What do you see?

it's not about perfect hair and smile, it's about where I have been

I moved to Vermont when I was 26.

At that time, all decisions were motivated by work, and this was my 3rd career and location move in 5 years.

My mother remarked a few times she thought I was smart to experience what it’s like to make my own decisions, to be on my own and independent as an adult. She and my father were married towards the end of college, as was the trend at the time for women. She went straight from her parents house, to college, to living with my father and having children soon-after.  My parents had a successful marriage and she was happy, but she did acknowledge to me more than once, she wished she, as a woman, had that opportunity to live as a young adult on her own.

To experience her career on her own.

To date as an adult.

That actually cracked me up at the time, my mom date? But I now get what she was saying 100%.  What I experienced during those years, on all levels, was invaluable and had I not learned what I did then about life, love, coping, independence,  I think my subsequent choices would have been bad.

Really bad.

I eventually made my life in Vermont more permanent.  I moved again within the state about 4 years later, changed jobs, and lived with my then-boyfriend, now husband. One day around this time, during a quick stop to a clothing store I bumped into a former co-worker, a grandmotherly woman, with long gray hair piled loosely in a bun and big round glasses worn down towards the tip of her nose. I met this woman in my first few weeks at the office, and we had a nice rapport, but we hadn’t seen each other since. Peering down through her glasses, she looked at me for a little longer than what you would expect to be polite, and eventually remarked:

“You look the same. But something’s changed. Your face has a new maturity about you now.

It looks great on you.”

I just smiled; not really sure how to respond.

Do you all know that change?

The time when you cease being that carefree, happy-go-lucky young adult with no responsibilities, and then become the one with many?  I was certainly unaware I possessed this new-found maturity as it happened, but as I think back, she was right.  I recognize the same changes in a few of my younger friends who are going through it now.

And I’m wondering today, a decade or so later, if yet another new level of maturity is taking shape.

Because when I look in the mirror, I’m tempted to do a double-take, something seems different.

A few days ago I read a blog post by Nicola Joyce, a fitness writer, who shared with readers  a video she created for the What I see project.  This project, founded by Edwina Dunn, in the U.K., sets out to explore how women globally answer this question:

What do you see when you look in the mirror?

Are they reading my mind?

It’s not often a message appears exactly when you need it; I’m glad this one did.

This is a simple question.  But one most of us are never asked.

And probably have no idea how to put our internal thoughts into words, although we take glances in that mirror a few times each day.

I have not shared my story with the project yet, but I am fascinated by the question and have become enchanted with the stories of others who have submitted responses to the project. Some women respond based on how they look. And some respond based on who they are as person, and all they have accomplished. Some seem truthful and searching; their stories poignant. Some sound like they are saying what they want others to hear, but whether they are being honest, or just showing bravado, we’ll never know.

And, what would I say?

Would I be superficial and talk about my flaws, and all the parts of me I wish were different?

Or would I be one of the women who looks deeper, beneath the surface of the once-sparkling blue eyes, the ones with dark circles etched with what seems like permanent black lines. Am I one who thinks about the character of me as a person, and what I really, truly have experienced over the years and have to offer?

When I’m standing in front of that mirror, I certainly want to see the character within me. The independent, career-minded one who moved to Vermont way back when, and surrounded herself with loving people, built a safe and beautiful home and family. I want to see the woman who is a caring, supportive, loving mom and wife. The one who has made good solid choices.  The one who is a good friend. A survivor of many challenges. And I want to see the woman who knows she has needs too, and makes sure those needs do not get swept aside.

But sadly, in reality, I do not usually see her.

Instead, I see the here and now, and give myself a hard time.

What’s happening with my hair today?

Do these jeans look tight?

Maybe I’m not exercising enough.

Maybe I need to get some cover-up to gloss over these dark circles…

I’m the one who ignores the fact that aging does happen after awhile. And even if it happens gracefully, I assume this reality doesn’t apply to me, so what I see reflecting back never lives up to this high expectation.

It’s funny.

The subject of character.

When I was a kid, my father’s most often used saying to my brothers and me was “it’s character building”. Whether it was the result of doing our chores, paying for our car insurance or doing our homework, whatever we had to endure, that we didn’t like, built character.

We grumbled and rolled our eyes whenever we heard it.

He would laugh.

And as usual, with time, we all knew he was right.

I know I have that character he helped me build; I just need to see it for myself. To recognize it. To put value on it.

I used to like the fact I wasn’t the spitting image of either of my parents. My eyes and skin color resemble my mothers side of the family; my disposition and height from my father. But my look was truly my own. The perfect mix.

Just the other day, I was getting a haircut. With hair wet and slicked back, sitting in front of the mirror at the salon, I looked at myself, realizing for the first time I’m seeing more and more of my fathers face looking back at me.

He’s no longer here, so that’s a little eerie. I wonder if the last time he saw me, he thought that too?

Sometimes it takes me awhile to develop a new habit and act on it, even if I know it’s the right thing to do. Like knowing who I am isn’t just about what I physically see in that mirror. It’s the sum of all I have learned and achieved. The ever-expanding accumulation of maturity that grows within me, and on my face, as I weave in and out of different chapters of my life.

Maybe this is the difference I’m starting to see now.

The new-found resemblance to my father; now a gentle reminder to me each day.

No quick glances.

Take a better look, and appreciate more deeply the person staring back in the mirror each day.

And as my former co-worker said way back when, the maturity probably does look great on me…

How would you respond to this question?  An interesting question for men too, who are even less often asked about their true feelings. 

I’d love to hear your stories. 

And please check out the What I see website and view some of the videos and perhaps submit your story…you may get lost in them like I did.

13 thoughts on “What do you see?

  1. Robin, great question. I haven’t looked in the mirror literally for quite some time… Even the thought of looks, just trying to make sure we are in life, living, experiencing and taking precautions… I’m more in tune with feeling, experiences, and logistics of getting my family through the day… Today I read your blog in the waiting room to get a biopsy … With no care as to what scars are on me externally, just the feeling that I want to remain alive with a great quality of life for me and my loves. It feels soulful, balanced, and real. I was just so pleased to be able to read your thoughts and your the heart of the question.

    • hey you! thanks so much for reading and sharing your views on this. For such a simple question, it’s kind of a startling one too, and you my friend, who spent many of those formative young adult years by my side, have your priorities in line! hope that appt goes well today and please keep me posted xxx

  2. This was a riveting post. I think I will check out the site and possibly write something in response myself. I love your exploration. It was honest and heartfelt and really lets the reader in, and helps them to get to know you, the deeper you, better. Very charming. I think you are the type of person to consider both the inner and external. There is nothing wrong with the latter, either, it is part of who you are and who you see in the mirror. I often wonder what my son sees when he looks at me. I used to want him to see a strong person, and there is value in that, but after all the stress and everything I’ve dealt with recently, I now think I’d rather he just saw that I am a good and kind person. I look forward to reading what you submit!

    • Silverleaf, thanks so much for your support and this comment. I like “riveting! That makes me happy. I struggle with writing about topics that are too serious, but then again, if I think too much about anything, something I do when I write, that’s where the internal thoughts tend to take me. Like this? I started with a kind of light post but scrapped the whole thing and rewrote it…Interesting point about your son–eventually he will know you are strong, based on who you are as a person and the challenges you are taking now to overcome your past–I’m not sure right now though. At least with my son, He would never think about that. We are their rocks. Their support. Just mom. And so think they assume we are indestructible.

      • That’s all quite true, about the “who is mom?” question. My son and I have gone through a lot so he may think a bit more about it than I would like him to, but you’re right, from day to day, I’m just mom. As for writing light vs serious posts, I think there is definite value in writing serious posts. We, your readers, are interested in your thoughts and if you are going to commit the energy it takes to write a post, we are interested in what you really think and will read it. I do the same sometimes, I wonder if I’m being too dark or too serious but those are often the ones that get the most comments, so it engages people in some way. Not that this post was dark at all – and it really was very interesting, a window into who you are.

        • I really appreciate you saying that,..about being interesting in the deeper thoughts. I have realized too–I get much more interesting, and reflective comments when I do put that brave face on and put myself out there more a bit more. And I really like my posts to be a discussion and to learn from others experiences; so hope to invite more than just a one-sided conversation. So glad to have connected with you too as we are definitely in a similar place and time…

  3. Interesting. It’s really made me think.

    When I look in the mirror, I think the usual vanity things. But I also worry that I look too young and dress too immature for my career level. Part of me wants to be true to myself and continue to not wear make up and have scruffy hair. I want to be respected for and judged on who I am and what I know.

    I felt really frustrated once, going for a job interview when I was young, my mum said I should wear a suit. I thought that was a stupid idea because I look stupid and feel uncomfortable in a suit. She said just conform for the chance of a great job. She was right. But so was I. On one hand: It’s only clothes, just wear a suit. On the other hand: it’s only clothes, wear what you feel comfortable in and your skills will get you the job. First impressions annoy me, but they exist.

    But sometimes I feel weak and I feel like that vainer will help, so I dress up nice, I walk to work and I put make up on. But I look in the mirror, and I look uncomfortable, I look less confident, but I’m hopeful that people will like me now. Maybe I’m easier to accept. I now look like a grown up with a proper job.

    But I’m not happy. I’m not happy that I have to do this to feel like I fit in. I’m not happy that I’m not strong enough to be who I want to be. I’m ashamed that I’m playing to vanity.

    Do other people struggle with this?

    • Wow, thank you Rebecca for your comment. What a dilemma. Yes, I do think others struggle with this a lot! I am not sure how old you are, but I would think as you get more known and established as an asset in your career, and more confident with who you are as a person, eventually you could branch into a new direction, one that lets you express who you are both visually and intellectually. Corporate culture definitely plays into this. It seems some are so open to accepting people whatever their style, and others, you have to wear the corporate uniform. Where I live now, it’s very casual, and it’s funny, when I first moved to VT, I started my new job in expensive suits and was laughed at for the first few weeks as being “too sartorial”. I hope one day you are able to find a company who appreciates you and your own personal style….and on your own time, you can be proud to look in the mirror and express the real you!

  4. Loved this — I’m blogging something similar soon.

    I see different people in my face, my Dad, my mom — but often my maternal grandmother as I age. She was a handsome woman, not beautiful, but a Grande Dame for sure. I certainly have a bit of that in me, too.

    I had hip replacement in Feb. 2012 and simply could not look at my scar for about six months…it’s on the front of my left hip. It was so shocking. But now it’s faded and is barely noticeable. I see much of what I’ve seen for decades — big (strong) thighs, broad shoulders, a big smile.

    We have to learn to be much less critical of ourselves.

    • thanks so much! Glad you liked it. I look forward to reading your post about this. You might want to spend some time on that What I see website, really fascinating stuff. I wasn’t brave enough to do a video myself, thinking I would sound and look awful. The very powerful women they interviewed have some great stories. We definitely do need to be less critical. Even after writing this and telling myself I need to get better about it, I’m not even close. The strong thigh thing? I have that issue too; since starting to strength train, they have become bigger even and I have done some incredible hulk-like jean-rips because of it. Not exactly what I had in mind as a result of working out 🙂

      • It’s too easy to hate our bodies — when they are a tremendous gift. I’ve had four orthopedic surgeries since I turned 43, and now take nothing for granted. I wish women were a lot more appreciative of their health and strength.

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