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."
"What do you think?" I asked another friend, Christine. "Do we see ourselves as accurately as those who care for us do?"
She didn't even need a moment to reflect. "When my father died 10 years ago, it was such a surprise to see the photograph that he'd kept of me in his wallet."
"Why was it a surprise?"
"Because it was a photograph of me at age 11, just before I became anorexic, and I was so round and smiling."
I heard the sadness in her voice, and I knew that it was many layered. It included the loss of her father, her long struggle with anorexia, and something else as well—a retroactive appreciation of her lost self. And though she didn't say the words aloud, I could hear them in the air between us: "If only I had known how endearing I was then, when I was round and smiling." If only...
Sometimes it's not a retroactive appreciation that's needed but the reverse. If we're nostalgic for a certain lost image of ourselves, it's important to remember the full context. One friend told me that, on her refrigerator, she kept a photograph of herself at her absolute thinnest. "When was it taken?" I asked. There was a long pause, and then she confessed: "It was taken after my trip to India, after I had dysentery that lasted for three months."
Saddest of all was the friend who showed me her favorite photograph of herself, thin as a rake and leaning against a tall oak tree. Remembering the context, I gasped. "But that's when you nearly died of heartbreak! Look how pale and fragile you were. Don't you remember how we had to feed you like a baby bird?" For weeks several friends and I had taken turns stopping by her house with soups and puddings and canned pears because nothing else could make it past the giant lump in her throat. Now I actually felt betrayed that she could possibly admire the photograph that was evidence of this desperate time.
Of course, we can't always rely on our family and friends to protect us from our distortions and reflect our true selves. Sometimes they, too, get attached to a certain image. My neighbor Susan, who's 65, complains that the only photograph her father keeps in his room is one of her as a teenager, in a bikini. Every time she encounters this photograph, she experiences it as a kind of reproach to the adult woman she's become. "It's like, for him, the teenager I haven't been for more than four decades now is the real me. He can't make a space for the person I am."
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).