I’ve been wearing her face my entire life.
Even before she died, people used to tell me: “Oh, you look so much like your mom!” I’ve never been quite sure what my response is supposed to be: Thank you? Once she died it became my job to wear her face around, to perpetuate my mother’s nose, her cheekbones, the way she laughed from deep inside herself, the way she stroked the rough skin of her elbow when she was thinking.
She was thirty-three when her body first betrayed her, when the lump formed in her breast. The breast was removed and replaced with a flat pink scar, but not before the lump sent cells scattering out into her bones, eating away at the infrastructure of her body like termites. Now I am nearly thirty-three, and I wonder if something is waiting inside me, if my body will betray me too. My mother looks at me from behind my cheekbones in the mirror as I examine myself braless, feeling for lumps, trying to imagine the shape of myself without my breasts, flat pink scars on my chest.
After she died, when I was outgrowing all my own clothes and no one thought to buy me new ones, I began wearing hers.
During lunch period a girl in the middle school cafeteria asked me: “Does your mother dress you?”
“My mother is dead,” I spat, holding the tragedy like a shield. I was wearing my mother’s black stirrup pants and her button-down blouse with cars printed on it. I was twelve years old and dressed like I was thirty-seven.
But it was becoming clear that I was not shaped like my mother. She was tall and willowy, thin even before the cancer, but I was growing a curved, rounded, cartoon body unlike anything she had ever worn. Her clothes began to pull and bunch oddly around my figure.
After she died, I stopped brushing my hair. She had always worn her brown hair in a short, tidy pixie cut, until the chemo made it fall out and covered her scalp with colorful scarves. My hair was blond and nearly waist-length. She used to pull it back into french braids and side ponytails and decorate it with barrettes with ribbons hot-glued to them. After she died I let it snarl itself into a thick mat of tangles.
One day a grandmotherly woman from my church came over and spent an afternoon and half a bottle of conditioner slowly, gently working apart the knots with a comb. After that my dad took me to a beauty shop and had the stylist cut my hair in a shoulder-length bob while I wept.
I didn’t look like myself anymore. I didn’t look like anyone.
At family reunions and funerals, people tell me I look like her, even though she has been dead for fifteen years, and I mumble thank you and cringe and look at the floor. I am twenty-five and I weigh three hundred pounds. I have betrayed her long neck and her collarbones and her smile, wrapped them in a layer of someone who looks nothing like her. I wear the sort of clothes she would have worn: cotton t-shirts silk-screened with watercolor flowers, decorated with glittering rhinestones; tasteful, conservative dresses in pastel shades. I feel like I am playing dress-up.
I feel the weight of her legacy on me, the obligation to keep her alive in my skin. And I feel the guilt, the sorrow, of letting her down, of never being able to live up to her.
Time passes. I stumble onto the fat-acceptance movement. I begin learning that my worth is not tied to my fatness or thinness. I begin seeing the diversity of shapes and colors and genders and abilities of all the humans around me as vital, sacred pieces of the multifaceted image of God.
I make peace with my size. I begin to see my body as adequate. A long time later, I see it as good.
I stop dieting. I purge my closet of pastels and watercolor florals. I buy clothes that feel like they are mine: a hot pink dress printed with ice-cream cones, earrings shaped like octopus tentacles, galaxy-print leggings. I mostly don’t see her in the mirror anymore, and I’ve stopped looking for her. Mostly, I see me.
And then, this winter, I cut my hair short. Now, suddenly, there she is — I catch her out of the corner of my eye when I walk past a window, or find her peering at me in the mirror in the shape of my eyebrows and cheekbones when I’m taking my makeup off before bed. It’s a little unnerving, honestly, catching her there watching me wipe off my mascara and brush my teeth. All of it comes settling back into my shoulders: The shame that my body has betrayed her, encased her in fat; the fear that my body will betray me, too, the way my mother’s body betrayed her.
But this time, I am fighting back. This body is hard-won territory, and it is mine. This face belongs to me.
I plant flags, staking out the borders of my self: a piercing through one eyebrow, a tattoo on my arm. Things my mother would never do to her body. I do them not to spite her, but to proclaim: I have marked this face and this body as mine, and they are beautiful. I look in the mirror and it’s a lenticular picture: I turn my head back and forth and the image changes, from me to her to me again.
“You look just like your mother,” someone tells me, and I smile and say, “Thank you,” because I do look like my mother. But especially, I look like myself. My tattoo and my piercing make my face and body mine, and I am no longer ashamed that I have betrayed her. Instead, I am glad to carry her with me.
Come in, I tell her. This is my home. There is plenty of room. You are welcome here. Come in, come in.
Abi Bechtel is a grad student, wife, and mom of three living in Akron, Ohio. She blogs sporadically at http://adiposerex.wordpress.com and tweets about feminism, church, fat activism, and her cats as @abianne. She has a tattoo of Ursula the Sea Witch and the fashion sense of Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus.
Image credit: Jody Morris