Stranger in the Mirror


My most recent article published by The Well Written Woman:

“My aging was very sudden. I saw it spread over my features one by one, changing the relationship between them, making the eyes larger, the expression sadder, the mouth more final, leaving great creases in the forehead. But instead of being dismayed I watched this process with the same sort of interest I might have taken in the reading of a book.” – Marguerite Duras, The Lover

I have a few friends who have sometimes exclaimed to me that I haven’t changed my looks since I was seventeen. Heavens above, but I hope I have. And I think I have, too. Looking at myself in the mirror, I often have to push past the tendency to see myself at seventeen, the first major changing point in my life: when I went off to college. That image of me has stuck rather stubbornly over the past fourteen years. But, if I can look past it, I can study my reflection for quite a long time and find subtle differences.

I think back over the critical points of my life and how my body – my physical form – has changed and transformed with them. I gained eight pounds my freshman year of college and no one at home had the heart to tell me until I wore my favorite dress to my friends’ high school graduation. Afterward, I was told by a young man that I had known from my church’s youth group that I shouldn’t have worn it, that I “looked fat”. I don’t think I ever wore that dress again, nor spoke to him beyond what was polite.  That dress, formerly beloved and the very same one that, only a year or two prior, I had been proclaimed “beautiful” in by another young man (can’t tell you how many times I read that email), the poor thing faded away into obscurity in my closet. Don’t know what happened to it to this day. What can I say? Words have power and the social movement for self-love in young women was at least another decade off.

In my first semester of graduate school, with the stress and a myriad of changes in my life, I lost almost twenty pounds in quick succession, my rapid weight loss finally slowing to pause around ninety-seven or ninety-eight pounds. It was corrected with a visit to the doctor, some meds, and conscious efforts to relax a bit more the following semester. However, that didn’t stop the comments of “You look great! You lost so much weight!” when I went home for the holidays. Unfortunately, they weren’t as much of a compliment as those giving them probably intended for them to be, as I knew that I was currently unhealthy. But, eventually, I found a happy and healthy place again.

I am a late bloomer as far as my looks and physique go, at least in my opinion. My skin has never been perfect but I can keep it fairly under control. My body never really settled into its shape until after I got married. As I entered my thirties last year, I found that I began to notice a more mature look to my eyes, the curve of my cheeks, and the turn of my mouth. If I tilt my head, I find the line of my jaw. I trace it with my fingers and find it still strong, still defined but without all the softness of my youth. A softness is still there but of a different sort, borne of a deeper understanding of love and life. Sometimes I hardly recognize myself. I see a new depth of experience in my eyes and wonder, “Where did that come from?” Smiles and laughter have begun to imprint themselves in the corners of my mouth, moments that I cherish and am thankful for hiding there along with Mrs. Darling’s kiss. I read, with my fingers, the slope of my neck into my shoulder and find it strong from burdens borne. The way I hold my hands is permanently influenced by my years in belly dance. I’ve lost a bit of my curve since having my daughter, my waist coming out to meet my hips a bit more. There’s more of a fullness here, a roundness there. A scar where there was none before. The landscape of my body has changed over the past fourteen years, and that’s all right.

I am finding that I am growing happier and happier with myself. I have managed to lose most of the baby weight after fourteen months and I am getting back into toning again, little by little. But, most of all, I am learning to appreciate myself for just that: myself. That is hard work in and of itself, an exercise of the mental and the emotional as well as the physical. I cannot pretend to tell you how it’s done; I don’t have a secret, I don’t have an answer. Just a fortunate turn in years of difficulty with self-esteem and body image. It catches me by surprise sometimes, me looking at myself and smiling. When did I become so chummy with myself? I don’t really know, but I like it.

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