Note: This post deals with the subjects of cutting and self-harm.
In high school, I used to cut myself with a butter knife. Locked in public bathrooms–at school, in the cafeteria at work, or, perhaps most perversely, at church before I sang in service–I sat on toilets, quietly sawing away at my thighs, making thin lines that oozed red, over and over, until I could breathe. A dull blade, my unlikely weapon of choice, offered maximum efficiency in terms of both pain and control, and it served its purpose well.
I spent years figuring out what made me scratch my feelings into my skin. I was reading Janet Fitch’s White Oleander on the beach sometime after college when this quote from the protagonist helped the pieces of my self-harm puzzle fall into place for me:
In a perverse way, I was glad for the stitches, glad it would show, that there would be scars. What was the point in just being hurt on the inside? It should bloody well show.
The years fourteen to nineteen were for me a minefield of moments of non-recognition. One example: I joined a support group for depressed teenaged women, where other members said things like, “You look like a cheerleader, what are you doing here?” until I quit. My image in the mirror no longer reflected who I felt I was, and that, coupled with growing frustration at my lack of control over what happened to my own body, pushed me to extreme measures—all in an effort to try to make the outside match the inside.
This sounds dire, and it was, for a time. But the freedom I slowly gained in college at NYU wormed its way into my soul. I began to dress how I felt, to express myself with eyeliner, to proactively and precisely choose how I shared my body. One day I waltzed into a barbershop and requested that the (horrified) barber cut off my long, platinum hair into a risky pixie. I caught a glimpse of my reflection on the walk back to my dorm and recognized myself for the first time in years.
Now, just over a decade later, I am emerging from another period of disorientation. I knew that having a baby would change my life, but I think I underestimated how it would change the fundamental structure of who I am as a person. I spent my daughter’s first year avoiding the mirror, lest I confront my new body, or look honestly into my own exhausted eyes and see someone who was failing, or—worst yet—find that the woman in the looking glass was a total stranger.
Making the Bed
In December, shortly after my daughter’s birthday, when my Facebook feed was filled to brimming with other people’s resolutions for the New Year, I set myself one task: look at my new self, inside and out, and accept her.
Even more than accepting the stretch marks on my belly and the additional support now required in my chest area, I needed to look at the tired, the wrinkled, the constantly late, the often dirty, the behind-the-ball me, and instead of berating her to get her act together, give her a hug and maybe a drink.
This was not an easy thing, to say the least. I realized quickly that although the shift I needed to make was an internal one, I was nowhere near ready to start making it from an internal place. So I brought out the big guns: Joel Osteen, new-age-y affirmations on my computer screen, impossibly positive Christian pop music on the drive to the office, and, perhaps not surprisingly, a renewed focus on my physical appearance. My mother likes to say, “There’s never an excuse to look like an unmade bed.” I had started to look like an unmade Craigslist futon left out on the sidewalk in the rain.
Working Outside In
We are now four months into the new year. I start the day early, sneaking in a good, hot shower before my daughter wakes up, whenever possible. I still get dressed with a sixteen-month old winding her way around my ankles like a cat, but I do it with my eyes open.
I apply a new wrinkle cream. It stings for a second, but I think it’s helping with the tired look. I smooth on a great tinted moisturizer instead of my old powder foundation. I’m using a new lipstick, and it makes me feel instantly more put together. My wardrobe has a jewel-toned palette and boasts an amazing pair of stretch pants with a faux-leather stripe down the side. My toddler pauses in her mischief-making to watch while I blow dry my hair—a shag with heavy bangs that reminds me of my hipster days but that somehow still matches the life I’m living now.
We steal a moment while we’re getting ready to dance in front of the mirror—her sticky little hand in mine and a chubby arm thrown around my neck. Sometimes it’s Taylor Swift, sometimes it’s Sleater-Kinney, sometimes it’s Hillsong United, sometimes it’s Rage Against the Machine. But the effect is the same. Ella giggles wildly, and I get a glimpse of the old me inside the new me.
My reflection before I turn off the bathroom light and we head out into the world is still sometimes a shock. The woman I see in the mirror is confident and coordinated and happy. It’s not always how I feel—it’s not even often how I feel—but slowly, I am making the inside match the outside.