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Lately, my children have been telling me that I look beautiful. I have to admit, I take a moment – just a few seconds – each time they look at me with those sparkling, wondrous eyes and truly genuine smiles, and compliment my appearance in unadulterated admiration and awe, and I bask in the feeling it gives me. It’s been a long time since someone has acknowledged my outer beauty. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know the reason why.
From the moment my son was born nearly 6 years ago, motherhood just swallowed me whole. It consumed all of me, wrapped me up in its massive arms and held me hostage. It took hold of my heart, and my love became singularly focused on my little creation. It syphoned my energy – every ounce of it – and left me with what so often in those early days felt like the shell of a person, depleted and barely functioning, but surviving on baby snuggles and a euphoric new sense of worth. In other, far less poetic words, I looked like a walking zombie.
I’ve never been the type of person who really cared about what others thought of my appearance. Not really, anyway. And I think I owe a lot of credit for my self confidence in my early childhood to my mother, who always made me feel like I could do and be anything I put my energy and my heart into.
I was the goofy kid in elementary school with bright red glasses and a wild poodle perm. But I rocked the shit out of that look, and never doubted myself. In junior high, I had braces and acne, and my tall, lanky body was often times viewed as “too thin.” I traded my glasses for contacts and tamed my thick hair in high school, but I wasn’t a cheerleader and I was far from being nominated for the homecoming court. But I focused on feeding and fueling the fires burning deep inside of me, and I carried myself with a strong sense of confidence and self worth straight into college.
That is where I really came into my own. I was a theater major, and it was like Heaven’s gates had opened and angels were singing “Hallelujah” – I had found my people! We were a different breed of misfits, but we fit together like pieces of the most obscure puzzle. Finding these people was life-changing for me. I had always had a solid confidence base, but they burrowed their way into my soul, picking away at the insecurities, doubt and societal influences that had set up fort within me through the years, and they found those dusty, tarnished diamonds – that confidence and fierceness that was unique to me – and brought it all to the surface. I found my outer style (an eclectic mix of vintage and modern charm), and it just accentuated my personality in ways I never knew materialistic fashion and outer beauty could.
Those 4 years really shaped the person I was, and, more importantly, began to mold the person I wanted to be. I learned through my theater tribe that beauty is nothing like what you see in fashion magazines. It’s not a set of standards, a brand of clothing or a color of lipstick.
Beauty is curly hair.
Beauty is freckled skin.
Beauty is a shaved head and an arm full of tattoos.
Beauty is a pair of tired eyes.
It’s gapped teeth.
Beauty is a paint-stained hand holding a cigarette.
It’s blue eyes and brown eyes and crossed eyes.
Beauty is a deep belly laugh.
It’s brown skin and tan skin and white skin.
It’s purple hair.
Beauty is fat.
And it’s also thin.
Beauty is a happy person.
Beauty is a pained soul.
Beauty is snot and tears running down a puffy red face.
It’s a strong hug.
Beauty is a secretive look.
Beauty is a life-changing kiss.
And it’s also a not-so-life-changing kiss.
It’s a touch.
It’s a feeling.
Beauty is so many things.
Through these people, all so different from me, yet so very much the same, in the dark hallways of that old theater building years ago, I learned that beauty is life.
But somewhere along the way, between my early twenties and my mid-thirties, I lost my confidence. I left my tribe and ventured out into the world, ready to conquer it all! My husband and I moved to California, and it was like living in an entirely different world. I lost myself in mainstream fashion and materialism. I struggled so much more than I let on even to those closest to me. I am laying blame on not one person or one place, because there really is no blame to lay. It just happened. And then I had babies and I was all-consumed, and that was when I REALLY lost myself. The old, true version of myself from my college days was completely gone. The new mainstream fashionista Californian version of myself was also gone. During that time, if I had actual pants on and put my hair in a ponytail, it was a successful day in my book.
But a handful of years have gone by. My children are just starting to reach that stage of moderate independence, and I am slowly and ever so cautiously beginning to crawl out of the depths of the hole I fell into years ago. I’m finding pieces of myself along the way. I’m testing the waters. I dug out my old heels from my California days. They don’t fit me anymore, because apparently pregnancy makes your feet grow, but I smiled a little as I sat alone in my closet and tried to squeeze my toes into them. I found a box of old costume jewelry that I wore religiously in college. I put a pair of rhinestone earnings on, and a dab of red lipstick that has been sitting in the drawer in my bathroom for ages and walked into the kitchen. The general reaction was welcomed.
“Mama, you look beautiful” – my 5-year-old
“Are you getting ready for a fashion show, Mama?” – my 3-year-old
So, I’ve been rediscovering myself – every version of myself – over the last few months, and it’s fun and exciting and the teeniest bit gratifying when my little ones notice these small changes in their mama.
But I realize that, to them, I will always be beautiful. Whether I’m wearing red lipstick and heels or sweatpants and a ponytail, they see the beauty in me that it took me years to find (truly find) in myself. They see the beauty in life. They see that beauty IS life. And I hope that I can always give them the confidence they need to carry that with them throughout their lives. And if they ever lose themselves along the way, I hope they have a tribe to lead the search party. If they don’t, I’ll be there.
Photo credit: Danielle Kowalski