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The Woman in the Mirror

January 17, 2011

To the left is a picture of me about three years ago. It’s right before I had a terrible Samson hair experience. It’s also less than a year before I got sick.

To the right, is a picture of me taken within the past couple of months. My hair grew back. My body grew, too.

I have always been very vain. My mother was as well. She was always very beautiful, well dressed and elegant. As a child, she dressed me prefectly. Mom made a lot of my dresses and made matching dresses for my baby dolls and Barbies. As an adult, I resisted the fashion interest, preferring jeans and tee shirts. My first career in nursing allowed me to first wear a uniform and was a place where little choice or individual expression was allowed and, non was expected. When the nursing field moved to wearing scrubs, my fashion sense, or lack thereof found even greater comfort.

Only when I went into ministry did I finally find my fashion niche, discovering styles that worked. Just because I had no fashion interest before that though, certainly didn’t mean I wasn’t vain. I was always thin, in fact I never felt quite thin enough. I was always obsessed with my hair and though I might not have looked it, I was well aware of how the tee shirts and jeans looked on me. I was also incredibly critical of how I looked and never satisfied. Though this feeling is probably universal with women, I’m sure that my mother’s criticism added greatly to that feeling in me. It wasn’t just the criticism of me that had an impact. She was really quite kind considering how much fashion mattered to her and how little it mattered to me. Critiquing others though, was somewhat of a hobby for her. As the years went by, this became almost an obsession, though I don’t recall ever a time when she refrained from this hobby. She commented on everyone who walked by. Every body part was reported on from jiggling upper arms, to large bottoms, broad backs, heavy legs, belly fat, long necks, short necks, tan and pale. Nothing was off-limits and her critique never took time off.

I think I assumed everyone judged as she judged. I assumed those people judged me as she judged them. My solution to this was to judge me first. And I did, relentlessly. Mom also judged herself, too and I don’t remember her ever not criticizing her body size even though she was never overweight. As she aged, she developed a thickness around the middle but I doubt she ever wore larger than a size ten, probably an eight. She was beautiful every moment of her life and always looked far younger than she was. I look at pictures of her in her teens and twenties and she was very, very thin, as thin I use to be.

before

after

Now, two years after becoming ill, I weigh twenty pounds more than I did when I got sick and thirty pounds more than I weighed most of my adult life. I haven’t found my fashion niche either, the style that looks good on my larger frame. I cringe when I look in the mirror and see the double chin and round face. Instead of feeling gratitude for the bonus time of living, I spend a great deal of time wallowing in my muddy vanity. I long to wear the fitted cloths, to be able to walk in heels and slip on the size 2 jeans. I recoil at my wrinkled neck and miss the bones of my shoulders and knees. Not even my hands and feet are the same.

This illness has been brutal on my body. I am very lucky to still be alive. I’m lucky to still have my legs. I’m lucky to walk at all. I’m so blessed to be able to do more than I could a year ago. Yet, I don’t blame the surgery or disease or even the handful of medicines I take twice a day for the change in my appearance. As ridiculous as it sounds to say it and even more ridiculous it looks to write it, I blame myself and see my body as the proof of my failure.

This needs to stop. I watched my mother verbally berate strangers but also herself over every imaginary imperfection. At the end of her life, as cancer ravaged her body, she was thin again. She was as thin as she had been in her twenties. We didn’t talk of it, but I know she’d have gladly traded her skinniness for one more day of health. I am only five pounds overweight according to those charts, yet I feel as if I am two hundred pounds overweight. The truth is though, I am allowing a vicious cycle to continue. Both my daughters are very thin. One is at the low-end of a normal weight and the other is underweight. They are both profoundly beautiful. I know they judge their bodies harshly. My mother taught me well, as I have taught them. To think my beautiful and precious daughters spend even a moment looking in the mirror with a critical eye is heart breaking.

I can’t undo it all, but I can begin, starting today, to focus more on health and less on weight. I can’t re-raise my daughters, but they can watch me be okay with my new body. They can watch my eating be motivated by a desire to live instead of a desire to look a certain way. They can watch me be kind to myself and hopefully never again hear me criticize my shape or form.

before

The have my genes. They need to be eating wisely. They need to be eating though, and finding that natural weight they would be if health was their goal and taking care of themselves their motivation.

I look at these before and after pictures. In the after pictures, I look larger. I look much older. I look less sure of myself, too. Yet, those before pictures were illusion. I looked younger, more vibrant, thinner and healthier when in truth, I was a ticking time bomb. The confidence was pretense. I lived through a physical and figurative breaking of my heart. The new me is far more real. It’s time I accepted the real me.

Girls, if you happen to read this, I love you. Eat.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn Thomas permalink
    January 17, 2011 2:03 pm

    Allie, thank you for this profoundly personal and thoughtful message.

    Sometimes I despair for our girls. My 31 year-old daughter looks at her teenage photos (a time when she endlessly agonized over being “too fat”) and only now sees the actual reality: a fit, normally-proportioned, healthy-weight, lovely young woman. But she just couldn’t see it then.

    Few North American teenage girls can escape being affected by cultural and media versions of what we “should” look like or wear or be or do. We are products of modern society, but also of our family of origin.

    I too grew up with a relentlessly critical mother (not just about our and others’ appearance, but EVERYTHING!) My mother now has dementia, so no longer has that internal editor that may have earlier reigned in some of her more hurtful public “comments”. For example, we lived in fear that during my son’s wedding a few years ago, she would start blurting loudly during the ceremony things like: “Boy, Sophie sure looks FAT in that dress!”

    I just love the concept of blogs like Operation Beautiful (“transforming the way you see yourself one post-it note at a time”). Have you checked it out yet?

    XOXOXO

    Carolyn

  2. January 18, 2011 8:49 am

    Thanks Carolyn for your kind words. I’ll check out the link to the OperationBeautiful Blog. I like your term “internal editor.” I’d like mine to retire; give it a gold watch and say, “Job well done.” I’ve been noticing lately just how many women on TV have had facelifts…actresses around my age I’ve watched for years who suddenly have up turned eyes and large lips. The media version of what a woman should look like may rise to a whole new level of unachievable falsehood. Thanks for reading my post and congrats to your daughter for breaking the cycle.
    Love, Allie

  3. Donna permalink
    January 20, 2011 8:44 pm

    Well, let’s start out with a song:
    “We’re so vain, we prob’ly think this blog is about us….”
    Oddly enough, it is about us…us and our perception of ourselves. In many of the Management classes I have taken over the years, they preach that “perception is reality”. Your employees perception of their job, your attitude toward them, and so on. So, I guess that means that our “perception” of ourself is our personal “reality”. I think when we look in the mirror, what we see is colored by our perception of ourself – that idea of “us” that we already hold. I believe that only rarely do we actually see who is looking back at us.

    Thirty-seven years ago I was hospitalized for alcoholism for the last time, (I had been there multiple times before). The first 10 days I was in the phych unit on medication to avoid siezures and dilerium tremmors….next I was moved to the detox unit for 5 days to move me off the medication safely. Finally I entered the 28 day treatment for my disease. For years I had lived in a pepetual state of denial of my reality. Even though I had been homeless, living on the streets, begging, borrowing and stealing to stay drunk for several years, I truly was not aware of who and what I had become. (Many who do not understand the disease of alcoholism might find that had to believe.)

    Several days into the 28 program I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth and washing my face. I glanced into the mirror, and I saw a frightening looking old man standing behind me. I whirled around to confront the man who had entered my hospital room, and found I was alone. Slowly I turned back to the mirror and looked into it. There I was, a young woman not yet 30 years old – hair burned off, teeth missing, weighing 85 pounds, skin so yellow, face sunken-in, eyes more red than white, a skull with sagging skin, a black eye, scraps and scratches every where. When had this happened? How could this have happened? Why had I not seen this before? 18 days in the hospital with counseling and care had altered my “perception”. I had come to the moment of truth when I could finally see myself. I knew I was an alcoholic, I accepted that and as a result, I could see the real person in the mirror. I have never forgotten that moment.

    As time passes, and I stay sober and recovering, my perception of myself has continued to change. After my by-pass, my perception changed in a drastic way once again. I was suddenly very old, and very sick. When I look at the pictures of me several months before my surgery I am starteled at how I looked. I was very thin, and my skin was changing color….it is obvious to me NOW that I was ill. When I came home from the hospital I saw a very sad old woman in the mirror. I also saw something else in my eyes – fear.

    After I healed and time passed again, I saw something else in the mirror. I saw a “mature” woman, who didn’t look too bad most days. But of course, we all know the road of life in never straight – so what has now shown up around the last turn??? My 65th birthday is bearing down on me! In 8 more days, I WILL be OLD!! So what do I see in my mirror now??

    On a good day (like today) I see a mature woman who has survived the lowest depths of alcoholic insanity, the terrors of life on the streets of Chicago. A woman who has survived a quadruple by-pass and returned to work in 4 weeks. A woman who has lived 5 years past surgery with no further episodes. A woman who’s life has been transformed through faith and grace to live a life I could not have imagined. A Senior Citizen who doesn’t look too bad most days.

    On a bad day, (when I have not eaten or rested or taken my meds) I see an old woman with those awful purple bruises everwhere caused by my medication, a woman with too many wrinkels – who wishes she looked more like Allie! Allie with the oh-so-smooth, clear skin. Allie with the great sense of style, who always looks well dressed! Allie, so petite and young looking! I so laughed at your before and after pictures! I am jealous of you both then and now. You see, “perception” is reality for all of us. (Other than a few pounds, you do NOT look that differente to me.) I truly belive that because I have met the “inside you” my perception of you is always beautiful…..

    Just as I saw the “inside me” when alcohol had me, and therefore saw the reality of me in that mirror – we need to look each day for the “inside us”. If we search the mirror for the inside us, only beauty can look back at us. Seeing inside ourself is what allows us to change what we do not like and alter our perception of ourself. Once we can do that….the mirror is our friend. We will see ourself and we will be ok with what we see. Vanity slips away, and and the song changes:
    “I been lonely, I been cheated, I been misunderstood. I been washed up, I been put down, I been told I’m no good. But with you I belong, could you help me be strong? There’s a change in my life since you came along!!”

  4. Donna permalink
    January 20, 2011 8:49 pm

    One other thing – to Allie’s girls: Look inside -then eat! 🙂

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