I can’t quite pinpoint exactly when I started criticizing myself whenever I looked in the mirror. I just know that it began sometime in elementary school, and it started with my smile. Like almost every woman in my family, I was born with the genetic disposition to have a gap between my two front teeth. In Ghana and Nigeria, a gap is an attractive trait, an honored beauty standard where, in some cases, generations of families are recognized by their smiles. However, in the Western world (and in my family) it was a far cry from the perfectionism that is necessary to be considered beautiful.
Then, the dissatisfaction moved to my nose. For some reason, it felt like it swallowed my face and I just knew that if it were just a tiny bit smaller, I would look a lot better. Sometime in the fourth or fifth grade it was deemed that my hair texture was unmanageable and a perm was the only solution to make my curls straighten to submission. I was excited because I wanted to look like the girl on the “Just for Me” box, but my hopes were short lived. Even with flat bangs, I still felt ugly. Not to mention, I was constantly reminded by the boys at my school that no hairstyle would diminish the sight of the eczema and tomboy scars that were imprinted on my arms and legs. For a very long time, I shied away from wearing skirts or shorts that showed shins, preferring long sleeves even in the humid southern sun. I shrunk smaller to fade into the background, hid myself behind my art and writing, and accepted that I would never quite measure up to the other girls around me.
In my 20s I had convinced myself that I needed a flat stomach and I began counting the calories of every single thing I ate. I committed to two-a-days (morning and evening gym sessions), paid a pretty penny for a trainer that recorded my weight every week and if I gained an ounce of “fat” I owed him money. After a couple of years of HITT cardio and weight training, I never acquired a six pack and despite losing forty pounds, I still wasn’t satisfied. So, self-help books became the next answer. From The Art of Not Giving a F*ck to Act Like a Lady and Think Like A Man, I just knew I could improve myself in the pages of bestsellers of people who had already figured it out…but when I looked into the mirror, I still saw an enemy.
To combat that image, I began to pour into other people. I was the “strong friend” who remembered birthdays and anniversaries, planned trips, gave away money, answered every phone call, and stretched myself to the point of exhaustion to hold space for everyone. If I couldn’t love myself then surely loving other people would fill the void…but that damn mirror continued to expose flaws that I couldn’t cover…when would enough be enough? When will I love myself?
Now, at the age of 34, I still find it challenging to speak kindly to my reflection. Through therapy and ancestral work, I am learning that shame and guilt prevent me from truly loving myself. The mirror is not my friend because I don’t know how to be a friend to myself. If I am perpetually seeking to remove, forget, change, and distance myself from the things I criticize, then I will never access the (self) love I desperately seek; and no amount of self-care, friendship, relationship status, affirmation, or self-help book will fill that gap. If I am unable to love myself then I cannot truly love others or fully accept others loving me. I have always held off my love for the “future me.” When I change ___ then I will love myself. But the person I am now is more than deserving to be embraced.
I do not have the answers, but I am open to learning and leaning into accepting every bit of myself without judgment or critique. I will not spend the rest of my life trying to change my outward appearance or centering my goals and ambitions on reinventing myself. I can be good as I am. I can be satisfied with who I am. I can love myself in all ways and become best friends with who I see in the mirror.