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Choosing My Own Mirror

by Taru Anniina Liikanen about a month ago in recovery
First Place in The Remarkably Real ChallengeFirst Place in The Remarkably Real Challenge

The me I choose to see is authentically, remarkably me.

Image by the author. It will make sense in a little while, I swear.

I step out of the shower and grab the towel hanging right next to me. My reflex is to cover my body immediately, so he doesn’t see it so clearly in this bright LED light.

I start applying moisturizer on my legs while he grabs his toothbrush and applies paste on it. He stops.

“What does this mean?” I look up from my lotion-covered legs and see him pointing at the pink post-it pasted on the wall, just above the sink, where the mirror would normally go.

“I’ve wondered about this for a while,” he explains.

The smile arises naturally from within, and I allow my grab on the towel to loosen a little.

Where should I begin?

Other People’s Mirrors

When I’m a kid, I love the mirror, and I tell my mother I’m going to be a model or a princess when I grow up. It still takes a couple years for me to develop an interest in the written word, and even more for feminism to make its way into my life.

Those couple of years between about 3 and 5, I firmly believe I am the prettiest girl in the world. Both my parents are photographers, so it’s easy to grow up thinking life will be all about people taking pictures of my beautiful face.

I clearly had a calling. Image by the author.

I realize my body is too big when I’m about 10 years old.

I’m a happy, but round kid, cute but on the larger side, and I don’t have a habit of doing sports. One of the boys in my class starts putting us girls into categories: hot, not hot, fat. There’s only me and two more girls in the last category, but one of them already has breasts so she’s deemed hot. The rest of the boys, including my crush, agree with this categorization, and my illusion about being pretty begins to erode. Is that really true, am I ugly? Fat?

I don’t understand I’m seeing myself in a mirror built by other people’s insecurities.

It’s the mid-90’s, heroin chic is the most fashionable look in all the world, and nobody has yet heard of JLo, let alone body positivity, the revolutionary idea that we should love our physical beings as they are. All us girls do our best to fit into the super-skinny mold. The result in my case is, of course, an eating disorder.

Through my adolescent years I alternate between anorexic and bulimic tendencies, always mad at myself for my binges.

“If you’re going to have an eating disorder, at least be skinny,” I tell myself. It feels like such a failure, to feel this bad about myself but not have enough willpower to really look like a skeleton. I'm old enough to understand I have an eating disorder, but I want to be better at it.

I spend my days in front of a mirror, judging my body in the same way the boys in my class do. Fat or skinny, pretty or ugly, there’s no in-between. What I see is always wrong, although I’m never even close to being overweight. I stop having lunch at school because I’m so afraid of the comments I might get from boys.

Fake It ’Til You Make It

It gets pretty bad when I’m around 14 or 15. Bad enough for people to get worried but not enough to get medical attention. The boys in my class never stop telling me I’m too much, though. It’s probably because I let them have it, too. Where I'm from, nobody willingly steps down from a fight.

At 16, I go to a different high school across town. It’s just my two best friends and me, and a whole new start. I’m not as skinny as I wanted to be, but enough to not be qualified ‘fat’ in this new school.

And then, somehow, I start the long road to recovery.

It’s hard to say exactly how or why I come to the conclusion that I need to get better. Maybe this is the first time I can do it, now that I'm not surrounded by the same people. Maybe I just got hungry enough. But it’s not easy to let go of the fear of gaining weight and to start loving myself again.

Then one day, I grab a magazine and read a confidence-boosting tip that changes everything.

“Say something nice to yourself every day.”

Even at that age it feels dumb, but I remember the tip and come back to it several times in the next couple of days.

One day, I look in the mirror and try it.

“Hey girl, you’re looking good today,” I say to my reflection. I say it out loud, but at a low volume so that nobody else hears me. It doesn’t feel like much.

The next day, I try to go for something more specific. I tell myself I have pretty eyes, nice legs, and my hair is looking amazing. It’s a lie, my thin Finnish strands never look amazing. Nevertheless, soon this new habit becomes second nature.

After a while, I don’t have to force myself to find something nice to say about myself. I might have a bad hair day, but I convince myself my skin must be luminous. I’m not as skinny as I wanted, but I’m tall, and proud of it. I don't want to disappear anymore. I can begin reclaiming my space.

Even though it takes me years more to fully overcome my eating disorders and learn how to eat intuitively, this is the moment something changes. I’m now starting to believe it. I don’t hate myself anymore. I’m starting to see myself in my mirror, on my own terms.

At 17, I go to a restaurant and eat, in public and with other people watching, for the first time since I was 10. I’m 19 when I wear a short-sleeve T-shirt in public for the first time in about 7 years. I’m 20 when I put on a bikini and go to the beach. Not only that, but I move to Barcelona and head to the beach every single day in the summer. In a bikini, showing the body I had spent all my energy despising for such a long time.

I start understanding how much I’ve missed because of trying to hate my body into disappearing.

A New Mirror

Over fifteen years later, I’ve come far from where I was back then.

I’ve left my early bullies behind in my small hometown in Finland and moved to Argentina, where men consider me beautiful. I love seeing myself in this mirror, one in which I’m exotic and desirable.

At 31, I move to my current apartment. It’s the first time I’m living alone after sharing with boyfriends or roommates for all of my adult life, and that means it’s just me paying for all the furnishings. A couch, a bed, a bookshelf, a desk and an innumerable amount of smaller decorative items. Over the first year, I sew my curtains, paint some pictures for the walls, even put together some cushions.

The one part that remains is a bathroom mirror. I just can’t find one I’d like, so I put off this purchase for weeks, months, years. There’s a mirror in my bedroom to take a look at my outfits before heading out, and a smaller one at the entrance, at eye level, to check my makeup (applied with the help of a small hand mirror). But no large mirror to examine myself after a shower or every time I go wash my hands.

One day I realize it’s been three and a half years since I’ve had a mirror in the bathroom. Should I finally just buy one and get it over with?

The problem is, I don’t really want a mirror in this room.

I don’t want to see myself naked in the harsh lighting of my bathroom every day, because I know I’ll again focus on everything that’s not right about me. The cellulite on my belly, the skin on my neck that’s showing new signs of aging every month, the lack of symmetry in my face that grows more noticeable as time goes by. And are my teeth growing crooked now, too?

I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or not, to stop looking at oneself so closely. I may have quit judging every minuscule part of my body, but I’ve also stopped giving myself my morning pep talk that gave me so much confidence and made me start off the day feeling strong.

What do I want to see?

I grab some pink post-its and a pen, and write down the only thing I need to know.

"YOU LOOK HOT."

I glue it on the wall, thinking it will fall off as soon as the humidity gets to it. It doesn’t. For some reason, this is the one thing in my apartment that doesn’t fall apart after a couple of months.

There it is, every morning and night, looking at me as I apply the ever-growing number of beauty products my skin now requires, or when I brush my teeth. I read it, sometimes aloud. On some days I pay attention to it, on others I don’t notice it at all.

It is my mirror now, the one I choose to see. It is me, no less real than a physical glass object. These three words, while they might seem superficial, carry the entire journey and everything I've learned. The pain, and my victory over it.

Image by the author.

Doing the Work

He stays quiet as I tell him the story behind the post-it.

"Why are you smiling?" I ask him when I've finished. We're lying in bed, covered with a blanket.

"Because you're so beautiful, especially like this. Fresh out of the shower, just as you are," he says, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's so strange that you couldn't see it."

That smile takes over my lips, too. He's right. I am, I just didn't see it.

I still need to make a conscious effort every day to convince myself I'm beautiful, smart, capable. That I'm a good writer, a good friend, a good person, worthy of love. But I choose to do it because I know my insecurities aren't the real me.

The me I choose to see is the real me. Authentically, remarkably me.

--

An earlier version of this story was published by me, on Medium.

recovery

Taru Anniina Liikanen

Finnish by birth, porteña at heart. Recovering political ghostwriter. Fiction, relationships, politics, bad puns, popular and unpopular opinions.

Read next: We Fall to Rise

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