It’s been almost two years since I wrote the below essay, originally published in October 2017, and I’m relieved to say the frisson has since dulled. Although I’m still not certain what I look like, I’m both closer to knowing and more apathetic than ever (oh, the irony of growing up). But this essay was a reminder that coming into ourselves is so often a battle of wills—of feeling one way in spite of knowing better, and unraveling the stories we no longer agree with. So in honor of Vanity Month, we’re republishing this story that tackles both. If you’re on this journey too, know you’re not alone.
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 provided by Haley Nahman.