my piercings have been infected at some point in time, even though I carefully wash them in saline solution every day. I have an irrational hunch that it is because I got them pierced at a place called Diablo Rojo. 

Then I soak a cotton round in makeup remover and rub my eyes, my forehead, my nose, my cheeks. For old time’s sake I remove the right half of my makeup first, examining the before and after. Ironically, the difference is not as stark as when I was in elementary school. After dance competitions I could stare for hours at my half-plastered face inside my mother’s magnifying mirror, just like I stared for hours into my prepubescent reflection, gently pressing two fingers atop the paint-chipped barre. 

Suck those tummies in, girls! As I plié during Wednesday evening ballet class, I contract the muscles in my abdomen as I usually do, but my tummy doesn’t quite suck in. Perhaps it was the pasta I had for dinner, I think to myself, which I ate to a point of fullness such that my nine-year-old belly bulged, slightly. I simply make this observation and hypothesis, much like I had last week made the observation that my arms acquired certain ridges between certain muscles as a result of the arm workouts we did at the beginning of each jazz class. Imagine a string attached to the top of your head, pulling you up and up and up; remember to lengthen, ladies—there we go! I see my reflection grow an inch as I listen to Ms. Maureen’s instruction. I treasure my spot in ballet class; I stand at the front of the room, by the barre closest to the mirror. I treasure it not because Ms. Maureen places me there, knowing I can memorize combinations well, but because I can, with an unobstructed view, examine the shape of my body and adjust accordingly. As I tendu, my eyes focus on the little promontory at the bottom of my clenched quadriceps. As my right arm returns to bras bas, a preparatory arm position, I feel my leotard dig into my fleshy armpit. I struggle not to readjust the strap, a habit for which the oldest girl on my team often mocks me. I am not sure if it is the motion or the armpit fat, or my young age or my glasses that render me uncool.

Avoiding my mirror’s field of vision, I flip my shirt over my head and unhook my push-up bra. I purchased it a couple of months ago at Victoria’s Secret. The nearly naked women on wall-sized televisions and lacy thong piles and crying babies and uncomfortable husbands made it easy for me to try on twenty-one bras without being noticed. It may or may not be the correct size. I am unsure if there exists a correct size for my annoyingly asymmetrical chest. In that way I suppose Victoria’s Secret’s new marketing campaign “Undefinable” resonates. Indeed, as a nineteen-year-old woman who knows neither her weight nor the breadth of her bosom, it is quite rare for a body to be as undefinable as mine is to myself. Then again, in the absence of some metrics my mind always finds others. 

“By The Seaside” jolts me awake. In the daylight hours, it is the most lively and endearing of Apple’s alarm options, but at 4:00am, “By The Seaside” is cacophony itself and thus a very effective alarm. I half-consciously switch on the nightstand lamp to grab my phone. I rip off my weighted blanket and, still flat on my bed, assemble my right leg into a passé. After I capture the photo I switch to the left side. Then I create a thirty-degree angle with my right arm hinging at the elbow, then do the same with my left. Click, click. I glue both legs together and raise them approximately sixty degrees off the bed, noting that the gap between my thighs seems to have widened a hair. More clicking. About fifteen photos later, it is safe to begin my morning routine, having recorded the existence of a body I hope never to lose. It has been five years since I started getting blind weights at the doctor’s office, but I don’t particularly miss the scale because I can measure my body fine. I linger in bed a few minutes longer, swiping through my camera roll, which primarily consists of collarbones and jawlines and rib cages and wherever my limbs hinge, wherever I see a cavern. Starting in 2017 and ending in 2022 I find it invigorating to scroll through the erasure of my fleshy parts.

My phone buzzes: a notification from Calendar reminds me about a weight-check at my doctor’s office in a few hours. I hop out of bed to put the dumbbells in my backpack before I forget. I rise too quickly, however, and am stuck staring into blackness and then tiny pixels of light until my heart hastens to pump enough blood to my brain. Before I pack the dumbbells, I decide to do a practice run: I pull on my Sheertex tights (a few months earlier I saw an Instagram advertisement boasting the strength of these tights, inside of which hung a dumbbell), and place two eight-pound dumbbells inside of the tights, stacked in front of my pelvis. I stuff some old ankle weights into the part of my bra that gapes. I don my bathrobe, which is about as baggy as the hospital gown I don for weight checks, and I observe in the mirror no noticeable jaggedness in the bust or hip area. By 5:00am I am finished getting ready for the day, and I sit at my desk to revise my senior English project and Astrophysics paper. Fifteen minutes before I have to drive to my doctor’s office, I drink water and coffee until I feel nauseous and can hear the sloshing inside of me. I smudge yogurt in a bowl, painting the remnants of what my parents will think was my breakfast, and leave the dishes in the sink. Except for the thunderous garage door, I leave the house in silence, always before my parents awake. 

As steam creeps through the shower curtain, I husk off my pants, revealing the inscriptions of a zipper, button, and clasp on a lumpy underbelly, my souvenir from last summer’s stay at an eating disorder treatment center. I trace the three lines that allow this body to fold, wondering when the peach fuzz will disappear. Five years ago in a frigid doctor’s office I was told that at a certain point emaciated bodies sacrifice precious nutrients in order to blanket the vital organs in a thin layer of hair. It was the only thing keeping me from achieving the hairless, prepubescent body I saw worshiped in the media. I no longer need the extra layer of warmth, but I suppose this body is wise to suspect a famine any time now. As I stand up straight again to fold my pants, I note that a belly button now obstructs my view of the floor. The tummy doesn’t quite suck in.

After I strip my underwear and socks I fix my eyes on the shower, but I know what will happen next. When I pass the mirror a silence floods my mind. 

With a gentle and curious gaze I greet the reflection. My eyes linger on a pair of collarbones, which still protrude in an eccentric way despite the rest of this body’s malleability. I flatten a hand around the base of the neck, feeling skin slide over bony peaks to remember when I had an exoskeleton. I turn and study my side profile, dragging my palms down a few ribs, tracing hills and valleys and stopping at the dip in my waist. I close my eyes and remember how it felt to close my hands around that other waist, the empty thrill. The chest is a terrain so bizarre to my bony hands. After my fingers relax I find pink crescents sprinkled across my sternum. I flick my fingers and imagine a mushroom cloud of skin cells floating to the floor. 

Stroking my arms up and down, I continue registering the topography of this temple. My right hand reaches for the compact mirror in the drawer. I turn around and see curves and folds and dimpling but no more interstices, no caverns. I raise the mirror higher then lower; I crave a different angle, a different view, a different body. It’s not that I particularly dislike it—perhaps I just want to know that somebody likes it. When the compact fogs up I realize the shower has been running for half an hour. That’s why treatment centers always limit showers to ten-minutes. Otherwise, they’d surely go bankrupt on account of the water bills. 

I step in head first and feel the water anoint me; it is warmer than human touch.

Natalie Kim is an undergraduate student at Columbia University (CC ‘27). Natalie has lived all twenty years of her life in Austin, Texas, where she spends time with loved ones, plays piano and cello, thrifts, reads, explores new music, and writes. Her work has appeared in The Write Launch, and her voice is raw, empathetic, and tethered to memory. She is a past mentee of the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program.

  1. New Living Translation, Ps. 56.8

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