“Vanity is a sin.”
My father was teasing me. He busted me at age 16, posing in front of the mirror at different angles checking myself out. I giggled in response but walked away a second later, embarrassed to have been caught thinking I was pretty.
I suppose I came by it honestly. Growing up, my mother had numerous bins full of makeup and hair products she shared and taught me how to use. She told me to get more sleep or my eyes would look baggy and to match my lipstick to my skin tone so it didn’t look gaudy. I’d roll my eyes at her beauty lessons but listen intently to everything she said.
I thought my mother was beautiful, and I learned from her that was important. As a teenager, I agonized over every pimple and worried people would think less of me for having them. Even if nobody noticed, my mother always did. She gave me her tube of benzoyl peroxide and told me to use it every day to keep zits away. She had scars on her face from when she was a teen in the 1950s and her family doctor tried to use a blade to shave off her cystic acne. Copious amounts of foundation minimized the damage he left, but she never seemed quite satisfied with herself and tried every new product on the market to cover herself.
I’ve done the same for years. In fact, I’m a product junkie much like she was. Anything I heard or read about that might make me look better and I’d be off to the store to grab it no matter the price. An ex-husband once told me years ago it “hurt” him to see me spending twenty dollars on a bottle of conditioner. I wasn’t sure how that would injure him, but I needed that conditioner to make my unruly hair soft and sleek. At least that’s what the bottle promised.
As I grew older, I tried not to notice the subtle changes in my face. I developed a few frown lines around my mouth and my under-eye area became less supple. My mother had advice for slowing down the aging process, but I pretended not to need it. It was easy to lie to myself when I still got catcalls now and then. Surely I’d still be turning heads for years.
Just shy of my 50th birthday, I was walking out of Walgreens when a man whistled at me. I turned around and saw him sitting in his truck with his friend, who pointed at me and shook his head. He said something I couldn’t hear. The whistler responded, “So what? I’ll holler at anybody.” I turned away and hurried to my car with a flushed face and felt my eyes well up. It doesn’t matter, I lied to myself. That guy didn’t look so great either.
My daughter called me the prettiest mommy in the world. “Not in the world,” I corrected her, shaking my head. She insisted it was true, but pretty is not what I saw when I stood before the mirror. I looked tired, older, my face beginning to sag. I applied my multitude of makeup diligently every day, but there were more days than not that it didn’t even help. All I could see was the once pretty girl now covered in wrinkles and age spots, and it was often too depressing to look at all.
When my birthday arrived last week, I lamented over the fact I wasn’t even middle-aged anymore. Nope, I was old enough for AARP and just shy of senior discounts at the movies, and there was no looking back even if that was all I wanted to do. I craved to still be desirable to my husband, Matt, but it had been a while since I felt the least bit sexy. I fished for compliments and asked him loaded questions.
“Do you think I’m over the hill?”
My husband laughed at the silliness of my question, not realizing I was sincere.
“We’re both old farts,” he joked. It was decidedly not funny.
“You want the truth?” Matt asked me. I steeled myself for another attempt at humor. It was the way we usually communicated, especially when I was feeling insecure and he wanted to be lighthearted about it.
“In all honesty,” he told me, “I’ve never seen you look so radiant.”
I waited for him to laugh or smile, but instead the look in his eyes was admiring. I immediately blushed, bowed my head and waved my hand away. Still, I couldn’t help but ask again.
“You really think so?”
Matt nodded and hugged me then. I thought about how happy I was with him, how blessed I was to have him and our children in my life. When we met a few years back, I was sick and addicted and stressed and irresponsible. I guess I was technically what one might call pretty then, but my heart was ugly and broken. That wasn’t what Matt ever saw. He looked past my defenses and toughness and regarded me as kind and loving and funny. He made my eyes light up like sparklers just by being around him.
I thought about my children, growing up into two young men and a young woman. The time I spent with them filled up the empty hole inside me so fully that I could burst at any moment. I had a lot to be joyful about… my family and my writing and just the fact I’m breathing air in this magnificent world. I may not have been a “ten” anymore, but my loved ones still thought I was stunning. It had nothing to do with makeup or hairspray or anything about the way I looked because they weren’t looking at my face. They were looking into my heart and soul and everything that makes me, well, me.
The next time my daughter tells me I’m the prettiest mommy, I’m going to smile and say thank you.