“I Look at the Mirror and I See Someone Else”
“No!” My son cries adamantly looking at a picture of my husband and me. “This is didi and bhaiya!” He refuses to believe that the picture, taken only a few years back (three, to be exact), is of his amma and appa.
I believe him.
I look at the mirror and I see someone else. In the past three years, I expanded, contracted, morphed and wrinkled my way into motherhood and now I am this person with perpetually tired eyes, with lines and wrinkles around my forehead and a proliferation of grey hair that is forcing me to weigh the epochal decision of whether to colour it or not.
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And even though I have lost a lot of the baby weight (the last few stubborn pounds refuse to go) and I can wear most of my previous clothes, they don’t fit the same. I don’t look the same in them and I certainly don’t feel the same. Parenthood may be rewarding, but motherhood has been physically punishing.
I am not vain. I know, and I have been aware for a while now, that no one is looking at me. But forget others, it matters to me. What I looked like was a big part of who I was. Feeling comfortable in my skin, unburdened by insecurities, learning to see past the blemishes and marks — it was a hard-won battle.
At 18, I left for the US with two 35 kg suitcases full of issues. Body weight was one of them. I don’t know if I had the propensity to gain weight, but I had been on a diet from the time I had entered my teens, just in case.
And then there was the worst issue of them all: the colour of my skin. Growing up in India, particularly in the ‘fairer’ regions of the North, colour-consciousness was inescapable. From childhood taunts, to unsolicited advice from sundry shop assistants, salon staff and random relatives on the beauty products I should be using and colours I should not be wearing, whatever scrap of self-esteem I had was fought for, tooth and nail.
Parenthood may be rewarding, but motherhood has been physically punishing.
But battle scars were there, and it took four years in comparatively colour-blind America to completely heal them. My time there rid me of most of my body image issues. I was finally eating, unfettered by thoughts of weight gain. I was active, alert and happy. Most importantly, I didn’t care. I saw myself in the mirror and saw nothing that I particularly hated and also nothing I couldn’t fix.
The physical scars of motherhood may never heal, though. The sagging skin, the broad stretch marks around my body, the shifted shape are reminders of mortality and the inevitability of ageing, realizations that I have crossed over to the point of no return. The fine lines and wrinkles, even though they can be temporarily camouflaged, are here to stay.
In many ways this is like a second coming of my teens. What I feel is very akin to teenage angst: a constant comparison with other mothers, watching with envy at how well-groomed they are, how flat their stomachs are. And contemplating, by extension, how vacuous their lives must be.
I am now a bonafide mean girl, riddled with insecurities and riven by jealousy, who struggles to consider that maybe it is the same with those mothers. Maybe behind the magnificent clothes and the seemingly perfect bodies, are women, who, like me, had to learn to love their bodies, only to be consumed with doubt again, discomfited by the changes motherhood wrought. And who are finding their own way to make peace with their new bodies. Nonetheless, a sense of inadequacy looms in the background.
I can’t journey to the US again to get over my new angst. So I try to remember, remember that I didn’t become a beautiful swan – I just began to feel good about the duckling that I was. Remember starting to understand that people of all shapes and hues were laden, like me, with insecurities — however perfect they looked on the outside. I remember empathy replacing envy and, in time, extending that empathy to myself. I started to appreciate my body, developed my own style, and began to feel better.
All of this took time, but there is very little time to wallow, now. Only enough to put on the ill-fitting clothes and carry on with life, with the things that are more important than me and to me. And maybe someday I’ll remember this point in my life not for the hair make-overs and desperate shopping excursions (though both will surely help), but for finding within myself that empathy again, this time through will, rather than time and distance.
I did it once; I can do it again. Then, I’ll be able to look at myself in the mirror and see beyond the warts, the dark circles and the greying hair to find nothing I particularly hate and nothing that can’t be fixed.