I found out this week that my five year-old son needs to get glasses. I’m sure genetics must play a role here, because I wore glasses from the age of three until probably about 15 years old. And I HATED them. I was always the only kid in my class who wore glasses, and I’m sure most of us can recall the first commandment of primary school: Thou Shalt Not Be Different. Little kids are mean as hell, and there’s a zero tolerance policy where individuality is concerned.
To make matters worse, my mum was not at all interested in taking care of the long hair of her two daughters, so she kept it short until we were about 10 years old, and could manage it ourselves.
The final nail in my proverbial coffin was that I was a bright kid. I was a voracious reader from a very young age, and school came easily to me. In summary: glasses, short hair, book nerd. I really didn’t stand a chance.
I look back on photos now and see that I was a pretty cute kid. Sure, I didn’t look like all the other girls in my class. I can recall one specific class photo in which all the girls in my class are decked out in full 1980s fashion. Dresses with puffy sleeves, big skirts, pinks and purples. And sequins. Oh, the sequins. I am pretty easy to find in the photo, because I’m the girl with the glasses. And the short hair. Wearing a turtleneck featuring dogs going downhill skiing. Also, denim overalls.
One of my sharpest memories is about a fourth grade assignment that involved us drawing a self-portrait. We each brought in a mirror, set it on our desks, and sketched our likenesses. I dreaded this assignment so much that I actually had anxiety-induced stomach pains the night before. At eight years old, I hated what I looked like. I didn’t want to look in the mirror, and I certainly didn’t want to replicate my own image. My heart breaks a little when I remember this, because I was so incredibly young to be so incredibly dissatisfied with my appearance. I’m not even sure I would have known what it meant to be “pretty” then. I was just certain that I wasn’t.
Always the diligent student, I set about completing the assignment and drew my picture without looking in the mirror. I handed it to my teacher and she looked at it, and then told me that I needed to try again. I asked her why, and she said, “Because it doesn’t look like you.” I had drawn a girl with long hair down past her shoulders, who was not wearing glasses. So, back I trudged to my desk. I tried again, and showed my teacher the new version. I had modified the girl’s hair slightly. It was maybe an inch shorter. Still no glasses.
My teacher asked me to get my mirror and bring it over, so I did. She held it up and asked me if I thought my drawing looked like me. I remember feeling hot tears fill my eyes and my chest constricting as I tried to squash all of these big feelings I couldn’t have possibly understood at eight years old. I had drawn the girl that I was dying to look like. Because she was like everyone else. Because she had the long hair that I thought I was supposed to have. Because she didn’t need these stupid glasses. Because she didn’t have a drawer full of hand-me-down corduroy pants in her dresser at home.
What I did know, at eight years old, was that I didn’t look like everyone else, and it wasn’t okay.
It was a struggle, but eventually I drew the picture that she had been wanting from me. Short hair, glasses, green eyes, smile. I remember she gave me a hug when I handed her that final version. She looked at the picture, smiled, looked at me and said “See, there you are.” I remember feeling so mad and embarrassed when she kept sending me back to try again, but I am thankful now. She wasn’t letting me get away with being anybody other than myself. And all the best people I’ve met in my life have been just as insistent. As I grew up, over many years, through many lessons, I slowly (and sometimes painfully) realized that the things that set me apart are absolutely the best things about me.
As I approach 40, I see and feel my body changing. My skin isn’t as smooth as it used to be and I’ve got laugh lines and sun spots. My three beautiful children changed my body in very specific ways and since my youngest is now almost four, I feel like these alterations may be permanent. But you know what, it’s ok. I still feel some occasional anxiety when I look in the mirror and see what’s reflected back at me. But most of the time, when I look at myself and the body that’s carried me for 38 years, what I mostly feel is gratitude.