“You’re hideous,” I said to my reflection in the grocery store bathroom mirror – thinning, gray-rooted, shaggy hair; badly applied mascara with upper lid smears; peeling and pimply complexion (the magazines call it combination skin); painfully chapped lips.“– and hopeless.”
“You don’t talk to your daughter that way, I trust,” replied the reflection of a little old woman washing her hands at the sink next to me, whom I had not noticed from under my tarp of self-loathing. “Why would you talk to yourself that way? I wouldn’t let anybody talk to me like that.”
So surprised was I to have my insular thought-bubble pierced, it took me a moment to process her chiding. I stared, dumbfounded and embarrassed, at the woman’s watery eyes in the mirror and stammered to explain. But what could I say? That I didn’t mean it? That I usually looked much better and by comparison, I was hideous? That she should mind her own business?
Instead, I asked her how she knew I had a daughter.
“I could tell,” she said, toweling her hands. “Daughters tend to humble us. BUT STILL,” she wagged her finger, “you must always be on your own side. So you look tired? Means you’ve been busy, there’s no point being hateful. Why don’t you find something good in there? And, a smile would make you look better.” She pointed to her timeworn face in the mirror, “When I look, I don’t see flaws I see evidence.”
I turned to my reflection. Over-plucked eyebrows frozen in an arc of fear, surprise, and inquiry. She was right, this stranger, on myriad levels. Why would I speak to the mother of my daughter this way? It renounced everything I claimed to uphold – tolerance, kindness, positive thinking, self-respect – and instead reeked of vanity, insecurity, and self-absorption. I certainly didn’t want my daughter to model such hypercriticism or think having unkempt hair deserved berating. What good was pontificating about the importance of inner beauty when I dismissed it at the first glance of imperfection?
My daughter deserved better. This woman standing next to me, who cared enough to share her wisdom in my defense, deserved better. I deserved better.
Back in the mirror, I tried to smile. I willed my facial muscles to lift and curl. My rushed and untended appearance meant I had purpose? It could. It could mean I had bigger, more important things to prioritize like getting kids off to school and running errands before work. I smiled bigger, splitting my dry lips. I faced myself. Okay, my posture was pretty good, I was healthy and had remembered to bring my reusable bags. I had to admire my determination to get the grocery shopping done. Ten years ago, would I have considered allowing the world to see me this way? No. Ten years ago, I didn’t have a family. I felt better already.
I walked out of the bathroom, and I smiled with true sincerity at the sweet audacity of the old woman. Did she know how much I needed her message? Apparently so. Not flaws, evidence.