I should be better at this: the simple act of looking in a mirror. It’s estimated that most women glance at their reflection around 16 times a day – not just in mirrors but in shop windows, other people’s sunglasses and passing cars. I’m in my early 50s so give or take the odd day off, that’s over 300,000 glances.
I'm in the changing rooms in a shop in Piccadilly. I convinced myself that I needed a pair of black skinny jeans. I've ended up sitting on a pile of clothes – I only tried on the pair of super flared black trousers which were in the sale, size 8, far too tight and far too long – in my knickers, socks and oversized jean shirt, staring into the mirror and realising that recently I've become much more punishing towards myself, much more unforgiving and much more resigned to being a passenger in my own body, rather than in control. (Research suggests that up to eight out of 10 women are dissatisfied with their reflection and more than half see a distorted image.) So I decide to try and mindfully tackle the 'mirror body' I see looking back at me.
I stand up and start at the top.
Do I like, or accept, my face, my hair, my skin as it is or as it looks in the mirror? I look tired but it's nothing I can't accept; my eyes still look sparkly. I feel like I've become safe in my newsreader three-colour-blonde hair, but I could try to let the dye grow out. Apparently it’s ageing to be your own colour but I am ageing, so maybe I could try and see how my own colour might look and feel.
I look down, still mindfully refusing to give in to the feelings of shame, the feeling that by my age, I should be doing this better, or should have stopped kidding myself that it matters. I realise that my jean shirt is big, loose and square; it makes me look big and square. I take it off and then take off my bra, which is all push, pull and plunge, and incredibly uncomfortable. I keep saying I'll buy a comfortable non-wired one but I never do, feeling that being pert is being perky and present, and somehow keeps you in the game. I look straight at my boobs. They're fine – not perfect, not symmetrical, but fine. My nipples are a lovely shape. I take a photograph. It will become a strategy, I decide, to take snaps of the bits I like. Nipples first.
Mindful advice one: Take simple snaps of the parts of your body and face that you like. Build a library of love and care.
"Are you okay in there?" the assistant politely calls through.
"Yes, can you bring me a size 10 and 12 in the black flared trousers please and take this size 8 away?"
Mindful advice two: Start out big – perhaps two sizes too big – and work down. Not the punishing routine of working up from your old size, your ideal size and weight.
I continue my journey and there at my belly, my eyes come to rest. Somehow my belly has outgrown my shape; the balance between slim parts and rounded parts has tipped over into incongruence. I realise that my belly is the result of my comfort eating but I don't cry or indulge. My belly is the result of falling for the lie that over a certain age we must keep trying to look like our younger selves. Impossible. My belly is the result of failing spectacularly to do the impossible. Sitting down, it seems even bigger, more rotund. I can't see my knickers anymore, just my belly button, which now faces outwards. I like my belly button though. Snap, another snap for the gallery.
Mindful advice three: Own the emotional stuff that's going on and hug the outcome.
Recently I happened to come across an edgy ‘wank circle’ who gather together in group masturbation (don't ask how, I just did). We, the wank circle and I, laughed and joked about sex, intimacy and hang-ups, and they invited me to one of their sessions. They talked about how masturbation could mean a whole range of things, from curling up under a blanket, just you and a dildo, to using a big butt plug while completely naked and in full view of others, to eating carrot sticks and hummus in the corner – self-pleasure utterly personalised.
As they talked, I tried to picture myself in their shared space, naked, and all I could see was my body as a series of interconnected blobs held together by toothpick legs and arms. Me, sat in a corner, feeling so acutely self-conscious of my shape that even my own internal, cosy mirror shut down and said: "We refuse to imagine you naked anymore, you are now consigned, in our eyes, to always wearing a loose layered kaftan, artfully placed over stretchy knickers."
I open my eyes in the changing room, take everything off, sit back on the bench naked and imagine how I might sit with others to wank. What's my group masturbation pose? Legs open? Too much; I look like a builder with a belly. Legs artfully crossed, leaning to one side on my arm? Too fey. And then I think, 'Be mindful; look in the mirror, be mindful and seek comfort'. I lean back against the cold wall and allow my body to be. My legs flop to one side and my belly becomes softly rounded and sweet. I feel comfortable.
The assistant knocks and I, not thinking, shock her by opening the door naked.
I wonder as I close the door if I can ever be consistently confident in my body. If I can be accepting of me as I am, here and now, in the changing room. Maybe I need to find a Sunday afternoon nudist club to practise being naked and present in.
I leave the changing room and the trousers behind but take with me the understanding that I need to do this work because it doesn't get done without me. Yes, I often feel unattractive and often feel undesirable but, more importantly, what I realise is that I've grown used to feeling uncomfortable in my own body and that makes me feel more uncomfortable. I need to be mindful of that and start to develop a strategy for feeling, simply, comfortable.