On a dark blue evening in the crisp early winter, in the upstairs of an off-‐white townhouse hidden in the Chicago suburbs, Sara Edson’s bedroom was dead. Her radio was silent, all of her lights were off, and every mirror in the room was either facing the wall or draped in a bedsheet. Curled up in bed, drowning in the fabric of her sweatshirt, Sara wasn’t sure if the tears on her cheeks were real, or just a pathetic fantasy. Underneath her baggy clothes, a blue dress fell loose on her skin. She stroked it lightly with a bony finger and thought of the last time she wore it.
* * *
It was fifteen minutes past seven in the morning, and before she left to catch the school bus, Sara waltzed into her mother’s bedroom with rosy cheeks and a wide smile. Her mother was perched in bed, wearing wire glasses low on her nose and checking her email. The only light in the room came from the laptop screen until Sara flipped a switch upon entering.“Look!” she beamed as she twirled in her new dress. Blue fabric danced around her thighs and her eyes sparkled with delight. Sara felt happy, beautiful, and capable of handling her first day of high school. Glancing at the mirror on her mother’s wall, her chest filled with warmth. “Damn, I look perfect,” Sara announced to her reflection. A scoff came from the bed. “Cockiness is not attractive, sweetheart. You shouldn’t be so confident.” Sara’s smile vanished, and her mother’s eyes shifted back to the screen. The hem of the dress stopped moving. Her shoulders slumped inward. She was suddenly aware of her relaxed gut. Sara looked in the mirror once more and no longer felt regal enough to wear such a royal shade of blue. She left the room, shutting off the light, and crept back to her room to change.
* * *
The following weekend, Sara invited two friends over to hang out and bake cupcakes, which quickly turned into an impromptu sleepover. The girls were in Sara’s room listening to the radio and picking out pajamas to borrow for the night when Sara’s mother walked in.“Oh girls, I’m so sorry if you can’t find your size! I’ll go grab some old PJs of Sara’s that are a little smaller,” she said, staring directly at Sara, who hung her head towards the floor, caramel hair falling like a veil over her red cheeks.
As her guests changed clothing, Sara’s mother asked how many cupcakes her daughter had eaten. “I dunno. A few. Why?” Sara asked. “I’m just worried for you, honey. Your friends have such cute little figures, I just don’t want you to feel like you stick out.” Sara had never noticed it before, but when her friends rejoined her on the couch, she couldn’t help but stare at their long, swan-like limbs as they curled up in front of the television in her old pajama pants decorated in round, cartoon ducks. She wrapped her body in another blanket, ignoring the sweat on her temples.
* * *
Sara rushed out of her Biblical Studies class, abandoning their reading of Adam and Eve and the slim, seductive snake, and ran to the nearest restroom. The laxatives she took for breakfast had hit her with a wound-up punch. Sara stared at the faded green tiles on the bathroom floor as her insides lurched and choked themselves with tight grips. When the emergency was over, Sara drowsily scrubbed her hands, shook the droplets off her fingers, and lifted up her oversized navy sweater. Her diet of rice cakes, cayenne pepper, water, and laxatives was exhausting and had barely taken an inch off of her waist in the past week and a half. She squeezed the skin above her pelvis and forced her nails to break the surface, staining her fingertips red. She wished she could pick off the fat, toss it into the toilet and flush. Sara lurked out of the restroom as the school bell rang, taking slow steps and flexing her abdomen.
* * *
Seven hours before the Homecoming dance began, Sara stood naked in front of her full-‐body mirror and stared at the reflection with vacant eyes. She nitpicked and analyzed every square inch to add to her mental checklist of renovations to be made. Hips, arms, waist, nose, thighs…She turned her body to the side and sucked in her stomach so it was in line with her ribcage. Her palms smoothed over her abdomen, as if they were hot irons trying to flatten the wrinkles. Sara thought of the jingle she always heard as a child, and her mother’s sing-songy voice echoed in her head,
Tummy in! Tummy in!
Tummy always, always in!
Sara put on her lilac robe, turned on her music, and laid out her makeup collection in front of the mirror. She painted her skin canvas with creams of brown, pink, tan, and white, using a sponge to create shadows and fine edges from the smooth nothingness of her fair complexion. “Make your face into a different face,” she recalled the woman from the contouring video tutorial saying. “Become better by being someone other than yourself.”
Sara extended her masterpiece beyond her face, carefully plotting color on her collarbones and her breasts. She dabbed bronzer on her arms and legs, then glued false lashes onto her eyelids. She drew thick black lines along her eyes and hid her irises under five coats of mascara. Then, Sara disrobed and once again exposed herself to the mirror. Her limbs suddenly looked like those of an Olympic athlete, although she knew she wasn’t capable of doing more than five pushups or even running a mile. Her breasts resembled the chest of a Barbie doll: plastic and immune to gravity. Her collarbones and cheekbones looked as sharp as the edge of a sword, and caved in like a supermodel’s. Sara stared into her own eyes and saw no color. She didn’t recognize herself. Make yourself different. Make yourself better. “Mission accomplished,” she said in a broken whisper with trembling lips. She stepped into her homecoming dress and zipped it up. The black satin fabric still barely clung to her skin, despite having the dress altered two weeks ago. Sara strapped on her heels and took a deep breath, dreading posing for photos with her thin, beautiful friends.
Later that night, before leaving for the dance, Sara’s mother smoothed her daughter’s hair with a straightening iron and called her pretty. Sara’s date, a friend of a friend, put his hand on her waist and immediately withdrew it, carefully draping his arm around her shoulders instead. They didn’t dance together the entire night; she was too tired to stand, and he feared she would break if a fast-paced song came on. Instead, he joined his buddies behind the gymnasium, where they took swigs from contraband flasks and made bets on who could get laid. Sara spent the night sitting at a foldout table, hypnotized by the beautiful dancers, each twirl a wave of enchantment.
* * *
Sara and her date didn’t speak again after homecoming night. For weeks afterwards, she spent each period in school doodling figure eights surrounded by stars in the corners of her notebook. She loved to move the pen in smooth, curving motions, meeting inthe middle like the body of an elegant woman. She also began dressing differently for school. Chicago’s autumn was colder than usual, and Sara battled the falling temperatures in baggy sweatpants and loose-fitting sweatshirts. She hid under dark eyeliner everyday and never raised her hand in class. No one honestly cared what she had to say, anyway. Midway through November, Sara’s high school started to enforce hall passes and sign out sheets for leaving class after an unknown student shattered the mirror in the upstairs women’s restroom.
* * *
On a dark blue evening in the crisp early winter, in a dead bedroom in the upstairs of an ugly off-white townhouse, Sara Edson stripped off her clothes and reveled in the mirrorless room. She tightened her fists and let out a yell from deep within her lungs. Just a pathetic fantasy - a silly dream. A dream of a ballroom dance, and she was the lead. The atmosphere of the room swayed with each movement of her bare body; waning, waxing, a barrier around her hips. In the dream, she was thin and powerful. With a grin, she yelled once more. Hearing the scream, Sara’s mother forced open the door and turned on the lights. Surrounded by imageless mirrors, her daughter sat on the floor in the nude, with black streaks running down her sunken cheeks. Her bones could be seen through her pale skin, and deep, self-inflicted scratches decorated her stomach and sides. With her hands on the floor behind her and her chest puffed out, Sara looked up at her mother’s eyes filled with horror and smiled.