Strangers in the Mirror

It is 11pm on a Saturday night. Chattanooga, TN. Connooga. The day has been full of good things, and a nap, but now it is time for the Bella Morte concert, and I am getting dressed.

As I lace up the corset, my grandmother’s voice echoes in my memory. “You can’t wear those jeans. They show your back when you lean over.”

As I pull on the jeans, I hear her say “Your thighs are too fat for those pants. You have to wear something else to your riding lesson.” I was 13 years old.

I brush gray and black eyeshadow over my lids and hear a 15 year old being told “that makeup makes you look like a clown.” All I’d been wearing was mascara and lipgloss, but I’d run back to the house and washed it all off, crying.

Finally dressed, I look in the mirror. A stranger waits for me there. A beautiful, shameless, proud stranger with feathers in her hair and jagged jewelry. I don’t know this woman. I am hiding in the corner, naked. She won’t let me hide in a blanket, so I hide in my corner.

Clothes, makeup, jewelry, these are all masks. I often wear them so that people won’t look beyond the surface. It is hard for me to walk out into public, hard to know that people are looking at me. I learned to disappear into the shadows a long time ago. My upbringing was good for that.

When I was 15, I bought jeans and sweaters and clothing that was too big, too old for me. I wear those jeans to work now, they fit perfectly. I always felt too big for my skin, too old for my place in life. Everything seemed half a step off. I looked in the mirror and couldn’t see myself. I couldn’t look at the face there, because it wasn’t me. The sense of displacement has been vast and terrifying, for as long as I can remember.

It has been a long road here. Deep down, I have the same vanity as everyone else. I want to be admired, loved, envied. I am young enough that I do not want to waste what is perceived as an advantage, old enough to wonder why it matters if a man turns to look at me after I walk past.

For me, the clothes and the makeup, the stranger in the mirror, those things aren’t about attracting men or women or being more beautiful than someone else.

The stranger in the mirror is who I expected to see when I looked in the mirror ten years ago. She has a different hair color, a few more scars–inside and out–and a different set of lenses on the world, but I finally look in the mirror and am not so surprised.

I want to look my grandmother in the face and tell her that she damaged me more than the girls at school, more than the well-meaning adults who told me to stop wearing black and act my age. I want to tell her that I’m not too fat, that I’m not whoring myself, that I don’t look like a clown. I want to tell her that her failure to raise me right is all in her mind.

Because the stranger in the mirror looks back and there is understanding in her eyes. I can’t stop staring. Not at my face, not at my shoulders or waist or hair. I can’t stop staring into my own eyes, and wondering if this is what Narcissus was punished for. If he was, I like to think that he counted it worthy, because there are no more strangers in the mirror.

I am beautiful, and I am no longer ashamed of being a beautiful, shameless, proud woman.


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