This is a picture of me. I hate pictures of me, so it’s hard to believe I’m sharing one willingly, but there it is, right at the top of the page here. It’s a close-up, too: a perhaps misguided selfie taken in the bathroom of a brewery / restaurant that we visited ten days ago, while on our one day of ‘vacation’. I took it because I’ve been waging internal war with myself for the past two weeks, and I knew if I didn’t take it right then, the casualties of that war would stay hidden.
If you’re a woman, you probably know this war all too well: it’s between the forces within you that say you should take your time making yourself look as good as you want to feel, and the opposing forces, which say you don’t need to look perfect and should practice self-acceptance. Both sides make valid points. Each side wins battles, and each side loses.
In some ways, this picture is nothing short of an embarrassment. I’m ashamed of the unkempt hair and the barely visible but frumpy sweater paired with even frumpier jeans and cheap shoes. I’m horrified by the forehead expression lines, too. But framing this picture in that way is a deliberate distortion. That barely visible sweater was purchased from Anthropologie – is that a frumpy brand now? I bought those shoes on sale, sure, but they’re shoes other people have said they ‘absolutely love’ on more than one occasion. I’m wearing Old Navy Rockstar jeans, yes, but who cares? Blake Lively wears them. And this is my natural hair.
This next picture is so much easier to bear. This one is of me and my sweet husband, taken while walking the grounds of the place we got married. The backdrop is better, for starters. So is the angle, since he’s 6’4”. I’m wearing all black, chic snakeskin gladiator sandals and a coordinating crossbody bag. I just came from the salon, so my hair is blown-out perfection. We plan to use this picture in our Christmas card collage this year.
There are objective, aesthetic differences to these pictures, but they boil down to this: I appear more put together in the latter.
I can look beyond the surface, though. I know what was happening on the day each picture was taken. In the first picture, I was in an extraordinary amount of pain. I hadn’t left the (rental) house in almost a week. I had a serious, undiagnosed injury, and wasn’t getting any sleep. Taking a shower was a victory, so I wasn’t going to spend hours standing in front of the mirror. The second was taken on the first day I felt good in months, and over halfway through my ten weeks in physical therapy. I was visiting the place where my husband and I got married, too, less than two weeks before our first anniversary. Most importantly, I didn’t do my own hair that day – my awesome and sassy hairstylist did.
All of this might sound intuitive. And maybe to you it is. But examining these two pictures taken six weeks apart has given me a feeling of peace. I don’t have to wage this war. Both sides are right, both sides are wrong – it just depends what day it is. I don’t have to shame myself for being superficial on days when I have the time, energy and desire to look my best. I don’t have to shame myself for looking frumpy on days when getting out of the house for a few hours is a gift.
I used to spend hours every single day trying to look my best. I wore all black, suffered in 5” heels and never had imperfect hair. But then I met my husband. He loves when I get all dolled up now and then, but also loves me when I haven’t showered or gotten out of my pajamas, which is far more often. My natural hair was something I never embraced until I felt external love and acceptance, which prompted me to do the hard work of loving and accepting myself. In other words, the fact that I’m waging this internal war is itself a sign of progress – a few years ago, the superficial side dominated.
Nowadays all I want is to feel comfortable in my own skin. Some days that means primping, getting dressed up and putting on red lipstick. More often that means letting my hair dry naturally and wearing a comfortable sweater and flats. Comfortable means different things on different occasions. You’d never wear pajamas to the symphony, now, would you?
Women with a greater sense of self-worth already know this. Me? I’m still a work in progress.