Who is that stranger in the mirror?

Not me.

Years ago, I stood in front of the long mirror in my parent’s green bathroom, the bathroom directly across from my childhood bedroom, and stared befuddled at the reflecting image.

A curly wavy wild reddish-haired urchin with glasses stared impassively back.

I stuck my tongue out at her.

She stuck her tongue out at me.

I knew, just knew, absolutely knew, that the girl in the mirror–that strange-looking creature–was not, could not, absolutely could not be me.

Perhaps I was supposed to look like this (my niece, Jillian).

Have you ever experienced this?

When you glimpse your reflection are you fairly sure that it’s you, and not some imposter clothed in blue jeans or ratty shirt or wedding gown or bathing suit?

I am almost convinced now, all these years later, that the reflection in the mirror is probably me.  It’s probably the woman known as Kathy.  The image shifts as the years go by, as skin wrinkles and hair grays, but it probably belongs to that girl who declared long-ago that the mirror lied.

Or perhaps she was switched at birth.

Me at 18, gosh, looks like she survived, didn’t she?

I did not like how I looked in late elementary school.

I was supposed to look like my best friend, Carol.  My hair was supposed to be long and blond and straight.  I was supposed to look pretty.

The image that stared back was not ugly, but it was not beautiful.

The hair never cooperated.

And what kind of person wore glasses?

To add insult to injury, a shy girl named Shirley ran helter-skelter into the football goal post on our elementary playground in 4th grade and knocked out half of my front tooth.

The dentist refused to crown it nicely in white enamel, saying this couldn’t be accomplished until, hey, maybe age 15.  Instead he inserted a yellowish cap in my mouth, thereby insuring that I would not–you couldn’t make me–smile for the next several years.

Already shy and insecure, the image in the mirror gloated back with a single yellow tooth in a sea of white enamel.

OK, so maybe my tooth didn’t look QUITE like this.

I grew quieter still, so quiet that in 7th grade my best friend was Mary Grace, a shy red-head, the shyest of the shy junior high students.

When you can’t reveal yourself to strangers because of their horrified sympathy (at least that’s what you think as you approach puberty and want–oh so want–to be beautiful and desirable and pretty and liked by boys and popular girls who seem to have it all together with their perfect hair and skin and gleaming white teeth and no awkward glasses) you spend more hours in your bedroom, typing on a red manual typewriter, creating story after story after story.

As high school and possible boyfriends approached, the dentist inserted the prized white crown.  I wore contacts at age sixteen, discarding glasses.  The hair–well, it couldn’t be helped, could it?  I tried to brush out the frizzies, taming it into social acceptability.

I still looked at the stranger in the mirror.

Who are you?  Where did you come from?  Am I supposed to be you?

People took photos over the years and I cursorily glanced at them, usually horrified at some imperfection.  What an awful expression, oh no, and looked away.

Years passed.

My brothers and me, 1970’s.

A few years ago, in mid-life, I glanced at the old photos, those terrible pictures, and gasped in surprise.

The girl who smiled out of the photographs actually looked pretty.  Appealing.  Happy.

What had I done to that girl?

Why hadn’t I seen her individual beauty, her uniqueness?

Why had I seen only her flaws, instead of her gifts?

I still look in the mirror and don’t really know who the woman is.  It isn’t me–not the me that I know from the inside.  Yet, I more often pause and smile at the woman reflected in the mirror and remember to say, “I love you, thank you for this body, this perfect imperfect face, blessings to you, sweet one…”

Do you think the reflection in the mirror is you?  Have you always liked what reflected back at you?  Have you grown to like it?

What are your experiences with the mirror?

About Kathy

I live in the middle of the woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Next to Lake Superior's cold shores. I love to blog.
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74 Responses to Who is that stranger in the mirror?

  1. I look like a different person in the mirror depending on my attitude

    • Kathy says:

      Isn’t it odd how we change when we glimpse in the mirror, LouAnn? Sometimes it seems we are not even the same people. Attitude is everything, some have said.

  2. My sisters and I were just discussing this very phenomenon. I’ve learned you can program yourself to look into a mirror in a dream. It is amazing who looks back! The me that I know is me in a dream is a totally different person than I see in the mirror when I’m awake. We imagine a past-life persona or the image of the soul or the person we wish we could be…

    • Kathy says:

      I’ve heard of that, too, Cindy. Do you sometimes dream that you are different people in dreams, too? Where does Cindy or Kathy go when we dream we are someone else? Fascinating to contemplate.

  3. Joanne says:

    The mirror ~ our best friend, or worst enemy, I always think. I went through a stage where I would be startled by the image that looked back at me from the mirror, as that person was much older than me! Nowadays, I prefer to check the basics, you know, hair, makeup, and forget the rest, because I have learned over the years that it’s what’s on the inside that makes us beautiful on the outside, regardless of the opinion we may have of our image.

    I love this story Kathy. It really got me thinking! And I absolutely love seeing your old photos. Weren’t you and your brothers a dshing trio? 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      You’ve learned an important lesson, Joanne. “What’s on the inside is what makes us beautiful on the outside.” Wonder why it takes us so many years to realize this sometimes. And weren’t we a dashing trio? It makes me happy to be able to FEEL this now. Thank you.

  4. Kathy – Our dentist assured my family that if I didn’t have braces I grow into a snaggletoothed woman who’s chin and nose would eventually meet. I refused the braces and my nose and chin have yet to meet.

    You’ve seen many photographs of me. I have gray hair that I earned the hard way. To me they’re badges of honor. I have smile wrinkles at my eyes and the corners of my mouth. My face and arms are covered with freckles and a smattering of age spots — more badges of honor

    I loved my funny, young impish face, and I love my funny, old face — still impish.

  5. Kira says:

    Until very recently, I can say with 100% certainty, the person in the mirror was never really me. Of course, I am coming at this question from a different perspective than many.

  6. sybil says:

    I’ve always looked younger than my real age. An awful thing at 16, but marvellous at 62. Still, I don’t like my saggy neck. I ponder if I was rich whether I would try to change that part of the outside the match the young girl inside. Betcha didn’t know I was THAT shallow Kathy. 🙂

    Back to your question. I used to cry in front of the mirror. I was an insecure, sad, teen. In reality I was pretty, but I couldn’t see it. I’d compare myself to the girl on the front of “Seventeen” and sob, and sob.

    Part of me now thinks I look like your niece Jillian and is pretty darned alarmed when shown evidence to the contrary …

    • Kathy says:

      Sybil, you so often make me laugh out loud! (But I could also cry thinking about you crying in front of the Seventeen magazine–I mean, darn it, How MANY of us cried?) Grinning at your last sentence. You are a comedian, do you know that?

  7. Sara says she doesn’t understand my fascination with mirrors. She hates to look in them. However, I’m inevitably intrigued by who I see in my mirror–wondering if I reallly look to others like I look to myself. I also love here the image of the “perfect, imperfect face.” Well said, my friend.

    • Kathy says:

      Yep, Kathy, I wonder if anyone ever has a perfect perfect face. I think we’re all perfect, imperfect…and that’s what makes us special. Hugs to you!

  8. Val says:

    You’re not alone.

    I wrote about this very thing in my old blog, Kathy, but I don’t mind repeating it here (in shortened form, of course!) I don’t recognise myself in the mirror. I did for a very short period when I sort of slid into a version of myself that I’d kind of imagined myself to be when I was older – I think I was about fifty at the time. But I’ve never had any idea of what I look like from the inside so what I see on the outside just doesn’t look like anyone I know, least of all me. And for that reason, I am fascinated by photos of myself as I’m always trying to see who I am or how others might perceive me as I can’t quite perceive myself.

    I have problems recognising other people, too, so I suspect it might be a very mild form of face blindness (propopagnosia). Or rather, I recognise them but then can’t quite believe that I do. And I can ‘lose’ people very easily. I tend to make a mental note of what people are wearing – for instance, their shoes, so that I’ve got a kind of marker should my other senses fail me. I’ve lost my husband in a doctor’s waiting room many times, when he’s actually been there. (Thankfully I have a memory for voices!)

    So my own face sort of ‘shifts’ in my memory. I recall bits of it but it doesn’t really come together as a whole.

    And while it’s really a separate thing, yes I had the same sense of not being what I thought others wanted me to be, so I was shy and retiring (still am in certain circumstances).

    And for what it’s worth I think you looked very pretty as a youngster and you still do! (I do have to check whose blog I’m in when I see people’s faces. The Gravatars help me more than anyone could imagine!)

    • Kathy says:

      OK, Val, I LOVED your comment because, guess what? I have mild problems recognizing OTHER people’s faces, too. I never thought about this in relation to my own face. How bizarre is that? Thank you for sharing all your thoughts here. Perhaps I did read the blog you wrote about this…but, along with not being able to recognize some faces very easily, I also forget easily…

      • Val says:

        Look for an Oliver Sacks video on face blindnes, Kathy. He’s a neurologist (amongst other things, he wrote ‘Awakenings’ which was made into a movie) and has the condition himself. Apparently he looked at a guy who he thought was himself – had a beard like his – and started combing his hair or something and then realised he wasn’t looking in a mirror but was looking at someone else entirely! 🙂 (I’ve done something similar myself though thankfully the doppelganger was too far away to see me staring at her!)

        • Kathy says:

          I’ve never had that problem, Val, just mildly don’t recognize people (especially after meeting them only a few times.) I am afraid I’ve sometimes offended people in town ocassionally because of it. You know, you have a deep conversation with a person and five years later you don’t even recognize her face… Thanks for the name of the video.

  9. Val says:

    Prosopagnosia. Whoops! (Can’t spell either!)

  10. Heather says:

    We are surely more cruel to ourselves than any outsiders, and middle/high school might be the worst of it. I can remember that same longing to fit in and be liked and pretty, and isn’t acne just mean? Especially when you have a big red pimple erupt on the tip of your nose? Yeeks!
    I’ve always recognized that girl in the mirror, but sometimes I’ve wanted her to be different, better. Sometimes I still do, but then I remember to be thankful for all the things my body does for me and remind myself to be kind to myself.
    Also – I laughed out loud at the picture of the skull. It seemed so apt and was also so unexpected 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Oh don’t be get going about Pimples, Heather. Oh lord, I can still hardly mention the word without shaking. (OK, a little over-exaggeration, but not much.) And I laughed when that photo popped out of a folder and insisted upon being included with its crazy beaver teeth.

  11. lisaspiral says:

    I am with you every step of the way especially with those old photos of young insecure me. I did have a moment though walking in Memphis. I caught the image of a dress going by in one of the windows and I stopped to look because I really liked the dress. Didn’t recognize it was me.

    • Kathy says:

      Oh that is a funny story, Lisa! So interesting how some of us just feel so disconnected from the image in the mirror–or the store window. Bet you felt great that it was YOUR dress!

  12. There is a picture of me from my sisters wedding that I still can’t believe is me. There is no way I look like that in real life. It must have been all the make-up she made me wear that day. 😉

    • Kathy says:

      Oh, that photo sounds wonderful, C.B.! Sometimes when we get all dressed up and made-up we can be so surprised at who smiles back at us in the mirror or photo.

  13. susanblake says:

    Hi Kathy,
    I went to modeling school at 13 – it transformed the girl in the mirror. I think it was an inside change as much as outside – like a real transformation. I was the world’s geekiest girl til then, shy, afraid of everything, zero confidence. I never looked back – thank God there are few pictures of those days. Never had a problem with mirrors but then it was all the training, make-up and hours I had to spend in front of them.

    However – (isn’t there always a rub?) seeing the old bod and face NOW before the mirror has been something I’ve had to work on being friends with. A bit of acceptance, a lot of zen attitude and I’m fine with it. Can’t stop aging. What I fight is using the “o” word, or thinking/acting old – let alone looking it as long as I can help it. I’ll probably be the only 90 yr. old still wearing tie-dye. Some things are just a part of you no matter what! 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      That is cool that you went to modeling school–I’ll bet that did help to transform you. It really helped my niece Jillian so much, too. I am happy to hear you’ll be wearing tie-dye at 90. I suddenly want a tie-dye shirt again.

  14. Brenda Hardie says:

    I think it’s very common for young girls to be so very critical of themselves and who they see in the mirror. It was definitely that way for me, although people always told me I was pretty. (Not my peers though…they were horrible!) Too many harsh memories to dwell on so I’ll fast forward to the recent past…say 2005-2008. My healing years after the divorce. I did not spend much time in front of the mirror during those years. Couldn’t bear it. Then suddenly…when I caught my reflection it was like…”Who is that?” And it was verified by the fact that when I returned to MN (after 2 years out east) people did not recognize me! Some of it was physical change (tremendous loss of weight) but it was mostly a gain in self confidence and a positive attitude. I was happy! People were not used to seeing me that way…I was not used to seeing ME that way! Now I have become acquainted and familiar with my new self. Sure, I’m still changing…and yes, aging, but I feel as though I am becoming a richer, deeper person than I ever was before. I do not expect, or want, perfection so am not as hard on myself as I used to be. And if people don’t like me…it’s alright. Sometimes the little girl I used to be, gets her feelings hurt but she does not control my mood any longer. You know the phrase that if you love and accept yourself, then others will too…? It is certainly true in my case. I see with new eyes, and the whole world is new to me, even my reflection!

    • Kathy says:

      I think it’s common, too, Brenda. I think some of us adult women have even suppressed our feelings about this. You make me smile really big when you say that you are becoming a richer, deeper person. But that the little girl is still allowed to surface so you can hug her. You have described the gifts of aging when we learn to like the reflection in the mirror.

  15. Kerry Dwyer says:

    I see my mother in the mirror.

  16. Jeff Stroud says:

    Hey do you have to push all those buttons? Oy ! “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”

    Should we still be asking these question of ourselves at this age? I think there is a whole blog here along with Laurie’s blog this morning about How is our heart?

    Love you!

    • Kathy says:

      Jeff, I think too many people our age have suppressed and repressed many of the emotional charges they experienced in earlier years. So, yes, I think we should be inviting any unresolved feelings forward into our consciousness for integration. Our heart still may have many tender wounds… Love you, too!

  17. I have felt like this many, many times….. there was a time when I thought I was the most unattractive girl in the school. It would explain why I didn’t have a ton of friends, and why no boys ever seemed interested in me. I never liked to look at my entire reflection in the mirror – I tried sticking to whatever I needed to see at the time (fix hair, brush teeth, check to see what was stuck in my eye, etc….). To this day, I’m not crazy about seeing myself in the mirror, and sometimes wonder why people don’t react to me the same way I react when I see myself. I know it has a lot to do with self-esteem… I don’t think I had good lessons in learning positive self-esteem growing up.

    I could go on and on….. once again, you’ve got me thinking!! 😉

    • Kathy says:

      Holly, thanks again for inspiring me with this topic in our exchanges yesterday and today. May we continue to bathe ourselves in self-esteem as we get older, sharing love with our very precious selves…

  18. That makes several more things I’ve discovered about you that we have in common. Shyness, two brothers (that picture of you with them in the 70s is very much like one I have taken with my brothers at about the same time), and finally reconciling myself to the fact that yes, the person in the mirror really is me, although at times I see my mother reflected back to me. That gives me a bit of a shock and a bit of nostalgia, since she is no longer with us except in spirit. I’m glad you are no longer at odds with the person in the mirror. 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Withershins, it does sound like we have some things in common. Sometimes I see my mother reflected back (especially in photos of her at this age) but my hair definitely comes from Dad. Can’t imagine what it would feel like to look in the mirror and see your mom…but she’s gone. I think it would be comforting to at least have something of her reflected back.

  19. bearyweather says:

    Not sure if I should thank you for dredging up all those adolescent insecurities or not.

    These days the camera/video is still a dread … As so many teachers are expected to put lessons online … The person I see on video/camera is not who I see as me … I hate listening to my own voice. So I avoid this teaching method.

    FYI … another similarity between us …
    My front tooth was broken off in middle school/the one next to it cracked … girl tripping me playing basketball. Big (obvious) filling and pin for many years .. eventually tooth turned dark (dead) … tough to live with as a kid (especially when the dentist scared me to death) …. but, it is all fixed and invisible today.

    • Kathy says:

      Ha ha, bearyweather, leave it to me to dredge up adolescent insecurities! Any others you might want me to blog about? Yes, yes, I also understand about the voice. How do we get these strange voices? I am also always amazed to meet my blogging friends in person (or talk to them on the phone) and realize that their voice is totally different than what I imagined. So sorry to hear about your dark toothie. I SO understand.

  20. There are times, Kathy, when my reflection in a mirror or on a photograph seem removed from reality as if I am refusing to allow a clear image of myself.

  21. Good post Kathy, and you were really lovely then, and still are now. Your smiles expresses your beauty inside and out.
    As for me…I think most of my life I have not liked how I looked. In the early 90s I lost weight which got me to my appropriate and I did look good then…at least for a few years. However, the weight has returned and I hate how I look. It doesn’t help that I have some missing teeth now and several of the rest are crooked (as they have always been). I can’t afford the cost of replacing the missing teeth and especially the braces I would need to get my teeth straight 😦 For my health I am working at eating better and doing excercise 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Ann, it is so hard when we truly don’t like the image in the mirror. It must be so hard when you want to lose weight and can’t keep it off. I have a good friend who is missing a tooth and hasn’t been able to get it fixed. She sometimes hides her lovely smile…yet I think she is one of the loveliest people in the planet because her inner glow shines forth. Sometimes I think the most important thing we can do is work on that inner glow. That is what ultimately counts. Thank you for sharing of yourself. Hugs, Ann.

  22. sonali says:

    Why do we have so much in common? I wonder. You know, I got my front tooth broken due to a bike accident. I hate my teeth set. I got a white crown done – ugly part of me.
    But as time goes, I don’t think a silly tooth can outrun the inner beautiful self. Kathy, you really looked so pretty. I love curly hairs. I always think why I’m not beautiful like your niece there. she looks fabulous.

    • Kathy says:

      Sonali, you expressed such a profound truth. A silly tooth CANNOT outrun the inner beautiful self. Every day your inner beautiful self can glow more brightly. (And my daughter is always telling me she loves my curly windblown hair. Once, a woman in Belgium said, “Curls are consciousness!” My daughter always tells me that if I’m complaining about my hair.)

  23. Lori DiNardi says:

    Wonderful insights, Kathy. I didn’t have problems recognizing the face in the mirror, but boy did I ever think I was ugly. Now, I look back at that younger me (in photos) and wish I hadn’t believed that lie. BTW, have you ever looked at someone else’s high school year book and think they look like the same people you went to high school with? Well, I’m just sure I went to high school with you and your brothers. Heh.;-) So glad you’re sharing your beautiful-self with us.

    • Kathy says:

      Lori, it’s interesting that you believed the lie you told yourself about being ugly, too. Indeed, I have looked at high school pics and sometimes even wondered why we thought so-and-so was so pretty. Sometimes I think it’s often just confidence shining out. And–hey–I think I remember you from high school, lol.

      • Lori DiNardi says:

        I was made fun of in grade school and told I was ugly. Even though it stopped in high school, I still believed it. I wrote about it in one of my free memoir reads (Hallway Angel). Ahh, if only we could speak to our younger-selves, although I don’t think we’d listen. 😉

        • Kathy says:

          I wonder, Lori, if our younger selves would listen? Maybe they would listen, but they wouldn’t really be able to imagine how different it might be some distant day…

  24. OM says:

    I wish I had time to read all the comments, and think of a profound reply, but I am just smiling with love, for you now, you then, myself, and all of us, and letting you know your “reflections” fell on fertile ground, Kathy. (How’s THAT for a pun and mixed metaphor all in one! Do I get a prize???) :)))))

    • Kathy says:

      OM, I think this topic was a timely one! We all need to embrace that inner elementary or junior high or high school one who might still feel a little tentative at times. You get a prize! But you must tell me what you would like. 🙂

  25. Reggie says:

    That was profound and moving, Kathy. To this day, I still have a very ambivalent relationship with the person I see in the mirror… I wonder if I’ll ever really make friends with her. I guess that’s why I’m always *behind* the camera, rather than in front of it! 😉

    • Kathy says:

      Reggie, I am glad that you relate. I think it’s possible that you will really make friends with her. My friend once told of an exercise where you had to say “I love you” to the mirror each day. The first day she cried and couldn’t say it. But eventually she learned…

  26. Robin says:

    Oh gosh. What an incredible, soul-deep post. The mirror and I have not had a good relationship throughout the years, but it’s getting better. When looking at old photos, I’ve had a similar reaction, wondering how I could have been so unkind to that pretty girl. I’ve been practicing sending her, and myself, love. One day I won’t have to practice anymore. 😀

    • Kathy says:

      It’s interesting that you’ve had similar thoughts about those sweet pretty girls in the old photos, Robin. I’ve been practicing with love, too. Someday we will realize the love that we are all the time, we will, oh yes, we will.

  27. Dana says:

    Big chunks of life were wasted not smiling with my teeth. I was always so self-conscious of them growing up, and it didn’t help that my family couldn’t afford braces when all of my friends were sporting them in junior high. I look back at photos of myself from that era and want to see that mouth of not-perfect teeth open wide with joy. Obviously, the me from back then still smiles shyly, mouth closed, forever remembered that way, but the me of today grins back at her, gap teeth and all. Can I get a high five? 🙂

    • Kathy says:

      Dana, Dana…all of us with less-than-perfect teeth and hair and noses and smiles. Oh we poor children so wanting perfection! I high five you! Not once, or twice, but as many times as we felt self-conscious, embarrassed, not worthy. High five because we were wrong along! We were worthy, oh-so-worthy, even though it sometimes takes a lifetime to really know this.

  28. Somehow, I missed some of your blog posts. This post and all the comments (yes, I read all of them) are very poignant. I could repeat each and every word if I thought it would help the reflected reflection from the mirror.

    • Kathy says:

      Linda, how kind of you to go back and read old missed posts. Just re-read this one, thanks to you, and felt how healing it was to write this post. And how many people resonated deeply with it. Hugs to all our imperfect reflections in the mirror. May we learn to love what we see…

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