I have a secret habit.
After I shower, I stand on a white foot towel on the white tile floor of my white-walled, poorly lit, poorly ventilated apartment bathroom and let my body drip dry as the exhaust fan drones on. Naked in the center of my own private vacuum, I brush my wet hair back from my forehead. My hair is so thin that the bristles of a brush or a hair pick hurt my scalp. When I’m done, I look into the mirror. I can see all of my splotchy red face, with no stray hairs hanging in front of it.
I stand in place and I stare at it. My face. I turn my neck so slowly, from side to side, making the little beads of water collecting at the ends of my hair give way and trickle down my back. My neck moves but my eyes keep staring forward, into the glass, at my face. I drink in how naked and puffy and average it looks to me. I could be a floating head at this point. My body is of little to no concern.
All I can see is what’s between my scalp and my clavicle: the worry lines stitched into my forehead, which I tighten and relax to study how deeply they’re woven in place; my eyebrows, never once tweezed or plucked; my eyelashes, spangly and wet, fuller on my right eye; the silver bags, always the most cavernous right then and seemingly bigger every day; the acne scars on my cheeks and chin that devilishly appeared only when I hit my twenties; my neck, and how it bunches underneath my chin and looks wider than it is when I turn my head this way or that.
It might take only a few minutes, but it feels like such a slow process, drinking in my face. I absorb every feature, staring down what I don’t love or feel some sort of disappointment over – or what I’m surprised by (where the hell did that pockmark come from?). Carefully, determinedly, I justify the existence of each one. If I turn my head this way, my neck looks much better. This side of my face is pretty good looking (!). My bags are awful but I will look much better after moisturizer. Photos of my mouth should be used to scare teenagers into wearing their retainers. I open my mouth and bare my teeth like a jungle cat, studying my overbite and the particular mauve color of my lips. If I think of anything else other than my face while I’m standing there, it’s the retainer on my bedside table.
After I’ve smoothed my face over with my mind and justified each ugliness I can see – each detail – I feel calmer. I feel better. I can work with this. I can make this better.
Once I cover my face in moisturizer and apply mascara (and sneeze and get it all over my under eye area and have to start over) and dry and style and spray my hair, I stand in front of the mirror again. This time my thighs are pressed against the vanity as I lean in closer. My face is only about six inches from the glass. I study my face again. It’s still the original face, but it’s better – the circles and the scars and the pockmarks are hidden. My hair looks pretty good. Mascara does wonders for the lashes on my left eye. Remember: if I turn my head this way, my neck looks much better. Sometimes – okay, most times – I practice smiling. I turn my head while I hold a smile. I practice smiling so that my overbite isn’t as obvious to me. You clean up well, I tell myself.
Out of my quiet white vacuum and into the world I go.
It’s a secret habit – well, it was – because I do it alone, in silence and out of sight. It’s not secret because of shame. I am far from ashamed of it. It is just what I do. It is a regular part of my day, like making lemon water while my eyes are still swollen from sleep or calling my mom on her lunch break. And like every other ingrained daily habit, I don’t think about it at all. I have an intimate relationship with my face but I take it for granted.
We chose our wedding photographer largely because I watched a slideshow of his photographs at the first wedding showcase I went to and couldn’t stop myself from crying. Beautiful people, perfect lighting, expressiveness captured – each image was beautiful. As our wedding approached, I grew more and more excited. We were about to be those beautiful people I had seen on the screen.
On the morning of my wedding, I didn’t have time to stand in front of the mirror and collect myself before hair and makeup arrived at 7 am. So after my hair was done and my false eyelashes were on, I headed for the bathroom. At first I was thrown. I looked much different than usual – after all, I don’t normally do my own makeup with an airbrush gun. I didn’t know the woman in the mirror as well as I might have liked, but her eyelashes were fabulous. I turned my neck from side to side, zeroing in on my neck and my chin. Some of the things I study makeup cannot hide.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the photographer aiming his lens at me as I stared at myself worriedly. Oddly, it made me relax. Remember those beautiful pictures? You will look beautiful in the pictures. I stopped worrying. I stepped out of the bathroom and put on my wedding dress and then my face was the farthest thing from my mind.
I spent the rest of that day feeling like the most beautiful creature in the world. When I put on that dress and felt the fabric on my skin and watched my parents cry and saw the way Brian looked at me…those feelings were better than the satisfaction that comes from the most flattering mirrors. I was suddenly this exceptional version of myself, floating about as I celebrated my beautiful life with some of the beautiful people I’m honored to share it with. My memory of the day is a happy one, and a blur. Some details are clear and others not so much. I do remember going to the bathroom one time during the reception and not bothering to look at myself in the mirror. Not enough time. Too much to do and see, too much to be.
When we received the preview of our wedding photos, it was a weekday. I was by myself, idly checking emails, when I saw one pop up from the photographer. My blood pressure instantly spiked. I clicked the link, watched the page slowly load, chewed a few fingernails. Finally. I was hungry for beautiful pictures – beautiful pictures of me. The first professional pictures taken of me as an adult. The only pictures of my wedding day.
When the 60 or so images appeared on my screen my jumpy heart began to scratch upwards at the walls of my throat like it does when excitement gives way to anxiety.
I clicked on the very first image and burst into tears.
If you are familiar with any kind of anxiety, you know that anything can set off its unhappy hair trigger and initiate a total loss of all composure. My nervous system kicked into overdrive while my body sat paralyzed, save for one (conveniently) fully-functioning thumb that kept clicking and clicking and clicking with hatred through the photos while hot tears burned down my stupid, ugly fucking face.
I was going to have to show these to other people.
I frantically forwarded the link to Brian, cringing as I did it. Next I called. I remember saying, “Is that what I really look like?”
I called my mom later, sniveling into the phone. “That is not what I look like!” I shouted.
In almost every picture I saw the parts of my face that each day I drink in without thought, staring into the bathroom mirror as the exhaust fan drones on. Here was a collection of perfectly-lit, richly-saturated, highly-defined photographs of my wedding day, and all I could see were the things about my face that each day I justify and work with: my neck, my overbite, my scalp of baby fine hair. The first picture – a close-up of my face, widely smiling – sparked in me something that I can only call rage. I was furious. I felt so beautiful on that day. Why didn’t it show in the pictures?
Some of the photographs that made me cry that day. I’m working on loving them all.
I may not love my face in these photos but I can see the happiness written all over it.
I had no idea I hated my face so much. I really had no idea that I was filled with such self-loathing. When I finish getting ready for the day and I stand in front of the mirror a second time, thighs pressed up against the vanity, I usually feel good about my appearance. You clean up well. I think I love my face because I’ve treated it successfully.
But the thing about habits – long-time, daily, routine habits – is that you don’t question them, or think about them, or even realize that they are what they are. Every day after I shower, I stare into the bathroom mirror and scan my face with care and calculation. I think I am working on loving myself as I come to terms with my face. That is truly the mindset I’m in. But what I’m really doing is telling myself, over and over again, that my face is something I have to come to terms with. It is ugly that I do it, but it is the truth.
When I saw those photos of my wedding day, my eyes zeroed in on every flaw, just like they do any other time I look at my own face. I’ve trained myself so well that it’s scary. And I’m willing to bet I am far from the only woman who has done this – who does this. I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only woman who has cried over her wedding photos because she suddenly realized she hated her own face.
This post is not to say that I hate my wedding photos. I want to make it very clear that I love them and treasure them. There are many in which I feel beautiful. But this is to say that they sparked deep anger in me over my appearance. This is to say that even now, when I look at some of them, I have to work to keep from feeling sad just because of what they make me face: the parts of myself I taught myself to hate. This is to say that somewhere, somehow, I lost sight of myself.
When did I start hating my face? Certainly not when my mother would hold me and rock me and tell me what I looked like. Two eyes like big brown pools, one tiny button nose, two lips like tiny rosebuds, two ears like beautiful little seashells.
It probably happened somewhere between the horrors of middle school and the four years of high school braces and the adult acne of my twenties and the rise of the role of social media in my life – that powerful but dangerous breeding ground for ugly comparisons.
The good news is that I know, deep down, that I love myself. And I can love my face. For goodness’ sake – it is the shield for my magical, beautiful fucking brain. And I know what I need to remember: to question my secret habit. I need to gaze into the glass without criticism and instead with curiosity and interest and wonder. I need to think less about what I can change and more about how to preserve and care for what is already there.
And the crux of it all, the thing I really need to remember, is this: the most beautiful I’ll ever feel won’t come from looking through my wedding photos. They are priceless, and I treasure them, but they are static. The most beautiful I’ll ever feel is in the moment and in my memories of it. I lived the hell out of my wedding day. I felt beautiful. I was the happiest, smiliest, best version of myself. I danced like a fool. I talked to everyone I knew. I kissed and kissed and kissed my husband like nobody was paying us any attention. I smelled like sweat but kept right on going. And I was totally beautiful.
It was a wonderful feeling to be out in the world, present in the moment, living beautifully.
Out of that vacuum and into the world I go.