I look in the mirror a lot. Not because I'm vain, necessarily, but because I'm constantly forgetting what I look like.
Really, I am. My appearance startles me all the time. Basic things about it. "Wait, is that really my chin? But for real now: is that actually how it looks? Does anyone have confirmation on this? Do we have proof of chin?"
It's confusing. I look different in different lights, in different clothing, in different moods; I seem to morph ever-so-slightly with mild fluctuations in the atmosphere, shifting with faint variations in the ambient temperature. Sometimes, when someone mentions that they think they saw me on the street the other day, in Cobble Hill, coming out of a burger place, bent furtively over an enormous double cheeseburger, I try frantically for a second to remember how I looked that day. Was it a good day? Did I look like a person I wanted to look like that day? The cheeseburger was good. I know that much.
I am a little surprised that I look like myself all the time to other people. What does that person look like? She teasingly eludes me.
In the evenings, as I grow third trimester-tired (I am almost eight months pregnant now) and lose my ability to attentively smile and grimace at the appropriate moments in other people's stories about their love lives, I have been watching more and more of the show "Alias" on Netflix. I love spy things. I love it when the woman spy parachutes into Romania or wherever in her plain, zipped up parachuting outfit and then she unzips it in a single, triumphant motion, and BAM! underneath is a sexy red evening gown with a plunging neckline! She just landed from 1,000 feet up in six-inch heels! And she will very soon be running in them, as the bad guys chase, but never catch her. I love that shit. It makes me want, for the millionth time, to wear wigs constantly. Why are we not all wearing wigs all the time? Wigs seem like so much fun.
"Alias," for me, is partially just a show about Jennifer Garner's face. And about her body, too. But definitely starring the perfect, sculpted lines of her jaw, the fullness of her always-pink lips, the clean simplicity of her little nose and her warm, wide eyes. Everything about her face is pure and neatly-stated and lovely. She looks amazing in every single wig. It's a wonder to watch. So many TV shows, it seems, are partly about whatever the plot is doing, and partly about how beautiful a woman is. Look at her in all of these different settings! She has to go undercover as a stripper again!
I suspect that if I had to go undercover, I would probably not be convincing as a stripper. I suspect that I would immediately twist my ankle on the parachute landing, and my six-inch heel would snap right off and I'd limp into the elegant Romanian party with the zipper stuck on my sporty parachuting outfit, one sparkling red spaghetti strap showing, asking if I could borrow someone's cell phone so I could call the CIA and ask to be taken home -- oh, and could I get a double cheeseburger while they are at it? International espionage makes me hungry.
I get up to pee because it's been five whole minutes since I last peed, pausing "Alias" just as Jennifer Garner is poutily, deftly seducing a very dangerous Russian arms dealer, and my reflection in the bathroom mirror catches me off-guard. I have been looking at her face for too long. My own face is nothing like it. My own face is heavy, blotchy, uneven. The eyes are surprisingly close together -- I don't remember them being that close together -- have they migrated? In the descriptions of the developing fetus, features are always migrating. "Week 20: your baby's ears have migrated to their final position on either side of his head!" YES! It's about friggin' time.
"Week 28: your baby's testicles have migrated down his abdomen and will soon settle in his scrotum, where they will hopefully stay." What were they doing in his abdomen to begin with? Thank god I'm having a girl.
I think my baby's ovaries have migrated to the right place now, and so have her eyes. But my eyes have not.
What is my face's problem? Why does it not understand that pretty women have simple, sweet, even faces? Where did all of these bulky features come from? What's with these weird shadows and lines? What the hell, man? Why can't I just look like Jennifer Garner? Why can't I at least look more feminine? It's obnoxious.
I experience a moment of despair, in front of the mirror. This is it. I'm finished. I will never look truly good.
This is familiar -- this plunge, this dawning horror at the sight of myself. As though I've forgotten just how bad it was and then BOOM: there it all is, like flicking on the glaring lights of an operating room, and there's the bloody truth, laid out on the cold, metal table. There's no hope for this one. Not even Dr. House could save this one.
This is familiar -- the surprise, the rush of disappointment. Damnit, I thought I'd be prettier this time.
This is familiar -- the little niggling voice that wonders aloud in my ear if I can even like myself, when I look like this.
Isn't that what it comes down to? Can I ever truly like myself, really like myself, knowing that I will never, ever look even close to Jennifer Garner? Can I like myself, if it turns out that I don't even have the potential, the slender hope, of being beautiful?
For a long time, I liked myself less every time I looked bad. It was automatic.
But I'm tired now. I'm too slow, like a brontosaurus or something, for the responsive, immediate viciousness of the beauty velociraptor. The despair subsides -- I can't maintain it. I blink at myself, taking this whole big, complicated scene in. I am a writer, I think. Do I look like a writer? Sure. Why not? Anyone can look like a writer.
I am nice, I think. Which is important to me. Do I look like someone who would be nice to other people? Sure!
I am not afraid to make big, non-normative decisions. I am strong-minded. I definitely look like someone who could be strong-minded. Which makes me smile a little.
It's funny -- I never know what to expect when I look in the mirror, but I think that as a person, I feel increasingly consistent to myself. And increasingly, that feels more relevant, somehow. It means just a bit more. Do I actually need to look consistent? Is that important? Do I really need to look like anything? Maybe, just maybe, I don't need the world to look at me the way it looks at Jennifer Garner. Maybe I never actually needed that, I just got confused. I just got misled along the way.
It's easy for young women to get misled in this way, there are so many paths going in the wrong direction, laid out right there, practically under our feet already, just waiting for us to walk them. There are herds of other women on them already, leading the way, so that they can look like the only way to go. And then, over here in the underbrush, weaving and cracked and nervewrackingly deserted, here's another way entirely. This way has lots of overlooks where you can stop and unpack a big, hearty lunch. With pie. God, I want pie. Peach crumb. Strawberry rhubarb, my absolute favorite.
It is important to smile at yourself in the mirror, I think, especially when you look really bad. Especially when you look nothing at all like Jennifer Garner and never will. Especially when you can't believe you even look like this. It is important to remind yourself that this image, this moment, is only part of a much longer story. It's a story about an interesting woman with a lot worth liking about her. And you are a writer, aren't you? So tell it well. And when you are running from the enemy or parachuting anywhere, definitely wear flats. It's better that way. I'm no international spy, but I'm pretty smart, and that is one thing I'm sure of.
Follow Kate Fridkis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eatthedamncake