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The Frenemy in the Mirror

03/11/2015 09:34 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015

I walked through my bedroom door with a pile of laundry in my arms, clean clothes destined for dresser drawers. On leaving the room, I realized that my 4-year-old daughter was standing in front of the full-length mirror.

When we bought our house, we realized the previous owners must have been giants. The bathroom mirrors were high enough that I could only see my head floating up around the bottom of the medicine cabinet door. There were no other mirrors in the house, and that suited me just fine.

Looking at my body in the mirror was not usually something I wanted to do. Not because I have an unusually horrific deformity that I can't face, but just because mirrors are a tool of the devil. You can either become bewitched by allowing yourself to feel validated and worthy because you like what you see -- or they can become instruments of delusional torture in those moments when you aren't feeling your best, your clothes feel awkward on your body and the unavoidable critical voice in your head narrates rude descriptions of your flaws.

I noticed with a fair bit of envy when I had children that they are born with a complete lack of self-consciousness. Their bodies are completely perfect and wondrous as they learn to use each part, from the first hand squeezed into a fist to the ability to hold one's head upright. Their soul seems in alignment with their functioning body -- their emotions, intellect and physicality working in tandem without hints of discord or betrayal. Children love to run around naked and will beg to do so. And while they are very small, especially if you are breastfeeding, some of this freedom rubs off on you. The functioning of the body is in line with the purpose and beauty of the body as a mother exposes her breast to feed her child. It is an act that can allow a woman to behave as if there are no mirrors.

The need to care for a tiny child requires open bathroom doors, exposed breasts and a lack of modesty. The very idea of privacy is met as a sign of betrayal, as evidenced by my youngest, who at the age of 1 could bust the bathroom door open with a mighty cry and run in, incensed that I had the audacity to shut him out for even a moment.

So when we moved into the new house, it shouldn't have been surprising that the children were distressed by the lack of mirrors. They wanted to be able to see themselves -- to measure their growth, to make funny faces, to bang their open palms against their own reflections in amusement. So I capitulated, buying one very big mirror and hanging it in the master bedroom. And as I anticipated, the mirror became by turns my torturer and friend, reflecting my own insecurities or momentary approval. Most days I avoided it, just taking a quick glance to see if my shoes looked good with my clothes.

Some days I would take a good, long look at my body. My body has served me well, conceiving and housing three healthy babies. However, I still can't quite get used to the deflation of my stomach, which during pregnancy was stretched so tight as it teemed with the mystery of new life. I'm not sure if I am disturbed by the emptiness of the flesh, which seems without purpose, or if I am mourning my experience of anticipation as I awaited the emergence of my babies.

Or this. When I was 10, my mother stood in the kitchen with a wooden spoon in her hand and announced that I needed to go on a diet. That was the moment I became a woman. That was the moment I transitioned from being an unselfconscious child to becoming a woman aware of the need to be critical of, in opposition to and demanding of my body. Mirrors became measures, not of growth, but of my appeal to others. I must not offend. I must be a nice, pretty girl. I must be thin. And so began my battle with my body.

My first child is a boy who has little interest in eating, and likes to parade through the house in his underwear with all of his bones showing through his skin. My second child is a girl, whose eyes are bigger than her stomach and who loves to move at all times, roller skating through the house, pausing to hula hoop or jumping from the couch. My third child, a boy, is sturdy and unnaturally strong, unafraid to climb the kitchen counters for a snack by the age of 1. When friends tell me my children look like me, I am thrilled. Doesn't every mother like to hear this? It is like some validation of the nine months and endless hours of labor it took to produce such perfect little beings. But when, one day, a friend said my daughter was so cute and that she had my body, I stopped dead in my tracks.

If my daughter had my body, did that mean that she would have an adversarial relationship with her body? Or was it possible that she could retain that natural self-acceptance that children are born with? If I promised myself never to stand over her with a wooden spoon and tell her to go on a diet, would she be OK?

I worry little about my boys' self-perception as it relates to their bodies. They are too busy telling poop jokes or climbing counters to care what anyone thinks of their bodies. But my daughter, who emerged from my womb beautiful, vibrant and perfect in every way... will she escape the tyranny of self-loathing that weaves itself into the lives of so many imperfectly beautiful women? I hope and I pray that she never finds self-judgment to be her frenemy.

On that day I walked into my bedroom with an armload of laundry to find my then-4-year-old standing in front of the mirror in just her underwear, with her body at an angle to the mirror, half turned so that she could see both her face and her backside. There was a look in her eye that I recognized immediately -- the look of self-assessment.

I wanted to drape a black sheet over the mirror to obscure her vision. I wanted to pile a cornucopia of luscious fruits on the kitchen table. I wanted to burn my wooden spoons and use the ashes to spell out the words "love your perfect body" on every wall of our house. I wanted to open every window and let the fresh breezes cleanse our hearts. But instead, I just kept walking, past her conversation with the mirror, and carried my own grief far away from her, so that she wouldn't see me seeing her. So that this first conversation she had in the mirror might be friendly, and so that I didn't bring my own discord to bear. She might have my body, but she has her own soul. I want her to love it in her own way. And I will do whatever I can, in a gentle way, to guide her to be strong, to be sure of herself, and to know what to do if she ever meets her frenemy in the mirror.

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An earlier version of this post appeared on The Manifest-Station.

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