A few years ago, I stood in the customs line at LAX, jetlagged after a twelve-hour journey from New Zealand to Los Angeles. I boarded the plane comfortable; my hair in a ponytail; my favorite pair of sweatpants and cozy slipper-boots. I was eagerly anticipating a long stretch of binge-watching movies on the plane uninterrupted. No children asking for glasses of milk or sandwiches. No brother lodging complaint against sister, or sister against her two brothers. No messes. No unfinished ‘to-do’ lists. For twelve hours I was going to watch movies, then put in my earplugs and sleep uninterrupted until the plane landed in California.
A few hours into the flight, my sweatpants started to feel a size too small. My hair was no longer bouncy and casual, but greasy and lank. I’d started to notice that all of the women around me had glowing skin and the kind of perfect hair that has always confused me; I mean, how do they do it? Their nails were painted. Their eyebrows perfectly tamed. They inhabited their bodies, regardless of size or shape or age, with a confidence that I was sure they’d earned by following their purpose in life successfully. These strangers seemed to embody a kind of effortless grace that I longed for. Instead I had constant anxiety, like a stone fist stuck in my gut, about the rewrite of a novel. I had begun to fear that the ‘novel writing’ center in my brain might be woefully under-developed. I had not sent out a short story in over a year and was convinced my previously published stories were just a fluke. I’d also been making up excuses about getting back in the water to surf because I was scared for some unnamed reason. (Okay, maybe not unnamed; having to paddle out by myself, sharks, invisible currents, and getting whacked in the head by my board.) I was wearing cheap, ill-fitting sweatpants and my slipper boots were dirty. Not to mention my nails were ragged and my eyebrows needed plucking.
By the time I arrived in LA, my spirit hid in the back of my heart, trying to get away from my brain. I’d taken my hair out of its ponytail, piled it up in a messy bun on my head, and shoved a pen into it to hold it in place. I pulled out some strands of hair to frame my face to act as a disguise for my too-big forehead and oddly asymmetrical features. Since childhood, I’d had this persistent belief that the oddness or failings of my outward appearance were just a symptom of what was inside of me, it was just nature’s way of warning the rest of the world away from me, the way some poisonous predators have bright colors.
Standing in line at LAX, I didn’t measure up. I was a fraud.
And then I caught sight of a woman standing on the other side of the security check. In that split second of her eyes catching mine, she was everything I wanted to be. I’d already begun to create a story about her, how she held her body like a dancer, and by her tousled hair piled loosely on her head, she was probably a free-spirited artist, a successful one, because she looked composed and confident in herself.
I turned away, feeling that sour, emotional hunger at the back of my throat, as if I’d swallowed something that was trying to fight its way out. As I broke away from the woman’s gaze, I realized something that changed me:
The woman standing across from me wasn’t a stranger; she was me. I’d been looking at a mirror.
When I looked back up, I held my own gaze for just long enough to remember that I had admired this version of myself only moments before.
When I feel tired, anxious, or vulnerable and begin to make up stories about the charmed lives of others, I practice being fearlessly kind by stepping through the looking glass of my self-criticisms and insecurities. There, I imagine inhabiting the glimpse of myself I was given standing in line at the airport.
I choose to believe again and again that I am the woman I’ve always dreamed of being. The more I do this, the less it matters what I see in the mirror or the stories I tell myself about other people’s lives. I’ve been longing to live comfortably in my own skin and story.
Photo credit: You Are by Summer Skyes 11 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.