It had been five years since the day she looked into the mirror and realized how fucking ugly she was.
Five years and hundreds of meals skipped to make up for it.
Five years, four internships, and three boyfriends later there was still only one thing she wanted.
Smooth knees, big lips, shiny hair, a flat stomach, a slim waist, toned legs, thin arms, and soft heels.
All Rupa wanted was to look perfect. Not better, not worse. Just. Perfect.
If beauty was in the eye of the beholder, she wanted her own beady ones to light up in the mirror. Striving for excellence didn’t just mean being at the top of her class, it meant losing the three kilos that kept her from greatness. As she stared at the clock again waiting for the class to end, her eyes drifted to her legs, unsatisfied with the way her knees popped out – not knobbly, but not smooth either. Sometimes she wanted to take a knife and just carve out the shape she wanted them to be.
What if she could? Her dreams of plastic surgery were interrupted by the bustling of her classmates. Another class over; another day gone by. She looked down at her phone, ignoring all the plans made by her friends to hang out. Hanging out meant eating meals together, but Rupa detested the stares she got when she just pushed the food around on her plate.
“Are you coming today?”
Rupa cringed. It was Mira, who happened to be in one of the groups that she was ignoring. Mira was thin, small, and had the kind of eyes people would write about. She was smiling at her, probably waiting for the same sort of enthusiastic response that she must have gotten all the time. Rupa had gotten used to letting people down by now, so with poise and grace she gently let her down as well, building a crumbling “coffee plan” castle in the air.
She walked back home, glancing at the beautiful people around her, wishing that she could occupy their bodies instead of her own. People kept telling her that she wouldn’t be any happier even with a different body, and that happiness came from “inside”.
Her lips cracked into a grin; “How naïve”, she thought. How can you ever know the impossible? If she could switch bodies with Jennifer Lawrence, she would pretty much be set. Since that hadn’t happened yet, who were they to tell her that she still wouldn’t be happy if it did? They didn’t know. Of course they didn’t – they were a bunch of ordinary bitches, satiating in their own mediocrity. What if one day she could wake up and look exactly like her, with 35-26-36 measurements, honey blond hair and those startling eyes? Rupa’s heartbeat quickened at the very thought. What if she didn’t have to look up how much a nose job costed in her area? What if she could replace her deep set, dull-brown eyes with Mira’s? She would be gorgeous.
Her face reddened at that thought. Mira didn’t have it all, and there was no apparent need to envy her. “Rupa has it all”, she kept telling herself, “except beauty”. Her hands were dry, her fingers were too long, and she cursed how her breasts were shaped – “too small, and too saggy”, she thought as she dug her nails into her waist, yanking the extra skin on both sides. Her reflection in the shop window to her left did not do her any favours. She quickened her pace.
Rupa spotted one of her classmates, another friend of hers. Janaki had the perfect set of legs, long and shapely. Rupa wanted to saw them off and stitch them onto her hips, which were far too narrow to ever look attractive. After exchanging pleasantries as quickly as she could, Rupa finally reached home, where she spent most of her time these days: her anger was best served sprinkled with loneliness.
Home, where Rupa could finally continue her latest project – drawing herself. No, she wasn’t being narcissistic, she was simply drawing the most perfect version of herself. She would make notes as to what she could do to reach her ideal. After making a few changes at the thighs and collarbone, Rupa pinned the drawing on her mirror and then stripped before she gazed at her reflection next to the drawing. Her unsightly eyes shifted between them, the two images, side by side – her meaty hands scribbling down notes on the nearly-full notepad. Her chest clenched. She was so far away from being the girl in the picture. Rupa looked at the girl in the drawing: she was beautiful. She loved that word, and kept repeating it to herself to make it clear that it was a tangible goal – not some far away fantasy. Rupa could become the best version of herself. She would, someday, no longer need to strive for excellence; she would embody that nine-letter word. She didn’t care about what others thought of her, she just wanted to look perfect for herself. She often dreamed up an alternative world where she could attach and detach limbs and fix herself according to her dream image. The soft, feminine hands, the rock-hard stomach, the ass she’d only ever seen on Instagram. She looked at herself in the mirror again, picking out everything that was wrong with it. She came up with 10 things, then 15, then 20. That day’s count was relatively low, on some days it would go up to 50.
“Love yourself”, her mother often said to her. She clenched her teeth thinking of those pre-teen days where that sorry excuse of an aging hippie would almost sing the phrase until it was ingrained into her mind. What if she could? She sat in front of her mirror, as a longish face with unimpressive eyelashes stared back at her. What if she could? Janaki’s legs were all she saw when she closed her eyes. No, not Janaki as herself, but Janaki as the tennis player with whom she had had a class last semester. Not Janaki, who had once ruined her favourite blouse with her tears and smudged eyeliner. Not Janaki’s face, hair, or shoulders; not her kindness, smile, or her haughty glare. Just her legs.
She let her fingers glide over her own legs, feeling every ingrown hair, every scarred-over mosquito bite that she’d scratched too much. Every blemish was a disappointment that the mirror reflected. Mirror gazing: a cute term for an ugly habit. She was a modern-day Narcissus, except she was already drowning in a five-feet-five-inch pool of dark brown, light brown, beige black, and red – like her nails and like those little double-tapped red hearts they ached for. “What if?“, she thought to herself as her fingers pinched her stomach.
And then she cried – the restrained kind of crying that came with practice and poise, the kind of crying that is silent and only leaves you with a wet face and red eyes: nothing more. She allowed herself this small solace until she became a set of blobs in the mirror. Rupa recognized the pathetic level she had fallen to, but she knew it was only her looks that prevented her from achieving greatness, and anyone who said otherwise was only fooling themselves. So she pushed herself, and had good reason to. Shakily, she wiped her face after she was drained of her tears, her pathetic but surviving string of hope finally kicking in. Rupa then dressed herself and opened Instagram, the beauty radiating from the small screen blinding her. The screen was a delectable mix of perfection and calculation. Calories and collarbones, contact lenses and natural makeup shots. The fantasy that one day she would pull it off, and the possibility of her achieving her goal to acquire the amalgamation of physically perfect features she longed for, were not far off. Her thumb hovered above a clean eating challenge accompanying the most prominent hipbones she’d ever seen: hipbones that would look great with the flat stomach she’s been working on. She could almost see it – better yet, she could almost feel it.
Words: Mahima Srikanth
Art: Sanika Palsikar
Edits: Shweta Swaminathan