Ever since I found out that my second child would be a girl, after the initial excitement of “Oh yay, a baby girl!” it suddenly occurred to me that I would now be required to not only teach someone how to be a person, but also how to be a woman. This might present a problem, I thought to myself, because I’m not really sure how to actually BE a person, OR a woman, for that matter. Am I doing it right? Am I qualified to teach someone else? Who really knows? And yet, regardless, I would all of a sudden be cast in a very intense spotlight, with a small girl-child watching my every move, as they do, and LEARNING from me.
From me she would learn how a woman talks, walks, laughs, jokes, gets sad, gets angry, looks at herself in the mirror, and on and on. So, obviously, it began to put my life under a new microscope, because all of a sudden there was more at stake than ever before. Thus I began to examine these areas of my life. During this examination I learned that somewhere I had developed the belief that a woman is supposed to look at herself in the mirror very critically. I learned this, I’m sure, from watching my own mom grimace at herself in the mirror, grabbing clumps of her flesh and expressing flagrant distaste at being “so fat.” And so through this (and many other avenues) I learned the art of self-criticism. For this is how we should look at ourselves, isn’t it? Isn’t contentment basically vanity, in the world of women? Aren’t we supposed to be constantly finding “room for improvement,” so that we can work toward improving those areas so we can be more worthy of love? I realized I developed an “appropriate” way of looking at myself, to the point that when I found myself in front of any mirror I would adopt a pre-ordained scowl and begin to dissect myself into all of the different parts that were unsatisfactory. Cheeks: too round! Stomach? Needs work. Why is this side of my face different than the other? Is that a wrinkle? Have I gained some weight? Ugh. I need to get to a Yoga class, STAT.
I don’t say this out loud. It happens all in my head. However, when you have a small child who watches your every move, even the minutia of your expression will be absorbed by her sponge-like eyes while she sits in awe beside you, watching your every move in front of the mirror. And this is a terrifying prospect.
But something amazing happened, to shift all of this, when my daughter was about eighteen months old. One morning I found myself observing her in the mirror, as she stood in front of it and beamed at her own round, drooling face, her puffball head of hair, her roly-poly legs sticking out of a diaper which was barely visible under a dirty purple nightshirt. She was so delighted with herself, in fact, that she started to give herself large goopy kisses, leaving behind big slobbery wet spots on the mirror as she mawed at mirror-baby’s equally wet, drooly mouth.
As I watched her, somewhat disgusted but mostly enamoured, I thought about how beautiful she was, and how she already knew it; she didn’t need anybody to tell her—not me, not a member of the opposite sex, not even her beloved Daddy—she just came into this world with it. Every part of herself was immediately acceptable, lovely, and worthy of admiration and slobbery kisses. She was delighted by her space in the world, and how much she took up in it. And I realized in that moment that I never wanted that belief to be stolen from her. At least not by me. I began to realize that I needed to get that back in my own self in order to preserve it in her, because if I only pretended to love myself and be pleased with myself in the mirror, I knew she would see right through it. Kids are amazing at spotting inauthenticity, aren’t they?
Although it wasn’t easy to undo years of learning about how a woman is “supposed” to look at herself in the mirror, I worked hard at it, and it slowly began to shift. I challenged myself to find at least one thing I was pleased about, one thing I loved about myself, and enjoy that. Eventually it became automatic, and then it expanded to me looking at my whole self that way, and I learned to stop dissecting myself, but look at the whole—not just the outside, but the inside, too. And now, I do look at myself differently in the mirror, even when she’s not around to watch me. Of course I still slip, every now and again, and look disdainfully at myself, regretting the two donuts I ate at 11 PM the night before, BUT then I try to catch myself, and I look with new eyes, at the whole me, realizing that I am not just the outside, but the sum of inside AND outside. I am a visual representation of experiences and memories—my smile lines represent smiles I’ve had, my frown lines represent wrongs reconciled, the two scars on my stomach represent both my beautiful babies and an appendectomy that saved my life. My rounded stomach represents those two donuts, and they were DELICIOUS. I’m eating them again in my mind right now, because life with a perfectly flat stomach and no donuts is not a life worth living, in my humble opinion. The cellulite on my legs I am still WORKING on loving, but overall I can see myself, really see, and I am life, personified and glorious. And before I know it, I’m goofily smiling at myself in the mirror, just like my daughter does. I have drawn the line at giving myself slobbery kisses, though.
Ironically, while I have and will teach my daughter many things about being a woman, I credit many of those things to what she first taught me about being a woman. The biggest thing is that we are precious, we women—I am precious—and life is too short not to see ourselves that way.