By Allisan Looman
Once on a street in Ecuador, I spotted a girl about my age across the street. Gringos always piqued my interest because I saw them so seldom; I stared at this one to try to discern whether she might be friendly enough to chat about where she came from and what she was doing in Cuenca. I sized her up: shoulder-length blonde hair, tanned face with a bit of acne under her cheekbones. Modest, nondescript clothing. Pleasant-looking, I thought, not quite pretty but definitely likable. Yes, I would probably like her.
When I moved to cross the street to introduce myself though, she disappeared completely. I froze, stared, and suddenly realized that what I had seen across the street was a mirror. The girl was me.
This experience shook me to the core, not just because I hadn’t recognized my own face (had it really been that long since I had looked in a mirror??) but because it was the first time in my life I had ever looked in a mirror and actually liked what I saw.
This isn’t a story about body shame, although there have been times in my life when I thought I was ugly. No, even during the times in my life when I knew I was attractive, I looked in the mirror and had to suppress a knot in my stomach. In my own eyes, I was fundamentally unlikeable. Even looking at pictures of my younger self, I couldn’t conjure a single tender feeling for little me.
I could delve into the psychology of this, the history and the sad stories, but to me the re-building of my self esteem is much more fascinating than its tearing-down.
I didn’t admit that there was a problem until years later, sitting in a therapist’s chair in a meditative trance. “You have worth,” my therapist breathed in a low, soothing tone. “Take a moment to feel that worth on a cellular level. You have worth,” She said. “You would have worth even if you were the most evil person in the world. Even if you sat on the couch all day and did nothing.”
I promptly snapped out of my trance. “Nothing?” I thought. “If I didn’t even make my bed or put my dishes away? How is that possible?”
At the same time, my rational side gaped. “Of course I have worth! I am a child of God, right?” But no matter how many times I said it, I still couldn’t picture myself having worth if I didn’t do anything productive. My sense of worth, I realized, was fundamentally tied to my accomplishments, large and small. My worth had to be earned each day. And if I made mistakes, I had to do more. I wasn’t enough.
* * *
I hoped to find some solace in the temple endowment. I had found someone who actually liked me enough to marry me, and along with hopes that he might teach me to like myself, I hoped that the temple might hold clues as well. All my life I’d striven for a shifting, mysterious ideal that I couldn’t quite pin down. A worthwhile Allisan would have to be unceasingly righteous like the role models I saw at church, attractive yet modest, friendly but sincere, endowed and validated with the status only achieved through temple worthiness. But to be worthwhile I would also need to fulfill my worldly potential. God had given me a brain and I felt compelled to use it for something amazing. Instinctively, I knew that my role model couldn’t be found at church. So She must be in the temple rituals, I decided. I wanted my Mother with every breath I breathed – I knew that if I found her, She would teach me how to be worthwhile. I went through the temple the first time fully expecting to find Her.
And She was missing. Lost.
Instead, there was a mirror in the celestial room. And in the mirror, a lowly girl buried in layers of white, pale and stricken. My bishop’s wife put her arm around me and said “Look how beautiful you are!” I winced painfully, unable to ignore the familiar loathing and shame that sank in my stomach, and turned away.
Years of angst and faith crisis carved away at my sense of self, peeled away the layers of smugness and Knowing, the expectations and the shame. I was even more certain now that my role model couldn’t be found at church, but still I ached for one. In the place of my certainty was a great drifting void that swallowed me up every time something knocked me off-balance: a conference talk about womanhood, a PR statement from Salt Lake, a mindless comment from a fellow church member.
I prayed desperately during those years. I asked God to please define true womanhood for me. “Where is my Mother?” I begged. “Where is She??” In those times He spoke comfort to my soul. Once, in the form of a dream of purple flowers blooming from beneath heavy snow in the dead of winter. Another time, it came in the form of verbal permission to be angry at Him. But my Mother was nowhere to be found.
Still without my realizing, something was happening: in the absence of “should”s and “ought-to”s, I started to discover “I am”s. Slowly, like an impressive but flawed clay vessel spun to pieces on the wheel, I was being pieced back together: my intelligence, my compassion, my ambition, my dreams and visions, my womanhood; I was coming together into a lumpy, off-balance, but complete and imperfect whole.
My third baby put me to the test when, with debilitating back and pelvic pain, I was unable to walk more than a few steps each day. I literally spent all day on the couch, my swollen pregnant body my greatest enemy, battling my sense of worthlessness with all my might. I have worth. I have worth. Trying not to feel guilty as I watched my husband and family take over all my household responsibilities. I have worth. I have worth. I have worth.
One night I hovered between sleep and wakefulness, in pain and in tears, begging God for strength. I unloaded all of my complaints on Him, then stopped and mentally stamped my foot. “I don’t want to talk to a man about my pregnancy problems!” I thought. “I want my Mother! Where is my Mother??”
Through my drowsy haze, or possibly because of it, I heard the soft fall of footsteps on carpet beside my bed, the soft brush of loose clothing against the bedspread behind me. Then there were cool hands on my head, and finally, deep sleep.
In that sleep, I dreamed that I stood before my bathroom mirror, about to begin my daily ritual of makeup application. The pain was gone, my body strong, my baby peaceful and heavy inside my hips. I looked into the mirror, really looked. And, in the dream, I liked what I saw. Acne scars, no makeup, flat hair. I felt a surge of love for the face I saw. Behind me, I heard a female voice murmur the way I do to my own children. “My beautiful daughter,” it said. And I agreed. I couldn’t see her, but I felt emanating from her a deep and piercing fondness, a glowing pride in my Motherhood, an aching sympathy for my suffering past and present. She loved me, and I believed Her.
* * *
There is just one more mirror in this story. I found it in my hospital room after baby Benjamin was born a couple months later. In its reflection was a naked postpartum body, bereft of its precious cargo, sagging and bleeding and unwashed. And maybe it was the remnants of epidural medications or the elation of a successful labor and delivery, but I loved every inch of that body in the mirror with a force and a loyalty that I had never experienced. The pale glow of the goosebumped skin, the graceful curve of the protruding belly and swelling bosom, even the messy hair and blemished face. Allisan and I smiled at each other in that moment, and just like that, I was enough.
I am enough.
image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mirror.jpg