There's the sadness of trying to keep up with an idealized version of ourselves every time we look into the mirror or the lens of a camera. There's the sadness of realizing—like my aunt or my friend Christine—that we failed to appreciate the face that was there, behind the veil of the ideal, for those who could truly see it. Several times, when I've found myself watching one of those "extreme makeover" shows on television, I've been fascinated to observe the reactions of family members in the audience—especially if there are young children whose parent has been transformed. In these cases, I've noticed that when the parent steps out on the stage, there's a moment when the children look horrified. After weeks of separation while the parent was going through one medical, dental, and cosmetological procedure after another, the children are looking for the familiar face of the person they love—and they're not finding it in the face of this glamorous stranger.
When my own daughter was small, she adored her grandmother Rose. Though Rose was wrinkled, white haired, and stoop shouldered, my daughter saw her as physically beautiful. Rose's white hair was luminous to her, like the fine-spun angel's hair that goes on a Christmas tree, and her wrinkles were what made her cheeks as soft as the velvety petals of a flower. Once, while sitting in my lap, my daughter stroked my cheek and said, "You're pretty, but you don't have enough wrinkles."
We say that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," but what would it mean to look at ourselves as though we really believed this were true? The Tibetans have a saying: Who looks not with compassion sees not what the eyes of compassion see. Today, when the suspicious stranger looks into the mirror at her own reflection, I'm going to remind her of that. And who knows? If she can summon enough compassion to let go of her critical gaze, maybe she'll catch a glimpse of a woman dissolving in laughter—and see her with the eyes of a friend.
Noelle Oxenhandler is the author of The Wishing Year: A House, a Man, My Soul (Random House).