As a kid, I loved fairy tales and Disney movies. The beautiful princesses dancing about in their long, flowing gowns put me in a state of fantasy for hours. The images and messages of those old stories stayed with me and influenced the way I viewed the world around me.
The story of Snow White, with her wicked stepmother and those 7 dwarves, has been interpreted in different movies over the years. When the stepmother/queen stood before her magic looking glass, the sound of her voice echoed in my head. “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” While growing up on fantasy, books, and cartoons, I realized there was a big difference between the princesses I saw and read about and the little girl I was.
In contrast to the beautiful princesses I looked at growing up, I absolutely hated the way I looked. As a young teenager, I would sit at the mirror and count the pimples on my face, giving up after passing 25. Each red bump seemed like a mountain. They were an affront to my self-esteem and made my teens a terrible time. I felt like no one could see me behind all that redness.
Both of my sisters were of medium height and had nice figures. I, on the other hand was tall, flat-chested, and thin. I hated being taller than most of the kids in my class, and really disliked my skinny legs with the knobby knees. I felt self-conscious when I walked down the street, imaging everyone could see the boulder knees knocking against each other with each step. One of my cousins teased me, saying that if I stood behind a utility pole, I would disappear—except for those knees.
If it wasn’t my skinny legs or blemished face that got me down, I would agonize over the dandruff that coated my shoulders. Head & Shoulders wasn’t around yet, and I couldn’t brush off the flakes fast enough. During classes, my scalp itched, and as soon as I started scratching, it looked like snow falling all around me. When I oiled my scalp, my hair just looked dirty.
Besides the blemishes on my face, I had what at the time seemed like ugly brown spots. I was teased a lot for having freckles and never considered them a cute thing, not in the least. Going out in the sun seemed to only make them darker. No pretty girls I knew had freckles, so they seemed like one more terrible burden to bear on my face.
But nothing made me feel worse than the frequent appearance of a cold sore on my mouth. With absolute terror I would wake up one morning with a familiar tingling sensation on my lower lip. When I raced to the bathroom, there would be tiny white pimples, marking the beginning of yet another tortuous period. No matter what I did, the ugly blister dominated my face for at least two weeks. Two weeks during which I could not smile and lowered my head when talking. I used to wish I could drop into a hole until the nasty sore went away. No boy would ever consider kissing me once he’d seen that on my lip, and I was decades away from any effective remedies.
Such were my teens and beyond. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I started to feel like I was attractive. And I was 50 before I had any real sense of self-confidence. Before that, no matter how many degrees I earned or what kinds of promotions I got, nothing restored the positive self-image that my physical imperfections took away.
Now here I am, about to turn 61, noticing new imperfections that threaten to haunt me. When did this wrinkled and sagging skin form on my upper arms? I suddenly see my grandmother’s arms coming out of my body. At the end of the arms are hands that have huge blood vessels criss-crossing the back, leaving blue-green lines weaving around the spindly bones sticking up from the base of each finger to my wrist, leaving valleys of skin between. What happened to the smooth hands I once had? And what is the deal with the ridges running down my fingernails? I smooth them out and before I know it, they come right back, until I just gave up wearing any nail polish.
When I stand under overhead florescent lights—the kind that are ubiquitous in work offices and store dressing rooms—I look suddenly older than I had just that morning in my bathroom. I turn and notice dark hairs at the corners of my mouth. The beginnings of a moustache. If I tilt my head back, I see one or two (or three) curly black or white hairs hanging from my chin. Yikes! I look as if I need to shave.
Further down my neck I see deep grooves going around my neck. The skin on my neck looks like it belongs to a woman twenty years older. I wishing I had worn a scarf so I could wrap it around my neck. Next, I open my mouth and am greeted by yellow-bordering-on-brown teeth. Though I spent thousands to fix my teeth and gums, the dingy color remained and shouted: this babe is OLD!
The difference between my youth and now is the undesired signs I see do not cripple my self-image any more. True, I would really like to do something about each of them (and when I have the money, I will), but I have a stronger sense of self than I did years ago. I don’t even wear makeup half the time (something I would never do in my 20s). I want to look my best, but my best beauty trick is a warm smile. One day I may feel the need to stop wearing sleeveless tops and may resort to turtleneck sweaters. But for now, I look at the wrinkles and sagging skin and even the not-white teeth, and I can still feel good about myself. Because this woman knows how to live!