Aleena and I were snuggled on her velvet comforter, browsing through her Snapchat memories (a feature that shows users pictures from the past), when a picture from two years prior appeared in the feed. It was a shameless mirror selfie: her shoulders flexed, ripped abs poking out from below a sports bra.
It was a lighthearted image, probably taken in a moment of bold self-confidence or made in an attempt to flirt with another girl. When she saw it, though, instead of laughing or reminiscing about the past, her face fell.
“I wish I still looked like that,” she said.
I turned to her. She was clad in a similar sports bra and propped up on her elbow so that her shoulder flexed in the same way as it did in the picture. She had identical, flirty dimples dotting her cheeks. I laughed.
“Babe, you still look like that,” I said.
She rolled her eyes, and I leaned in to kiss her forehead.
“You know what I mean,” she said, glancing at her stomach, her thighs.
She was right. Her face was a little fuller. Her belly curved into her hips in a softer way than her jagged, younger body once did. But the differences were barely noticeable. If anything, the softness only made her more stunning. I felt lucky to have my hands pressed to her hips.
Despite several, delicate attempts to tell her that she was more beautiful now than in the picture, I conceded that my reassurance probably wouldn’t make any difference. I knew because I had played the same comparison game with my old pictures.
I hardly had any photographs saved into my Snapchat memories. Despite spending my teenage years incessantly communicating through the app, I almost never kept the photos, and when I did, I didn’t often look back at them. In the years since, my body had changed more than Aleena’s had, and I didn’t like to reminisce about it.
As a competitive figure skater for most of my young life, I found the focus on my body and its relative size impossible to ignore. When I was 16, I left my home and my parents in Arizona to train in Colorado Springs, where I was immersed in the culture of an aesthetic sport, simultaneously thriving and suffering under the constant pressure to succeed.
I appeared to be strong and successful, and in many ways I was, but that old me was also fragile. My cheeks were sunken, hollow. My collarbones jutted. My hair hung long and stringy, as if weighed down by my adolescent sadness. I spent many of those years with an eating disorder, and any pictures from that time showed a version of me that was overwhelmingly empty.
Eventually, I realized I needed to recover if I wanted to keep up with the physical demands of my sport, so submerged myself in the body positivity movement, and worked to gain back my weight and my strength. The person I was in old photographs was nothing like the person I had become.
By the time I met Aleena, I had long since stopped skipping meals, but I still felt a pang of hurt when I came across old images of my thinner self. While I didn’t miss the years of self-loathing, it was hard to believe how bad the starving was when I came across mirror-selfies in my camera feed.
Snapshots from my skinnier past didn’t show the way I would faint after working out; they didn’t show my bruised skin or the way my hair fell out in clumps. When I looked back at the old selfies, all I saw was the way the light caught my cheekbones back when my face was thinner.
Aleena was the first woman I ever seriously dated. Every physical milestone with her felt monumental. We spent hours talking in my car before our first kiss. We brushed each other’s arms on dates but didn’t act on it. For months, when needing to change clothes, we’d blush, then leave the room to undress privately.
So that day when we were lying in our underwear and surfing Snapchat, my hands had trembled as they’d traced their way from her jeans to the skin just below her waistband. She had been nervous too — perhaps because of my inexperience. She had glanced away, avoiding my eager, anxious gaze. Soon we were draped across her velvet comforter in our underwear, seeing each other’s bodies for the first time.
When Aleena realized I could see the backs of her thighs, she said, “Don’t look at my stretch marks.”
I looked away and then slowly looked back. After a moment, I let my finger draw along a stretch mark that zigzagged down the back of her leg. She didn’t tense or pull away but looked embarrassed, as if she could no longer hide a brutal secret.
“You’re so beautiful,” I said. The words sounded clichéd. I wished I had said something better. I knew I couldn’t erase all the times Aleena had been told her body was wrong with an adjective so simple as “beautiful.”
She nodded but I could sense her lingering discomfort. We snuggled a little longer and tried to force ourselves to relax. I breathed and eased into our closeness.
After a few minutes of cuddling, her phone buzzed. She picked it up to check Snapchat, and that’s what led to our interaction on the memories feature, with her staring at her former self, both of us haunted by our experiences with smaller bodies. Despite years of working to overcome my disappointment with my own body, I wasn’t sure what to tell Aleena to alleviate her own perceived flaws.
She was the loveliest human being I had ever seen. Her hair bounced in dark, perfect ringlets. Her eyes batted enormous lashes that caught the attention of everyone around her. Her body was athletic, feminine and visibly strong.
I pressed myself next to her, struck by her presence, when I noticed how well my own body fit against hers. We measured the same length, a petite five feet three. Our legs mirrored each other. If our thighs were not different shades of skin, we probably wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. Our bellies curled identically, and our sides folded in unison.
I had always known Aleena and I were similarly sized, but lying there in our underwear, I saw it with much greater clarity. Her body was so breathtakingly gorgeous I hadn’t even considered how much it was like my own. On her body, I saw how ridiculous it was to wish for a gap between her thighs. I saw how much of a waste it was to want her hip bones to poke out from her skin. She had so many of the same features I hated in myself, but on her I found them stunning.
I took her phone and held up the old Snapchat photo she was reminiscing about.
“I don’t look like this,” I said.
“No, but — ” she said.
“My body looks so much like yours does now,” I said. I pointed to a mirror across from her bed. She looked at the way our stomachs curved, and she inevitably noticed how our legs stretched across the same length of space. She couldn’t argue with me.
“Do you think I should be smaller?” I said.
“No! Obviously not.”
“Then you can’t hate your body,” I said. “It looks just like mine.”
We stared at our strange, similar selves in the mirror. Suddenly, we did not feel so vulnerable in our underwear-clad bodies. Our shoulders released a tension we had been carrying since we began undressing. Aleena moved my hand to her thigh, where I had previously traced the lines of her stretch marks.
We weren’t cured of our insecurities that day. Sometimes social media will remind me of my thinner days, showing me photos of myself when my collarbones protruded or when there was a gap between my thighs, a light shining through the space I had carved out of myself.
The pictures don’t bother me much anymore because, more often, photos appear on my feed of Aleena and me snuggled together in our sports bras. Our tummies curl. Our cheeks are full. And I know that behind these photos are ice cream dates, and nights spent cooking pasta in our kitchen and weekend bottles of wine poured late into the night.
We no longer wish for our sculpted bodies. It has become hypocritical to hate ourselves while loving each other. As much as falling for Aleena has been a love story between the two of us, falling for her has also been a love story between my mind and my body, which, after years of turmoil, have finally learned to make peace with one another.
Karina Manta, a finalist in the Modern Love college essay contest, graduates this month from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.
Modern Love can be reached at email@example.com.
To hear Modern Love: The Podcast, subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music. To read past Modern Love columns, click here. Continue following our fashion and lifestyle coverage on Facebook (Styles and Modern Love), Twitter (Styles, Fashion and Weddings) and Instagram.