A Blank Slate
I’ve carried three babies in this body of mine. I’ve shifted and changed shapes three times. Between the three, I’ve weathered all four seasons with twenty-five extra pounds under my skin. Despite desperate hope, I am not elastic, and each carry has cost me.
I’ve struggled with body image for most of my life. My junior high science teacher often gave beauty advice before and after class. She was more of a friend than a teacher, and all of us were giddy at the attention she bedazzled on each one of our beaming faces. One by one she assessed our makeup and gave us tips on highlighting eyes, contouring cheeks, and carefully selecting lip color. When she got to me, I expected to hear what I heard at home – “You don’t need makeup to be pretty, you’re beautiful without.” One look at my bare face revealed little technique to critique.
“You could use a little mascara to brighten up those eyes.”
She giggled after the words came out, so I giggled too. My cheeks flushed, instantly giving them color I hadn’t known they needed until now. I walked out the door to my next class feeling like the chalkboard she never wrote on that never needed to be erased and wondering what a little scribble might do for us both.
In high school, a boyfriend told me there was nothing particularly special about my appearance, that he didn’t know what drew him to me. We connected emotionally and spiritually, but I saw the way the “pretty” girls caught his eye. I graduated thinking that I was plain – a blank slate that needed something, anything.
In college, a handsome stranger with a head full of black, silky curls stopped me on my way to class to share concern that I might be “hitting the gym” too frequently.
“If I were you I wouldn’t want more muscle,” he said as he eyed me from the waist down.
He didn’t know that I avoided weights and resented those sinews every time I pulled on a pair of jeans that were one size too big in the waist to make room for my athletic legs.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been low-maintenance. I would rather not brush the reckless waves out of my hair each morning, preferring instead to run my fingers through them in an attempt to manage their chaos. I grew up wanting to wear t-shirts and gym shorts while my mother curled my hair before we left the house each day. It was an epic battle that has since seen two white flags raised high above egos that have shrunk enough to love and appreciate the other. I occasionally tame my mane now, and I enjoy dressing for the occasion, but my preference remains to let nature be.
Since becoming a mother, I have reinvented my simple beauty routine. Previously, I splashed water on my face and called it a day. Now, I wash with gentle cleanser, gingerly pat dry lest I disturb my budding wrinkles, apply toner, moisturizer, and under-eye cream. I adopted this to improve my self-care and to make me feel beautiful. To feel is more important than to be, because gravity and time take no prisoners.
I have never felt more beautiful than when I was carrying my babies. I rarely thought about my weight or the way my clothes hugged my growing curves. I had a small section of maternity and maternity-friendly clothes in my closet that I reached for enthusiastically, adorned readily and gazed at fondly in the mirror. I’m not sure I love the way I look with child, but I know I love the way I feel.
I have often wondered why these feelings of beauty so swiftly disappear once my baby is in my arms instead of filling my tight belly, and wish I knew how to ward off the insecurities that creep up from the past and seem to settle around my now-soft middle
My three-year-old daughter always interrupts these self-deprecating thoughts.
“You look cute, Mommy,” she says almost every time I change out of my pajamas. I’ve spent fifteen minutes in the closet looking for something that flatters and fits this broken body of mine. I could have appeared around the corner in any one of the five outfits that I just tore through and she would have greeted me in the same manner.
Her eyes see me the same way mine saw us when we shared space so intimately for nine sweet months. I’m like a princess who dances on the screen in her fantastical movies, and her eyes light up as she imagines wearing beautiful clothes “like Mommy.” She has a love of bows and ruffles and pink dresses that I certainly have not cultivated in her. Glitter and sparkles catch her eye and she can’t seem to get enough of all the pretty things. She loves when I toss the t-shirt and shorts for something more
I don’t ever want her to think that her clothes define her, but I also don’t want her opinion of herself to hold her back. I wonder if my lack of confidence and desire to blend in keeps me from reaching for clothes that are bright and beautiful. I don’t want to look in the mirror and see imperfection, so I don’t even take the chance to take pride in the body and beauty that I’ve been given. Instead, I hide behind large t-shirts and black yoga pants that cover up the good with the bad.
The other day I was straightening my hair as my husband and I chatted about an upcoming event. It was black-tie, warranting a new suit and a new dress, one that would certainly be fit for twirling.
My husband joked, “I think you’re really going to like what I picked out.”
He smirked at me and I slowly smiled back, exchanging a knowing look in the mirror as I held my hair and flat iron over my head.
“You’re going to look beautiful too, you know,” he said.
I shrugged. My daughter looked up at me and studied my face.
“Why are you sad, Mommy?” she said.
I didn’t want to let her in. I didn’t want to taint her view of me or herself. I didn’t want to contribute to a “complex” that she might carry with her into her future. So I said, “I’m just being silly.”
She said, “You look great, Mommy. You’re going to look beautiful.”
Her little voice was compassionate and convincing. How had she known? I hadn’t said a word.
Words matter. How we present ourselves matters. But feelings matter, too, and my three-year-old daughter got it. She saw right through my charade to my deepest feelings. She sees through my low-maintenance lifestyle with innocent and genuine admiration and wants to connect with my heart.
What a beautiful perspective – one I shared when she was tiny, sharing my body with me. One I fought to keep when words threatened to tear me down. One I will daily fight to exude so that her little eyes looking up at me will see a Mama who doesn’t just feel beautiful, she knows it deep down. She’s a blank slate but she won’t stay that way. I want her to know that the essence of her beauty is in her heart – the same one that beat alongside mine for nine special months.
Sarah Elizabeth Finch is a stay-at-home, Texas mama to three lively children under three. When she’s not living her crazy, she’s writing about it. You can find more of her words in publications of The Redbud Writers Guild, at iBelieve.com, and on her personal site www.sarahelizabethfinch.com.