Looking into a mirror
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
Why was her least favorite picture of herself the one her friend cherished most? Noelle Oxenhandler discovers that there are some things your mirror won't tell you.
There's a moment when a friendship is deepening that a face changes before your eyes. It feels like a kind of shimmer, as if a veil has dropped away, and you can suddenly see the face behind the face of the person you're getting to know. If you spoke a language like French, it would be the moment you moved from formal to familiar, from vous to tu. Whatever language you speak, it's the moment when the person before you, and the connection between you, becomes more real.

It's a moment I've always loved. But the sad thing is, I can't seem to get to it with myself. No matter how often I've seen my own face in the mirror or in photographs, I always approach it with the gaze of a stranger—a suspicious stranger. Or, worse, I approach it from the absolute opposite end of the spectrum, as if in the very moment when a close connection shatters. It's the sort of moment one writer so chillingly captured in a passage I read years ago and have never forgotten: A man is having tea with the woman he has passionately loved for quite some time. She lifts a teacup to her lips, makes a slight smacking sound—and suddenly he finds her unbearably coarse and common, drained of any redeemable features. There's something particularly bitter about such moments, a quality of betrayal: Someone for whom we had such hopes has turned into an object of disgust. Isn't it true that, on really bad days—and perhaps especially as we get older—many of us look at ourselves this way?

Just the other day, I was having a cup of tea with a friend when I looked up and noticed a photograph of me on her kitchen bulletin board. The moment I saw it, I could feel myself recoil. It's a photograph in which I am outside in the full sun, my eyes crinkled tight and my cheeks about to burst in a fit of laughter.

"Why on earth do you have to display that hideous picture of me?" I asked. "It makes me look like a squirrel with mumps."

Irrational as it was, I actually did feel as though she must have put the photograph there with the intention of humiliating me.

"It isn't hideous," she said—and now it was her turn to sound hurt. "When you laugh, you have a way of losing yourself in the laughter. And that's something I've always loved about you."

Her words made me see something I'd never seen before. I saw that, in blurting out my dislike for the photograph, I had rejected a gesture of affection: as though I'd tossed away a gift, or turned up my nose at a gracious invitation. Even more than that, I had invalidated the moment we'd long ago passed through together, the moment our friendship deepened, when the social veil dropped and our connection became more real.

Suddenly it struck me that several of my close friends kept, somewhere in their houses, an image of me dissolving in laughter. I've always preferred a rather wistful, pensive image of myself. Now, for the first time, I let it sink in that maybe my friends appreciated something about me that didn't penetrate my self-critical radar. As I've begun to ask other women about their ability to see themselves, I've heard the sound of this "if only" again and again. Just the other day, I heard it in my aunt's voice when I showed her the photograph of herself that I had come across in a box of old treasures. "Gosh, I was pretty then," she said. She and I looked a few moments at the long wavy hair and dark doe eyes of the young woman she had been—and then she thrust the photograph back in the box. "I really had no idea. My three best friends were classic beauties, and I always compared myself with them."


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