By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published October 5, 2017
“Her hair is too straight and she’s so skinny—she’ll never be pretty.” This was my mother’s earliest memory, which she shared with me.
The speaker was one of my mom’s five aunts, who perhaps thought the little girl in question couldn’t hear her.
The comment made a deep impression, however, and shaped my mother’s self-image as someone who didn’t measure up to her aunt’s standards.
I can still see my mom, who was a strikingly beautiful lady, staring into the mirror and bemoaning her hair.
It was never quite right, you see—either too straight, too curly, too short or too long.
As for her weight, the skinny little girl became someone who battled extra pounds for decades. Her lunches consisted of an apple and a hard-boiled egg, which meant she was starving by suppertime.
My sister and I were also chubby and anguished over our hair. Since my older cousin Paulie was in beauty school, we both suffered through frizzy perms because, as my mom reminded us, he needed folks to practice on—and didn’t charge a penny.
As for diets, my sister and I mastered the art of counting calories at the same time we learned basic addition. We could look at a cookie and a scoop of ice cream and tell you in seconds what the damages would be.
Not that this prevented us from eating such treats, you understand. You see, like our mother, we too starved ourselves at lunchtime and returned home from school utterly famished.
We then rooted around in the refrigerator and devoured whatever looked good, which was usually leftover pasta or pizza.
The mirror was a big point of contention in our home. My sister and I preened before it, cried before it and prayed before it.
“Dear God, please, don’t let that be a pimple! Please clear it up before school starts in an hour.”
When that didn’t happen, we spackled on thick layers of makeup and left the house feeling like lepers.
I sometimes wonder how much time we clocked in front of mirrors. We had the bathroom mirror, plus a floor-length version in our bedroom.
On the car ride to school, we wrangled to peer into the rearview mirror, despite our father telling us to cease and desist.
When we got to school, we joined the crowd of girls peering into the looking glass in the bathroom, and of course we all carried tiny mirrors in our purses, for quick glances during history class.
Every time I glanced at my reflection, I recited the litany of “if only.”
You’d be pretty if only you’d lose some weight. You’d be lovely if your hair weren’t fried from that bad perm. And if you looked more like the popular girls.
They had gently coiffed hair, clear skin and svelte figures. They also had boyfriends, which, of course, was a major source of self-esteem. Forget the good grades—were you going to the prom or not?
I’d like to assure you I grew up and surrendered these fixations, but in truth, the mirror continues to attract me like a magnet.
If someone asked me what essential belongings I’d take to a deserted island, I know they’d include a mirror. And if it shattered, I’d probably chase my reflection in a pond of still water.
Maybe that’s why the song “Jesus Loves Me” is a favorite. “Jesus loves me, this I know because the Bible tells me so.”
The Bible doesn’t say he loves me because I’ve stayed on a diet and achieved a gorgeous hairstyle. Or because my reflection in the mirror is stunning.
It seems he loves me no matter what I look like. How I wish I’d known that as a child.
I’ll always remember the day when I was fretting over my shortcomings, and my husband came up behind me and hugged me.
“I love you just the way you are,” he said.
That, of course, was a message from the Lord, which I’ll cherish forever. And maybe one of these days, I’ll post it on the bathroom mirror.
Artwork (“The Mariner’s Wife,” oil on canvas) by Jef Murray. Lorraine’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.