How A Month Without Mirrors Set Me Free

Actor and writer Zosia Mamet has spoken openly about her struggles with an eating disorder and body dysmorphia. Here, she recounts how a month on the road without mirrors impacted her perception of self.

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There was a freedom to it like I had never known. And one I didn’t expect. It didn’t set in right away. It took a while to build up in my system and truly take hold. But once it did, it’s what I imagine heroin might feel like.

An utter disembodiment.  

I’ve spent my entire life feeling like I’m captive inside my own skin. I used to describe it when I was younger, or I guess I still do, as feeling like I’m covered in a film. As if the imaginary layers of fat that I feel all over me are a thick suit that I want to rip off every second of every day. I read a story once about how a girl cut her belly fat off with a butcher knife. Just chopped it off. And no part of me was shocked. I understood. I still understand why she did it and what drove her to such an extreme. Self-hatred is a powerful emotion. I’ve always been aware of my triggers. Whenever I have to have my photo taken. Work does it, too, sometimes, or if I’m wearing something tight or revealing that I don’t feel comfortable in. Events where I’m surrounded by beautiful skinny people, fittings, or trying on clothes in general. Wearing a bathing suit. The usual things that can plague many women simply existing. 

But I never thought about mirrors. They’re such a common part of our lives. They’re everywhere like sinks or the news. So, the idea of the absence of them and what that could do to my relationship with myself and the world never occurred to me. 

And then we went on the road. My husband and I embarked on a cross country road trip. Our belated honeymoon. We’d often drive incredibly long distances, sometimes seven or eight hours in a day. Sometimes through endless stretches of terrain where we were the only car on the road, and the road went on for longer than our brains could compute. Desert or trees or just land sandwiching us and going, going, going on forever. Sometimes cows, sometimes horses, but usually just nothingness.

We’d drive and we’d talk and we’d snuggle Moose, our dog. And often I’d make us sandwiches while he drove. I’d read. We’d listen to music and podcasts. We’d make up songs. When we got to our campsite we’d set up shop and take Moose for a run to get out her wiggles. And then we’d make dinner. Good food but always simple. Pasta with sauce and sausage. Tacos. Turkey burgers with roasted sweet potatoes. The less cleanup the better. We’d be ravenous by the time we got to dinner and exhausted by the time we finished. We’d clean up and get into bed and sometimes read, but normally we were too tired. It was cookies and milk and then we’d fall asleep. 

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There was one mirror, if you can even call it that, in the RV we were driving. It’s in the bathroom and it was about five inches square. You could just about see enough of your face to not get toothpaste in your hair, and that was about it. We were stopping in national parks or quirky small towns. Not many mirrors. So, the days began to string together, and my eating became more primal. I ate because my body needed fuel. I didn’t think about calories or carbs or how much. I ate when I was hungry and until I was full. I didn’t really have time to think about it. And being in our little portable unit moving as a bubble out in the wilds of the country, I didn’t really care about the usual nonsense knocking around in my brain. There wasn’t anything around to remind me to. 

I lived without mirrors for a month. That’s all it took. One month away from my industry and my triggers and the lopsided aesthetic values that our world has imposed on us. Just one single month and I was free. It felt like what I imagine getting clean could feel like. I suppose that’s exactly what it was. The lens through which I’ve seen myself my entire life had been switched out. Like that device at the eye doctor. I found myself feeling my body, it’s real size and shape, for the first time I could remember. I actually FELT myself. Not a heavy invisible fat suit covering my skin, not a prisoner trapped inside of myself, not hatred or wishing I had the guts to cut off my stomach fat like that other girl had. I just felt myself. And it’s hard to admit, and scary for some reason, but it felt good. I liked what I felt. I don’t even know how to fully describe the freedom, like some invisible chains I’d been wearing forever were finally unlocked and that was it. 

And then I came home. I came back to New York. Walking out my door and onto the street and into the subway, I could feel it. Like a voice in my head, a fucking evil whisper. I could hear it every time I passed a beautiful girl hissing, She’s skinnier than you. Every time I caught my reflection in a store window, You need to lose five pounds. And then I heard it even clearer, like a loud-speaker in my brain, as I stepped off the elevator into the offices of the couture brand who was fitting me with an outfit for their dinner that night.

I ran directly into a model who was 6-feet-something and the kind of beautiful that makes you stare. She was ethereally thin, a wisp, the size I’ve yearned to be my entire life to be. And, she had a disgusting head cold. I heard her apologizing to the girls from the brand about her sniffles. And even snotty nosed and coughing she was still a fucking mermaid. And she was SKINNY. That word, that aspirational word. When I was young I used to wish to be so skinny that people would be worried about me. Because then I’d know I was skinny enough. If people were worried, I was safe. I walked into this fitting and I pulled a dress off the rack of clothes I was given to choose from and the girl helping me said, ‘Oh, that dress is VERY small.’ And in that moment that full-breath freedom that I had finally tasted disappeared, and I crawled back inside myself, chained and contained in that hideous suit once again.

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All it took was one day back in the world of eating disorder emotional landmines to return me to my self-imposed prison. I didn’t cry during that fitting, but I wanted to. I felt like I had gained 10 pounds in five minutes. I felt huge and hideous and I was surrounded by three floor-to-ceiling wall-to-wall mirrors. That day was the beginning of a slew of days that continued to not be great. That’s the trick with dysmorphia, once it catches hold it’s nearly impossible to kick because everything you think you see you can find something to enforce that reality, no matter how absurd or impossible that reality might seem. 

I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a while the other day, and they told me I looked ‘great, really healthy.’ I wanted to crawl into that familiar hole and die. I know in my rational mind that this person was being kind, complimentary even. But all I could hear was, Wow, you got fat since I last saw you. So, what now? How to pull the dysmorphic glasses off for good... ever? How to re-create and hold onto the freedom that I found for that glorious month living on the road. I don't yet know the answer to that. But I’m working on it, and I sincerely hope that I’ll eventually figure it out. Because I’ve tasted freedom, and it’s as sweet as they say. 

Prison fucking sucks.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.

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