Dedicated to my dear friend, Kara. Thank you for inspiring this piece.
I’ve looked at myself in the mirror for as long as I can remember. My parents put me in ballet when I was three or four years old and for the next sixteen years I spent hours and hours every single day staring at my body in the mirror. I learned to dance based off of what looked good. I quickly learned how to create fluid shapes and movements, and the mirror was unforgiving in showing me when I suddenly did a move wrong. Everything became about how it looked, not how it felt. What do I mean by this? I mean I could dance a piece beautifully from start to finish as long as I danced it in front of the mirror and could see what I was doing. As soon as my ballet teacher told me to face the other direction and perform the piece in front of a blank wall, I had two left feet and felt as awkward as an elephant in ice skates. She wanted us to not only see what was beautiful, but to feel what was beautiful. Feel the movements, the shapes, the fluidity. Feel your muscles working as they respond to the music. Feel the emotion and what is inside of you. Feel the inner beauty, the energy.
Growing up, I wasn’t concerned about the fact that I had the worst hair cut ever, my eyebrows were the size of two small rodents and the gap between my teeth may as well have been the Grand Canyon. At twelve, I hit my awkward stage, and tried to remedy it the way any twelve year old girl does, which is simply to make her appearance look worse. I plucked my eyebrows backwards so the skinny part of my eyebrow was in the middle, and the thickest part of my eyebrow was at my temple. I always looked surprised, or like a scared clown, and so I plucked them almost entirely off. They were pencil thin and boy was I ever proud. My hair I decided to streak blonde to help balance out my bright, blue eye shadow and thick, black eyeliner. I used a crimping iron and some hairspray and then that stupid boy Alan told me I looked like a goth hooker when I was walking home from school one day. I went home and I braided my hair into twelve tiny braids and I ran red hair dye lightly over my braids so it wouldn’t entirely soak in. I washed it out twenty minutes later and smiled at myself in the mirror, my hair now checkered red.
My mom was so happy when Joanna showed up in my life. She was the senior pastor’s daughter and I was the associate pastor’s daughter. Joanna had about 5 years on me and I thought she was the prettiest, coolest teenager I had ever seen. I didn’t know being a pastor’s kid was a thing until kids started telling me it was. I thought I lived a perfectly normal life but then they told me I should either be a goody two shoes or a rebel hooking up with boys in the backseat of cars. I wasn’t really either, I was just awkward me, but hooking up with boys sounded more exciting so by their judgements I decided to take that route. But Joanna, Joanna was my dream girl, the girl I wanted to be. She gave me a garbage bag full of her old clothing and I went from goth hooker to early millennium Dorina pants with turtle neck sweaters. I chopped all my hair off into a short bob, stopped wearing rainbow coloured skipping ropes as belts and from that day on, wore matching shoes. To be honest, though, my back was killing me from wearing a high heel shoe on my right foot and a sneaker on me left for so long. I’m not even kidding.
Then came my retainer. I told Dr. Dickens that I hated my gapped teeth and that my friends all had Invisaligns which magically put their teeth in place. My teeth weren’t bad enough for braces, so the Invisalign was my answer. I strutted out of his office that day with my head in the clouds. I was so excited for my Invisalign to show up weeks later, and weeks later he presented me with the biggest retainer known to man kind. It was so big that if I opened my mouth you could see the bottom of the retainer peaking out from underneath my teeth. It squished my tongue causing me to lisp when I spoke, and when I smiled it looked like I had braces (and seventeen year olds weren’t supposed to have braces anymore). But, I was determined to close the gap, and instead I didn’t smile or speak to anyone for a month so they wouldn’t see my ugly retainer. The slurping back of spit got to them, though, and I finally took it out.
After high school I started dying my hair black. I was dating a complete asshole and I felt it appropriate to match my hair to my feelings. My makeup grew darker again, but I genuinely thought I was stylish and pretty. I’d been blessed with the skinny genes from my skinny father who when he married my mom, was 6 foot 3 and weighed 120 pounds. Weight was never an issue for me, although, being too skinny was. I didn’t understand how being skinny, what everyone else wanted, resulted in me still getting picked on. Skin and bones, pile of sticks, names like those always hurt, but I realized that maybe they were right. I never got boobs like everyone said I would, and so my figure just looked like a boys.
Post asshole boyfriend I decided to just be me. I stopped dying my hair and wore less make up. Eventually I discovered I was indeed a brunette and my eyebrows actually grew back, too. But don’t get ahead of yourself, there’s a note on my mirror that says “LEAVE YOUR EYEBROWS ALONE!” I moved to a new country and lived the American dream, but now it’s these damn dark under eye circles. I don’t know when they showed up and I kind of wonder if wearing make up has made them worse. Plus my nose is red like Rudolphs, and so I rely on under eye concealer and blend it on my nose as well. I would love to go without make up, but these bags just keep getting darker. And my skin, when I don’t have hives, is the face of my thirteen year old self again. I thought acne was only a teenage problem, but no, mine is still here.
All of this is to say that the pressure to be beautiful has been with me all of my life, and I feel like I’m even on the luckier side of things. As a photographer, I hear all day long people asking me to photoshop them, make them look younger, thinner, less wrinkly and have better hair. I tell them that they’re being far too critical of themselves, that they look beautiful, truly, they do. I sometimes wonder, though, if my voice sounds sincere or not, because as much as I try and tell them they are beautiful, I know how they feel, because I feel the same way. And I know that me telling them isn’t going to change anything because when I feel like I look like shit, I feel like I look like shit, okay, and nothing anyone can say to me can really make that better. Okay, it does, it does make me feel a little better sometimes, it just doesn’t take away the bags under my eyes.
I truly do think the people I photograph are beautiful, but I know how difficult it is to believe that. I know that I’m going to keep browsing the shelves of different cosmetic stores trying to find a cure to these bags. Truthfully, these bags aren’t going to go away, and that is just that. I will get better with sleeping the right amount of time, I will drink more water and put cucumbers on my eyes, but I’m just getting older. Even the fact that I’m complaining about getting older when I’m only in my mid twenties shows how backwards our definition of beauty is.
Sometimes beauty really sucks. Sometimes we are going to try so hard and never feel pretty enough and we’re going to walk outside and be self conscious and want to go back in to change our outfit but we’re already running late and the wind is going to ruin our hair and mud is going to brown our shoes and life is going to keep aging us in an inevitable way.
And so next time I look in the mirror and see the shape of my body, the way it moves and how I’ve now lost all flexibility since I was that little girl dancing in a pink leotard and tights, I’m going to turn around and look at the wall. I’m going to focus on how I feel. I’m going to feel my body and the way my back cracks. I’m going to feel the emotion and what is going on inside of me. I’m going to feel the beauty, the energy.
That is the dance I’m going to dance. I encourage you to do the same.