After 28 Years, I Still Don’t Know What I Look Like

I wish I could stop thinking about what I look like. I wish the number of realizations I’ve had about my self-esteem mapped sensibly to the attention it still requires every day, probably every hour. I keep thinking it has been long enough; that I’m mature and enlightened enough; that, jesus, I’ve fretted, read and written enough that I could move the fuck on. By now I should be able to tackle this thing like a sink of dirty dishes: suddenly, feverishly, and all in one go. None of that’s the case, though, and I kind of miss the version of me naïve enough to disagree.

This obsession is one that’s plagued, at some point, every woman I know. Smart women, generous women, driven women. Talented, insightful, hilarious women. Gorgeous woman, too — the kind of gorgeous that people don’t contest, the kind that lights up your brain faster than you can say, “beauty is on the inside.” The insecurities of drop-dead beauties are kryptonite to my own: How could she not know? What does she see when she looks in the mirror? What does that mean for me? I’ve wondered these things so many times.

When I was little, my dad teased me for looking in any reflective surface I passed. The mirror behind our dinner table, the window of his car, the sliding glass doors to our backyard. Nothing was off-limits so long as I could look in it and see myself looking back. But where he saw a gaze of self-admiration, a vain little habit I needed to break, I saw a girl I didn’t recognize but desperately wanted to. The answer to the question of whether I was pretty, which everyone and everything signaled was important, eluded me in bewildering repetition. I wasn’t vain, I was curious.

That’s really the crux of it, I think. I don’t know what the hell I look like, and I’ve been trying to figure that out for 28 years.

I don’t know what I look like on the train, waiting for my stop. I don’t know what I look like when I’m writing, talking, walking down the street. I can picture myself laughing about as well as I can picture a Rorschach test the moment after it’s flipped face-down. My face is a blurry imprint that fades as fast as it appears. I could argue all day why the answer to what I look like doesn’t matter, but open-ended questions are hard to ignore. And even if there’s ecstasy in forgetting them, in distraction, the quiet off-beats of life are too frequent to let me for long.

To be told my looks matter — in ways both subtle and explicit — and then to be robbed of the data is frustrating. We’re a generation obsessed with capturing our own image, but photos, videos and glances in the mirror produce maddeningly inconsistent results, don’t they? I find myself adorable or grotesque depending on the second hand of a rotary clock. Every selfie I take or granule of feedback I receive is another notch on the ledger of a debate I have yet to settle. I don’t even care where I net out at this point — I swear I can handle the answer — I just want it over with so I can reallocate my curiosities elsewhere, anywhere.

But I’m beginning to realize it’s a fruitless pursuit. Just as I don’t reduce anyone else’s face to a single expression at a certain angle in one particular light, I shouldn’t attempt to do so to myself. And just as I appreciate other people’s faces for the quirks and nuances that pull around their expressions, the emotional whole greater than its million parts, I should probably grant myself the same expansiveness. Maybe there is no definitive answer as to whether I’m pretty, adorable or grotesque. Maybe I’m all of those things and more. What if I accepted my own vast unknowability, and found the ecstasy in that, instead?

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images.

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  • Lindsey

    Haley. These are my thoughts exactly. I always get teased, still, for looking at every mirror I pass. But part of why I’ve always struggled to dress myself is because I still feel like I don’t know what I look like. I think I do, and then I see a reflection and am shocked, every time. Maybe each time I look, I’m afraid of what I’ll see, so I’m almost incapable of really opening my eyes and *seeing*? Willful blindness? How do we stop this? I can read all the same inspirational quotes about feeling good in my own body, and I can cognitively “accept my own vast unknowability”, but it’s way more difficult than that. As I’m sure you know. 🙂

  • Harling Ross

    oh boy do i love this. especially the first paragraph. thank you for the feelings haley nahman.

  • Lauren

    This is my new favorite article and I’m going to blow it up and place it on the wall of my bedroom where a mirror might go but what’s a mirror I don’t know what I look like???

    • J


  • Kath

    Thank you so much for your honest and beautiful writing Haley! This (like so many of your pieces) is beyond relatable. This part in particular speaks deeply to me: “I keep thinking it has been long enough; that I’m mature and enlightened enough; that, jesus, I’ve fretted, read and written enough that I could move the fuck on. By now I should be able to tackle this thing like a sink of dirty dishes: suddenly, feverishly, and all in one go. None of that’s the case, though, and I kind of miss the version of me naïve enough to disagree.”

  • J

    Ahh this is so beautifully written. I’m going to try and live by the last sentence.
    I’ve struggled with the same thing for some time now and have always felt like I’m alone in this battle with myself. My family, friends, and my boyfriend have all told me that I’m beautiful or whatever but when I look in the mirror I wonder what exactly they actually see and how different it is from the me that I see. It’s strange how we never truly see ourselves – only in reflections or pictures. I also wonder how I look when I’m sitting on the bus, walking down the street, or while talking with friends. I don’t want to look “weird” but maybe we’re all weird in our own way. I guess I just constantly over analyze myself and shouldn’t worry about the unknown. Maybe ignorance is truly bliss in this type of situation.

  • Jackie Homan

    Love this so much wow

  • Hannah Nichols

    Oh this is so good. The last paragraph is a beautiful thought that I hope we all can adopt.

  • Abigail Larson

    I feel this deep in my soul. Whenever people compliment something about me, like my height or hair, I get so anxious because I don’t feel like I look like how they’re telling me I do. I grew up a very awkward, strange-looking child and was always acutely aware of the fact, so I feel like I still view myself that way. Sometimes I wish that I could just watch myself for an entire day to understand who I am as a person because I feel like my perspective is so skewed.

  • Claire

    I NEVER comment on anything, but I felt this so much I had to. I can’t believe it’s never occurred to me to be comfortable not knowing. As a kid, whenever I saw someone I thought was beautiful on a screen (I distinctly remember doing this after watching Jennifer Connelly in The Labyrinth), I would ask my mom if she thought I was as pretty as that person. Mom, ever the no-nonsense straight-talker, would usually answer truthfully (sigh). Anyways, this is not about blaming my mom for damaging my self-esteem, but rather to point out that even as a 6-year-old, I was trying to navigate my position on the spectrum of beauty—beauty defined by how others perceived me. And that is something I struggle more than two decades later. Sometimes I slap on some bronzer and look at myself in the mirror and go “Fuck, I look HOT today.” At other times I catch a glimpse of my profile in a mirror while I’m getting coffee and shudder. I think that in trying to figure out just how pretty we are, we are making it so so hard on ourselves. Not only are we trying to figure out where we stand in relation to some bar set by lingerie and make up ads; but as feminists, we’re also judging ourselves for being “obsessed” with how we look. I’m not saying that I’m going to wake up tomorrow and embrace the fact that I may look like shit, but I do think that knowing that that’s just one of the ways I feel (rather than how I may actually look), can be really empowering. Thank you so much for your insightful writing, Haley.

    • Olivia AP

      When I was about 8 years old a lot of my friends at school started getting braces and a kid asked me if I needed them too after I told him my teeth were fine he replied: Good, because you are already ugly. lol. Now I laugh about it, but it was the first time that I became aware that people had an opinion of how I look. I’m also not blaming an eight year old but we start building an idea of whether we are pretty or ugly and I think it defines more things that we are aware of. It sucks that from a young age we realize that beauty is a valuable asset for women.

      And Haley, I love all your articles. I’m also 28 and everytime I read you articles it’s like YES I’M GOING THROUGH THE SAME THING.You put into words what is in a lot of women’s minds

    • Haley Nahman

      Thank you for this insightful RESPONSE!

  • Hannah

    Whenever i see a picture of myself i think ‘is that what i look like??!!’ In the exact same way as when i hear my voice on tape and think ‘is that what i sound like??!!’

    • Jessica

      Oh yes this! I just heard my own voice played back on a recording about an hour ago and I still haven’t recovered.

  • Kat

    This 100% I am especially tripped up when someone shows me a photo and tell me what a good picture it is of me. I look at it and I’m like seriously? Is this me at my best? This is what I really look like away from the forgiving lighting of my bedroom? My “real” face is a absolute mystery.

    • Megalopyge

      Photos are weirder again because we are so used to seeing our face as a mirror image. But unlike a backwards word that only makes sense when you look at it face on, my face never makes sense in photographs.

    • Adrianna

      I find that what I see in the mirror and selfies are generally drastically different from the photos others take of me. It was interesting to see the photographs my partner took of me, since I feel really at ease with him

    • Senka

      I think that the availability of technology, telephones and selfies, had made it even more complex. Before, there was our mirror image and our photos, both very different. And now it’s that, plus selfies. I grew up before selfies were all the rage. I hated how I looked in photos, but I was ok with my mirror reflection on most days. But which one is me? What do I really look like to others looking at me? It’s still confusing and complex, but I chose not to dwell on it. The fact is, I have few photos from my teenage years. I hated being photographed, because the results always shocked me. On some, thanks to the light, and the fact I had a gdecent hair, I look good. On some, I see same exhausted pale face with an overbite, that greets me the mirror on the bad mornings. Not to mention those nasty dreaded 10 pounds camera adds, when I was already on the brink of eating disorder.
      I have grown to love selfies and became something of an addict. Finaly I could control what of me to phograph, and what to show, and finally photos looked like what I see in a mirror on a good day. It’s vane, but hey…
      It’s interesting though, that the only people hating my selfies are my parents. My mom keeps saying “That there isn’t my child, you don’t look like that” about my good photos, and “that’s my beautiful baby” on bad ones. It’s still hella confusing, really. Which am I if those who love me the most prefer the “ugly me”.
      But I guess I’ll never know.

    • Kelly T.

      My college adviser took a photo on her cell phone to use as my linkedin profile. It looked like a DWI mugshot. I asked her to take it again. Each time same result. When I said I’d add my own picture later and not use hers, she said, “Why? These are great pictures.” Before that my student ID had to be retaken because I had the wrong colored background. My hair was super shiny line a Pantene ad and the lighting gave me Angelina Jolie cheekbones. I was thrilled and went around showing it to everyone. Many people reacted by saying, “Wow. That does NOT look like you.” Of course not. The girl in the ID is pretty and I’m supposed to look like a drunk driver.

  • Hillary Roegelein

    I haven’t ever commented on an MR essay before, though I am a long time reader. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story. I was shocked when I read the paragraph about your childhood obsession with glancing at your image in reflective surfaces. Shocked, because I did this exact same thing–also out of self-alienation rather than vanity–and I was/am ashamed of it. Discovering that another person did this too means a lot to me. Thanks.

  • Jessie Buckmaster

    Yep. I can relate oh so much. I actually have this weird thing where I’m good with myself in the mirror and you know just looking at my limbs, etc. BUT when I see a photo of myself? It DOES not match what I see elsewhere. I cannot reconcile the photos. Whether a selfie or taken by someone else. I don’t know what to do with that.

    • Eliza

      Exact same here… Maybe we are just naturally not photogenic? 🙂

      • Elsa Jeanette

        I have this too – and I think it has to do with the unavoidable flattening of faces in photos. Depth and movement make faces come to life, and photos usually can’t capture those elements effectively. I’m very scandi looking – square jaw and angular cheekbones – and I hate looking at photos of myself, because the flattening effect makes me look like a completely different person.

    • I feel the same way. My mum (who sometimes borders on being a bit too honest) once told me that I look better in real life than in photos. Now I just think, maybe it’s a bit too much wonderful to reduce to one photo – after all, a camera can’t capture all the wonder of the sun.

    • Laura

      my high school bio teacher once told our class that people that have eyes a bit wider set apart than the average are more photogenic. something about it makes the appearance more becoming in a photograph. figures i remembered that but can’t remember anything else i learned in bio.

  • Emily

    I once read that if we saw ourselves on the street, we wouldn’t recognize ourselves – all we see in reflections and even in photos is a static moment or a still self, which looks quite different from how we really appear to the world. we can’t see what we look like when we’re talking or laughing or in motion. and add in your personal mental skew (on days I feel confident, I think I look beautiful.. other days not so much) and it’s overall a different person in your mental picture than in reality. so crazy but in some ways reassuring, as I think of watching the people I love talk or laugh and those moments when you realize how strikingly beautiful they are. it’s nice to think someone might be doing that about me, or anyone really

    • Lyla

      I feel like I don’t even recognize my reflection half the time. When I’m placed next to other people I see my height or the shape of my legs and think, is that really what I look like?

    • ashley

      exactly. agreed. my new thing is if I do ____ everyone is and its so comforting. can be applied to so many scenarios

      • Emily

        me too!

  • Abby


  • Can you guys start an Ask Haley column? Haha. I need her take on all the issues that plague me, because she breaks things down so well — in a way that’s both easy to digest and seemingly thorough. I like it.

    Anyway, I do the exact same shit. I’ve also thought a lot about how internals affect externals, i.e. how I think my boyfriend is even *more* beautiful now than originally because of our emotional bond, or how much harsher I judge someone physically when they’ve been rude to me. That type of thing. Humans are WILD.

    • Haley Nahman

      WE REALLY ARE. I wonder if untangling our internal monologues is the only reprieve.

  • Shaun

    This resonated with me so deeply that I just made a profile so I could comment (and I never comment on anything – and I’ve been reading Man Repeller since 2010 – baybeeee!).

    I don’t know if I’ve ever known what I look like or if I ever will. I think that is part of why the Man Repeller community resonates with me. I can’t control what I look like, or that I don’t know what I look like, or whether or not people will find me attractive, or if I even find myself attractive. But, I can control the clothes I put on my body and I can recognize what I look like through them. I can construct what I look like through cultivating my personal style and, on my best days, I see myself in the mirror looking back on me. Man Repeller speaks to me because it approaches style as a language for authenticity and self expression, that allows me to move beyond looking in the mirror and asking, “what do I look like?” and get to this place of, “oh, hi, I know you.” Thanks for your awesome writing!

  • Caitlin Crow

    I’ve always said that I’d like my superpower to be the ability to speak/read/write any language, but I think I might trade it for the ability to experience myself and others as not-myself…even for a day.

  • Lizz DeFeo

    After reading this and the comments that fall below it, I feel an odd comfort, similar to the bizarre comfort I felt in the #metoo movement. I am not alone, but it is amazing how many women these issues effect, and for that I am saddened but hope the open discussions bring some healing or safety. I have been writing about my issues with depression, anorexia nervosa, and body dysmorphia for years, and as time passes, I’ve realized more and more women, especially are facing a dysmorphic identity. My boyfriend often says, as I cringe at a picture of myself, “you are not 2D. the photo is not accurate.” He’s right, how does a camera capture everything about me — grotesque, adorable, pretty. Thanks Haley for bringing the readers some comfort, for the “little me” in all of us, still staring in spoon reflections or rainy puddles, trying to find an answer.

    • Yvey

      It was so great to read your comment as I have (had) exactly the same cocktail of mental health challenges as you, and I’ve never met anyone like that before! I’ve come to the point where I point blank refuse to look at photos of myself (and it upsets my boyfriend but I’ll do what I have to do to look after myself right now.) It’s wonderful to read your bf’s comment about photos being 2D and therefore inaccurate as this is something I believe about photos in general but haven’t thought about photos of myself. My thought process in the past has been ‘this photo of me = ugly, therefore I am ugly’. I’m working to dispel this false belief. In fact, all of this article and all the comments I’ve read so far have really spoken to me–thanks everybody for speaking so frankly. I too feel less alone.

    • Haley Nahman

      I loved this thank you back

  • Rose T

    Hayley Nahman how do you keep getting access to my internal monologue? Very reassuring to know other people do this, especially from someone I would think of as classically pretty.
    From the dearth of comments already I’d wager this is more common than any of us realised – maybe we’re all just walking around wondering what the hell our faces are up to?

    • Charlie

      Haley somehow often writes about my internal monologues too – and is able to put into words what I have not been able to.

  • Eliza

    I always feel like the “me” that I see in my brain and in the mirror must be wrong, because I look so so vastly different (worse) in photos. I hate it. It’s an issue.

  • eva

    this hits home! still doing/feeling this even as my face ages and morphs and turns into my mom’s as her’s turns into one of an “old woman’s” as my daughter’s goes from baby to toddler to kid who looks like i totally did… it’s for sure taking up an alarming amount of real estate in my brain. glad to see i’m not the only one!

  • jelly

    ME TOO. Everything, even the teasing from my dad.
    I used to ask an old boyfriend to tell me if he saw someone with the same body as me on the street so I could try to catch a glimpse of myself. “Is that me?” seems like a pretty sad question. It never was. I was always way off the mark.
    My personal ledger includes notes from other people, validated by close friends. I know I have a long torso. I know I have white teeth. Is that it?
    I’m trying to just give up on this search. I can’t know what I look like, partly because it’s always changing. Sometimes I look good, sometimes I look bad. The End, I fucking wish.
    It feels like some good old feminist rebelliousness to just NOT CARE. (but then also care when you feel like caring! Complicated.) I’m really, really trying!

    • sg

      Ha! I do this all the time — asking my bf to show me someone who “looks like me” or confirming with him if the woman that just walked by us “looks like me” :))

  • I bet you contain multitudes, elusively perceivable, all the time.
    Great writing and very interesting, thank you.

  • KER6628

    Seeing long time readers finally commenting made me confident to do the same. This is a post Harvey Weinstein world! I imagined this article being pulled out of my head like a memory to a pensieve. Such brilliant writing. How is it that we all have experienced this and only now speaking about this strange human phenomenon?

  • Lyla

    Candid videos freak me out. I hate when I end up on someone’s Instagram story and I see my body in motion from unexpected angles. The other day I only recognized myself by the top I was wearing because it showed my face from the side and below. I’m tall so that is what a lot of people see, but I’ve never seen myself that way before. I didn’t know my nose looked so pointy.

  • Sarah

    Wow wow wow I love this. My partner recently asked me what my opinion of my own physicality was, like do I like what I look like, and I was like I honestly have no idea? I hardly have a clue what I really look like. And whether that’s caused by years of body dysmorphia or something else I’m not sure. Anyway, I identify with this SO much. Thanks.

  • Elisaaa

    “But where he saw a gaze of self-admiration, a vain little habit I needed to break, I saw a girl I didn’t recognize but desperately wanted to. The answer to the question of whether I was pretty, which everyone and everything signaled was important, eluded me in bewildering repetition. I wasn’t vain, I was curious.”

    This is great and unique and relatable. Thank you for writing it!

  • Yes. So relatable. I didn’t know other women felt the same way – of course, though!

  • Andrea

    My dad has forever been calling me Narcissa every time he catches me looking at my reflection. I think when I was younger it was more out of fear I didn’t look “right,” now it really IS a lot more admiration. However, I never considered or explored the depths of my brain enough to realize that it largely is also curiosity, not just insecurity or vanity.

    One of my favorite things to do is imagine myself as someone’s something. I think of what my parents see when they look at their daughter. I think of what my boss sees when he looks at his employee. I think of what my best friend sees when she looks at her best friend. I also think of what the non-existent/yet-to-be-determined man sees when he looks at his girlfriend. It’s so bizzare to think about what others see when they look at us, knowing that it never is what we see ourselves as.

  • Megalopyge

    “To be told my looks matter — in ways both subtle and explicit — and then to be robbed of the data is frustrating.”

    I want this sentence tattooed on my forehead. It speaks to my experience of womanhood in such a concise and elegant way. Beautifully written article, thank you.

  • Jessica

    This is so wonderfully honest and insightful Haley <3
    Definitely relate – I still sometimes stand in front of the mirror in random bathrooms for longer than necessary, with a vague feeling of 'is this my actual face'.

  • Adrianna

    I defend selfies because I think I’ve established a positive self-image through selfies.

    I learned a lot about aperture and shutter speed by setting up my entry-level DSLR on my desk to take self portraits in my naturally lit bedroom in 2010-2011. I couldn’t explain why I felt compelled to do this, but I now feel that I “know what I look like”

  • Aimee

    All of this! I am thirty-seven and still can’t figure out if my eyes are green or hazel or if my thighs are “big”. Amongst other things. Neither of these things matters in the grand scheme of things but it would indeed be nice to have it decided once and for all and to spend that energy on other things. But it is also nice to know that I’m not the only one carrying this shit around day in and day out. PS First time commenting here– I love your writing Haley!

  • Jess

    Haley – everything you write becomes my new favorite thing. xo

  • Laura

    i’ve thought it to be ironic to be obsessed with wondering how i’m perceived (whether by my appearance, how i sound, etc) but that i’ll never actually get to see my own face, or hear my voice. only a reflection, photo, recording, etc.

  • Mon Valdés

    I’m turning 28 next month and I’m still not sure about what I look like… I grew up being severely overweight in comparison to my close friends, so everytime I saw myself in the mirror, I saw I looked different to them, but I was not aware that it was “bad” until people started pointing it out. As I grew up, my weight pretty much stayed the same but I learned to see myself as everyone else did- with a negative connotation: I didn’t hate myself, but I never considered myself pretty or wanted to buy new clothes, etc.
    About 5 years ago, I decided I wanted to change for good, so I lost about 90 lbs, and now I was seeing myself in a whole new light… and I started doing what you describe so perfectly on the article: I looked at myself on every possible surface, and not because I became vain with my weightloss, but it was like looking at someone that I’ve never seen before – I had cheekbones and a collarbone! So, right now I feel like I’m still discovering myself and I’ll be doing that for a while still.

  • This is SO RELATABLE! Sometimes I think I’m so good-looking, but most of the time I feel like a troll. I’m assuming by the way people treat me that I’m more on the troll side, but I just don’t know??????

  • imeansure

    This resonates so, so hard. So many angles and different situations in which we will never see ourselves and never be able to even imagine what we look in. And everyone else can see it and it’s just totally natural to them. We are clearly a mystery to ourselves.

    I always think about how movie/tv stars must feel knowing exactly what they look like at all times, having undoubtedly watched themselves on screen a ton. It must be fascinating.

  • Mimi Moss

    I love this article and the comments. I also spent a lot of time looking at my reflection as a kid (and still do, though have less free time to just stare in the mirror now!) A big part of it for me was/is about confirming that I exist outside of my brain. I am an only child of a single parent, latch key kid and I spent SO much time alone growing up. I would often sit in front of a mirror while playing, while reading, while eating … I loved being in the presence of another human – even if it was just me! And yes, “me” I notice, is always changing. I never know exactly what I look like but I love my own face. Because it’s mine.
    Part of it for me IS vanity 🙂 I know that objectively on the “beauty scale” I am average to low but that doesn’t bother me at all. I enjoy looking at me because it’s me. Even when my skin is frustratingly bumpy (which no one else notices) or my hair looks terrible (again, no one else notices.) Even when I was deathly ill and so ugly that I actually, for the first time, could not look at myself in the mirror for 6 months; it was not because I was sad that others would think I looked bad. It was because I couldn’t see any of the “me” I had gotten to know over 35 years – and that was scary. A weird thing about dying is the erasure of self, body parts/body functions (and disfunctions) take over. Part of the triumph of recovery has been to look at my bald, eyebrow-less, eyelash-less face and emaciated body in the mirror and still somehow manage to recognize myself. I will never be the same as I was before but I am still “me.”

  • Jeanie

    I’ve felt so much of this. It’s frustrating to me that I can picture pretty clearly what other people look like and what expressions they make, but I have a harder time remembering what I look like. And I really don’t know what I look like making various expressions through the day. I think that’s actually a big part of why we’re so concerned about our own appearances

  • Helene C Esteves

    Feel ya! It’s so frustrating for me because there is also literally not two pictures where I look the same. I don’t have a picture face or picture smile like some people do, and every new shot that I am aware of has become both a challenge and a source of hope because I expect it to represent “what i look like” and everytime it ends up feeling so wrong.
    I wonder how the ones who always have the same picture face do it. Have they figured what they look like? I feel like they are one step above in the self-awareness somehow. And also have some people found selfies helpful in that search for what they look like? (Srsly)

  • Elin

    This is a really great article (as always), Haley and I fully relate to all your sentiments. In my case, I believe it’s that old cave man “I don’t wanna be left alone/abandoned from the flock, because that would be DANGEROUS”-mentality showing its ugly face again. It sounds really stupid, but I always thought (think) that if people find me ugly/unattractive/weird/repulsive they wouldn’t want to talk to me or give me a job or date me or simply treat me nicely. So I always put some extra makeup on and make sure my outfit looks okay (especially since I live in a city, where impressions are made so quickly). Stupid and also quite sad, really.

  • Paola

    I feel you

  • Esther

    Everything you write is so perfect. All of the feelings.

  • Kristie

    damn girl you’re good

  • Jill

    ‘And even if there’s ecstasy in forgetting them, in distraction, the quiet off-beats of life are too frequent to let me for long.’ Wow, that’s by far the most beautiful sentence I’ll read this week.


  • Elle Shoel

    Haley you are the BEST.

  • Hannah Betts

    I spent hours looking in the mirror as a child in a way that had nothing to do with vanity, but some sort of search for an essence. I’m still shocked when I see pictures of my profile. Who IS this person occupying my face?

  • Samantha s

    Wow wow wow. Love this. I think about this all the time, that other people know my face so much better than I do. I think about this in relation to people I love…that I know how beautiful and perfect their faces are so much better than they do, that their imperfections are what make them memorable and I love their faces so much! But they will never know these things like I do.

    • Samantha s


  • Megan

    This resonated so much. I have no idea what I look like either and it bothers me that I’m often so preoccupied by that. Two days ago someone stopped me in the street to tell me I was beautiful, and I feel guilty because it’s such a kind thing but whenever something like that happens (extremely rarely) my first thought is ‘oh god this is must be some kind of scam/trap/joke’, because it seems totally unfounded. Maybe that has more to do with society than my insecurities, but still, it feels like a face, make-up aside, should either be pretty all the time, and to everyone, or not pretty ever. Of course that isn’t the case, it’s always going to be different. You’re completely right Hayley (as always!), it is fruitless trying to work it out, what with so many intervening physical and emotional factors, the biggest of which is probably the mood we’re in when we catch sight of our reflection. Thank you for writing this – I hope we can all learn to accept our own mystery.

  • Jay

    There is this weird thing about the difference between what we see in ourselves and how we see ourselves… and how others do?!

    I hate pictures of me. I dont like looking into the mirror. I dont do selfies.

    Though there is obviously nothing too wrong with me. Actually there are quite some people calling me pretty – and thats not only my BF?! – or interesting looking.

    (I like the latter better, cause pretty to me is like Reese Witherspoon whom I adore but not resemble at all… )

    And I feel like…

    I guess what you are alluding to. Not understanding myself. Or my looks. Not being able to really figure out what I look like in a given situation. Or in any for that matter.

    Recently I have started to look into the mirror more, though.

    We had a girls night in and one of my friends told me of a ritual she has:

    once a month, when she‘s alone by herself, she puts on music, opens a bottle of wine and strips. For herself. And in front of a mirror. Without any makeup. No need to dance or anything. Just being herself. Being vulnerable and facing that. Embracing what she sees fully. (With the help of the wine, I assume). And letting that sink. And the more wine, the more playful she gets. Starts dressing in quirky things again. Playing with what it does to her figure. Making faces to the mirror. Observing how that changes the way she looks. And yeah, moving as well.

    She was really enthusiastic about that.

    And I wanted to try.

    First it felt awkward. Like really weird. Naked in front of a mirror is not the coolest thing on earth (god, I need to shave, the skin on my knees is super dry, I have those weird little dots on my décolletage, … not to mention what is going on at my back…). But…

    I got it.

    The awkwardness.

    The uncomfortable.

    And somehow… with the right kind of music (Revenge by Pink in a Mix with The Saturdays) I got over it. Ok, wine might play a role. But I ended up in Summer Frilly dress dancing to Britney Spears and writing a love letter to my legs (which are really cool… ok, Im a runner, so obviously they are the better part of me… )

    To anyone in this… I highly recommend this.

    But limit it to once a month.

    An entire bottle of wine is not the healthiest thing in the world… 🙂

  • Ashlyn Grace

    This is SO TRUE!! And I never really thought about it but, I think it really is just pure curiosity of what other people see when they see us. But like you said, I never see someone in a particular angle or even a particular day or outfit or week and decide that they’re ugly (but I will do that if they’re pretty) so I guess we shouldn’t judge ourselves like that either. But it doesn’t take away the curiosity……

  • Caroline Fallon

    Thank you so much for this. Being a part of a culture and generation obsessed with our appearance is exhausting. For every beautiful photo we take, there will be some that are embarrassing, unrecognizable or unattractive. But what if instead of seeking out beauty, we sought out intelligence, strength and confidence? As a little girl who looked at her reflection a lot, too, I wish those were the qualities I tried to see. Also it’s inevitable that we are going to look different in every photo, lighting, or reflection. There are FORTY-THREE muscles in the human face… therefore an endless amount of expressions we can make, meaning we’re going to look like different people all the time. 🙂 I think this desire to know what we look like is also a desire for stability. If our exteriors always look the same, presentable, or pretty, then we have a sense of consistency in our lives. Unfortunately the physical world, including our faces and bodies are unstable. But like you said, maybe there’s a beauty/ecstasy in our ever-changing, or mysterious physicality.

  • Tessa Aiken

    Haley, I so appreciate your writing, it is honest and vulnerable. You describes things I have felt but never could put to words, and best of all, makes you feel less alone because of it. Fantastic writing with even greater subject writing, thank you.

  • Jingxin

    I love this article! It is very touching, and so well written! Look is something we can’t ignore nowadays, but THIS, the skill of writing/expressing exactly the insight one has, is so much more!

  • “I don’t know what I look like on the train, waiting for my stop. I don’t know what I look like when I’m writing, talking, walking down the street” really stuck out to me. I think that as well as the ever-present message that what you look like matters A LOT, which Haley explored so thoughtfully, there’s an element to this which often goes overlooked, and that’s that the historically male dominated media has created a cultural landscape in which women only see themselves through the gaze of others.

    The dearth of cultural influences which look out at the world FROM a woman’s own point of view, rather than at her in an often highly objectifying way is something that contributes very insidiously to this state of self-monitoring that a lot of women and femmes exist in constantly. I hope that makes sense. My point is this is more political than meets the eye.

  • Hil

    I heard Sharon Stone say in an interview something like “life is too short to waste time worrying whether you’re beautiful. I know I’m beautiful” (not a direct quote) and my first thought was “of course you don’t have to worry whether you’re beautiful. everyone knows you’re beautiful” but then my next realization was that she said that because she has spent a lot of her life worrying whether she was beautiful. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t realize that was a thing to work against. And if even Sharon Stone has worried about whether she’s beautiful, then maybe some people think I (a person who has had the same worries) am unquestionably beautiful too?

  • Amy Jessica Lila Marr

    Firstly, Hayley can you please write a book already! Secondly, I loved this article. I wish I didn’t waste as much time as I do thinking about this exact conundrum. I feel a total sense of disconnect/confusion when someone says a picture of me (that I think looked hideous) is attractive. And it always sends me spiraling into a deep, destructive self-esteem crisis. As much as I logically know it shouldn’t matter and and these thoughts shouldn’t take up this much of my day, its so hard not to measure yourself against those around you to see where you fit on the scale. I completely agree that at 28, for me, I would rather just know the answer and be done with it, so I can use that wasted energy to learn another language or something.

  • Isabel

    This is beautiful Haley! I have always felt the same way and I’m so happy you wrote this. We should work towards accepting our own vast unknowability!

  • Carey

    I’ve felt better in recent years just telling myself that I’m average, like most people, and that’s ok. I’m not a show-stopping beauty and my face has many flaws, but people sometimes find me attractive or compliment my looks, so I don’t think I’m ugly, either. And even if I am ugly, what can I do about it? There’s only so much that makeup can do; I can’t change my features. I focus on what I can control and try not to think too much about the rest. And honestly, when I look around, most people are average-looking, too. I don’t hold it against them and I don’t think anyone else does either.