I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with mirrors. I love mirrors for helping me out in a jam, when the only way to tell if an outfit is a misstep is a full-length view. I love mirrors when they tell me I have something in my teeth. I love mirrors when they help me pull out that last gray hair.
But I also hate mirrors, for mirrors haven’t been too kind to me. Teen years were more of the “hate” in that relationship. Well, the twenties were too. And the thirties. And even some of the forties.
I’d use mirrors, of course, to get myself ready for the day, primping and preening, getting my hair and make-up just so. But while other, regular people, would be done and leave the mirror at home to get on with their days, my mirror would come with me, like a noose around my neck.
Of course, my bathroom mirror would not literally be along for my daily activities, but the next best thing would be. The big picture windows of the stores along my route, the puddles in the rain, a shiny spoon, the chrome bumper of a car, someone’s sunglasses, my powder compact, and the extra hand-held mirror I held in my bag. All of them, and anything else I could find, would become my gateway to the reflection I was compelled–obsessed–to focus on.
Constantly picking at my clothes, turning this way and that. Fluffing my hair. Cleaning up the wings of my eyeliner. Pinching my cheeks to get the perfect flushed look. Popping my lips to revive my gloss. Always looking for ways to improve, rid the bad, perfect the faults. Never being satisfied with the results.
People would tell me I was stuck-up and conceited because I couldn’t stop looking at myself if a reflection of mine was available. Little did they know, I was the complete opposite. Self-loathing, self-conscious, full of doubt and nursing a massive inferiority complex. On the outside, I may have looked put together, but that was just to mask the mess inside.
It’s strange, the more I looked into the mirror, the less I’d know what I actually looked like. All the things people had ever criticized about my appearance would manifest into this hideous being I could have sworn was staring back at me through the mirror. My friend’s mom, who called me Bugs Bunny because of my pre-orthodontia buck teeth in second grade–her words would morph into a jagged overbite in my reflection. My other friend’s mom, who called me Olive Oyl because I was tall and “skinny”–her words would twist into this comically boy-flat version of myself as I stared into the mirror. The woman who told me I would look so much more beautiful if I fixed my nose–her words would grow the small bump on my nose into this massive mountain of Halloween-witchy ugliness. The boy who told me not to wear ponytails because my long hair made my profile less “harsh”–his words warped into my obsession with always turning towards people with “my good side” and never letting a reflection catch me sideways. My dad who told me to do sit ups every day so I could get rid of my belly, even though I was underweight–his words hurt the worst. They burned a dark and endless hole of self-doubt into that reflection, a hole I fell right into, every day.
I was like Alice, tumbling, tumbling into that abyss towards Wonderland. Only my wonders were “I wonder if I look okay?” “I wonder if people will like me?”, “I wonder why I’m not good enough?” So many questions asked of that mirror, and never any answers found. Instead, the mirror laughed at me, mocked me for even trying to look good, like an emotionally abusive companion. Which is why I felt compelled to stare into it so much. Maybe one day it would tell me I was good enough.
The mirror never did tell me I was good enough. The day I finally felt good enough was the day I stopped caring what the mirror told me. That magical day came slowly and with little fanfare. I didn’t even realize it had come at all, until I finally noticed–I was no longer obsessed with my reflection. That was when I gave myself permission to see my true self and not what the reflection had morphed into. Seeing through that misshapen mess of myself was difficult, but it finally happened when I gave up constantly looking in the mirror.
Life did that. Getting older, being married, having children, working full-time, all of it became my life, leaving little else to want to worry about. Yes, those feelings of inferiority and self-doubt still lingered, like little, black rain clouds, but life was too full for me to care. Life had become more than trying to be accepted and validated for the way I looked, and in having a life like that, I learned something amazing: I didn’t need validation. I discovered that I didn’t need to constantly check if I looked okay or was pretty enough for people to like me, because I didn’t need people to like me. I just needed to like myself.
I had lived self-consciously through my teens, twenties, and thirties. Honestly, even now in my last years of 40, I have felt it creep in sometimes. It takes constant work to tamp down the feelings of inferiority. But living a life that was too busy to worry about how I looked to others, that was the life I needed. Of course, I had always been busy and focused on things other than myself, but in the last few years or so, I’ve seen a change. I’ve been too busy not just with everyday life, but with actually enjoying my life to care much about how I look to others. Maybe it was hitting a certain age that did it. Maybe it was finding new ways to value myself. Maybe it was just hearing that I should love myself. Maybe it was all of that and more. But I can finally say I no longer have a love-hate relationship with the mirror. And that is because I no longer have a “hate” relationship with myself. I may not yet love everything I see in that mirror, but no longer hating it is a very big deal.
This is part of a 30-day writing challenge I am doing with my friend. This is Day 4’s prompt–mirrors. But it’s my first. Unfortunately, consistency isn’t my strong point. Hopefully she’ll take pity on me, because she loves me.