Reflections in a mirror, or is it my mind?
I wouldn’t call my mirror my enemy. Well, maybe a bit, but it strikes me as more of a stranger, really. Those times I do catch my reflection, I quickly turn away and ask, “Who is that woman?”
You see, in my imagination, nothing about me has changed in a few decades. In fact, I've improved. My skin is wrinkle free, all one tone, clinging to my bones (such as they are) and dusted with freckles; my neck is smooth; I only have one chin and my green-hazel eyes are clear, fringed with dark lashes (not swimming in a sea of lines , underpinned by bags.) What’s more, I still have nice plump lips that show small white teeth (not crooked "beige" ones) when I smile. I sweep through the world happy in my delusions.
But now, today, January 3, on my birthday yet (the big one: six oh,) someone has played a mean trick on me. I walked into the bathroom and made a major mistake. Still wearing my glasses – trifocals, by the way – I allowed myself to glimpse into that glassy surface I usually avoid at all costs. I almost screamed.
An old woman has moved into my mirror.
I took my glasses off and looked again. A bit better -- soft focus helps. Makes it more bearable.
Yep, that's me, fresh from the shower, just dressed, not even sun screen on my face, haven't combed my hair yet. OMG -- what a shock!
So, I did something I haven't done in years. I stood before the mirror and had a good look. Didn't like what I saw much. But then, I never have.
And that got me to thinking, which in turn got me to writing.
Okay, truth is I never was a beauty. No one ever suggested that. Acceptable, yes, if I worked at it – which I rarely did. (Too time consuming.) Most days I’ve settled for clean and tidy and that’s as far as I travelled down that road.
When I was twelve, my mother told me, “You’re not an attractive girl, Lynda, so you might as well accept that.” A mean-spirited thing to say to an adolescent girl, I think, but that was mild for Mom. (We had a “troubled” relationship.)
I believed her. True, I had a pronounced over-bite which was never corrected in my growing years. ( I survived the taunts – “Hey, Bucky Beaver.”) I also had a gawky neck, a sallow complexion, a receding chin and no cheek bones to speak of. But my hair was raven dark with red highlights and very thick. (I liked my hair.)
My older sister spent years calling me "Ugly Bug."
I decided looks didn’t matter, or tried to. Besides, not much I could do about it.
Then at fourteen, something happened. I grew a new body. One day I woke up to find myself built like a Barbie doll – no exaggeration. At five foot eight, long-legged, curvy and buxom, I started receiving those “looks” from the opposite sex (and those other “looks” from my sisters-in-gender.) No one noticed my over-bite anymore. Their eyes went elsewhere -- the packaged chicken syndrome: breasts, legs, thighs. (It might have gone to my head, had I not been so all-fired shy and weirded out by it.)
I started feeling better about myself. Until, one day when travelling in a gang of girls at a campground, we met another gang, this one boys ranging in age from thirteen to eighteen. Their leader (a real little a-hole) took one look at me and dismissed me with the words, “You have buck teeth.”
That was it. I was crushed. I gave up smiling altogether, which didn’t help my struggling social life much over the next few years. So I did what kids do in such a situation; I became a rebel, an anti-everything, unpleasant, surly, moody rebel. A loner.
Until a young man saw beyond my defects. Then I became pregnant. And briefly married.
I made it through my twenties posing as one so lofty, above all thought of cosmetics, lotions and beauty, I preferred to be “natural” -- and insufferable, lecturing those dedicated to their appearance on the importance of the inner-life, intelligence and accomplishments. (Sour grapes? You bet.) Not one photograph of me from this decade survives. I avoided cameras like the plague.
In my early twenties, I visited an orthodontist who told me my jaw was too small for my teeth, and in order to correct the over-bite, I'd need to have four teeth removed and spend several years wearing braces. Being resigned to the problem, above such frivolity and as a single mother, too poor to pay for it, I declined.
I never bought fashion magazines or flipped through the pages of Cosmo. Why torture myself? Plain is as plain does.
In my thirties, I’d perfected my routine. My face got washed, slapped with a bit of moisturizer and I walked out the door. Here I am world. Plain or not, make room. Lynda’s on her way.
I could have done more. Certainly my make-up-obsessed daughters thought so. We were to have a family portrait done – their idea. Not mine. Definitely, not mine. My older daughter did my make-up, cause I didn’t know how, and fixed my hair. I didn’t like having to look in the mirror for that long.
When this portrait was delivered, all I saw was my two beautiful daughters and plain old me,
By this time, my plainness was such an accepted fact, it was beyond question. Never mind my many successes: I ran my own business; had educated myself; had traveled the world; had written a body of work; owned my home and farm; had friends... I still couldn't smile when I met someone new, never felt confident and didn't date much, having learned to reject before being rejected.
Eventually, while on a business trip in the U.S., I met a man who said I was beautiful and meant it. Of course, he was myopic and wore strong glasses -- which explained his lack of perception.
At forty, I thought I’d improved with age. The various pieces of my face came together, transforming me into a “handsome woman” which is a term applied to females of maturity, not quite beauties, but holding up okay. I could look in the mirror without that sinking sensation. I could sit for a photograph without cringing inside. Some of the bitterness I’d carried all those years disappeared, though it wasn’t until it was gone I realized the weight of it.
I learned how to smile again. And did, which improved my social life immeasurably.
But what was the change that brought about all these improvements? Cosmetic surgery? A peel? Nope. I stopped caring quite so much. Hell, I was forty and over the hill. What did it matter? After all, I had a loving husband, two grown daughters and the first of my to-be-four grandchildren. So I didn’t have looks. So what!
It didn't matter.
Yet, as the internet came into our lives, I never posted my true image on any site where I was active. Not once. I hid behind avatars and enjoyed the anonymity. In retrospect, as an intelligent woman (and I am that; no false modesty required) you’d think I’d at some point have given that fact some consideration. I guess I hadn’t taken my mother’s cruel advice, “you might as well accept that” to heart as much as I pretended.
At fifty, I considered myself lucky and better off than most, still hanging together without help, no “work” having been done, no perky new breasts (not needed,) no tummy tuck (needed,) and still no orthodontic work. I was strong and reasonably healthy, even if carrying an extra twenty pounds or so. By this time I had perfected my “I am what I am” attitude.
One day, sitting with my gorgeous older daughter just before her wedding I said something along the line of “You’re so beautiful! How did someone as plain as me produce a daughter like you.” I had never before admitted to anyone how I felt about myself. It was a first.
The surprise and shock on both my daughter’s and my husband’s faces took me aback. “Well, I am,” I said, perplexed. I mean, come on, the truth is the truth. Especially the plain truth.
They looked at each other. Then back at me in astonishment.
“You’re lovely,” my husband said.
“You are, Mom. You always have been,” said my daughter.
Love is blind. And kind.
I wish I could say it was a magic healing moment, but that would be fiction, not real life. I look back on these pictures here and what do I see now? A cute twelve-year-old girl who had a mentally disturbed mother, but didn’t recognize that fact until much, much later in life; a pretty mother of two beautiful girls who is so blinded by a believed and accepted lie she can’t see how much of herself lives in their faces; a lovely mature woman posing with her fine husband on one daughter’s wedding day, and a handsome matron escorting the other daughter to her wedding.
How is it that I can see that now, only now?
I, who used to work with troubled children for so many years, who helped them deal with the pain of being unloved, unwanted, neglected, abused, I didn’t recognize the effects of my own abuse. I’ve wasted so much time in self-hatred and it makes me angry.
Last year I published a novel and used a licensed avatar for the back cover instead of an image of myself. How pathetic is that?
The other day, I changed the avatar on Facebook to a picture of myself. Progress.
The day I took these pictures, another birthday -- another year passed. Age is wreaking its work on face and body. I do what I’ve done all my life. I avoid the face in the mirror. But not any more.
What do I see in the mirror?
A woman proudly entering her sixth decade, not so bad looking. She has nice eyes and thick, silvery salt and pepper hair. (I like my hair.)
Come on, Lynda. Make a smile, a big smile. Show those damn teeth! Show 'em to the world.
Dedicated to my girls -- all of them:
Put the pain away before it dulls your entire life.
Be careful what you say to your daughters; you have no idea how much power you hold over them.
-- Lynda M Martin, January 6, 2012
Post Script: I've just spent the last fifteen minutes unable to push the publish button. Yet, I think I have to, that this has something to say to many who need to hear it.I hope so. I've almost decided to do it... Almost.