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Beauty was not something I’d ever bothered much about. My mother was a nurse and a farmer who kept her nails and hair short out of practicality and owned only one beauty product—the pinkish-red lipstick she used on both her lips and cheeks (and only on super-special occasions, like Christmas Eve dinner). I don’t recall specifically being taught that an obsession with beauty was only for vain and frivolous women, but I got the message. So I never paid much attention to my looks—until I hit 30 and went through a nasty divorce, a devastating rebound relationship, and then an early-onslaught midlife crisis. All of which escorted me, for the first time in my life, into the grim land of depression. And this exile to depression carried with it a special bonus feature: the destruction of my self-esteem.
When I use the term “self-esteem” here, I mean it in the most literal and traditional women’s-magazine definition: I didn’t feel pretty anymore. I’d always felt relatively fine about my appearance—not thinking I was Miss Universe, but not worried about looking hideous either. But depression saturates your whole being, so when I looked in the mirror, I suddenly could see nothing but despair’s ugly brown slime dripping down my face. Deeply insecure for the first time ever, I felt a toxic jealousy toward women who I felt were more beautiful than I was (at this moment in my life: everyone). Adding to this pain was a deep sense of humiliation that I even cared about this issue. Since when had I become one of those women who suffer over their appearance?
Worse, I’d recently begun practicing yoga and exploring spirituality, and I’d read enough about the sacred pursuit of detachment to recognize that my obsession over my looks was keeping me far, far off the path of enlightenment. (Imagine, if you will, the Buddha sitting in a trance, thinking, “Man, if only I could lose this double chin, I would be happy…”) My shallowness appalled me. Meditation was impossible when all I could do was beat myself up for not being attractive enough, and then beat myself up even more for caring.
At long last, I decided to confess my suffering to Bernadette, a friend who was more deeply steeped in yoga than anyone else I knew. She’d been living in an ashram for almost two decades and led an existence of constant devotional practices. Moreover, unlike some yoginis I’d met, she didn’t have a molecule of flakiness about her. In fact, she reminded me of my mother, probably because they were both nurses, both strong, competent, compassionate women who wore their hair and nails short.
With considerable embarrassment, I admitted to Bernadette how unattractive I felt, how insanely jealous I’d become of other women, and how humiliating it was not to be able to transcend this obviously stupid obsession. And I told her that I already knew exactly what she was going to say: that physical beauty is a superficial and meaningless construct of human delusion and that such delusions must be transcended and ignored on the path to God.
But Bernadette surprised me. “I know exactly what you need,” she said.
“What?” I asked (thinking: a swift kick in the butt?).
“You need to invest in some serious mirror time,” she said. “You need to sit yourself down in front of a mirror for a good long time every day and really look at your face until you realize how beautiful you are. Make it into a meditation. And help yourself feel prettier, too. Go get yourself a nice haircut, buy some makeup, treat yourself to a new outfit. Then park yourself in front of a mirror and don’t budge until you’ve recognized your beauty.”
I was dumbfounded. How could my most yogic friend possibly be recommending that I stop at the cosmetics counter on my way to enlightenment?
I argued, “But wouldn’t the yogic masters say that I have to get beyond my limited sense of my physical appearance in order to understand my true nature?”
Bernadette was unyielding. “You can’t get beyond your physical appearance until you’ve accepted your physical appearance. And what you can’t accept right now is that you are, quite frankly, beautiful. If you can’t see even this obvious fact about yourself, then you’re stuck in delusion. And what else aren’t you seeing?”
With no better plan in place, I followed her suggestion. I invested in a new haircut, a pretty sweater, sparkly earrings. And then, all dolled up with nowhere to go, feeling ridiculous, I sat down in front of the mirror for my first reflected meditation, a profoundly discomforting experience. My first experiment ended in tears. Also my second, my third, my fourth…
But I kept coming back. I realized that those tears were highlighting some serious selfhood issues. A person’s face is, you might say, the spokesperson for the soul, perhaps even the receptionist who sits in the front office of our being, meeting the world head-on. We might not be able to see what’s going on behind the scenes, but we all see the face. And during this time in my life, my face looked (to me, at least) like the employee of the month at a business that specializes in catastrophic failure. When I examined my reflection, I saw all my shortcomings—inadequacy, shame, self-disgust, envy, anger—staring right back at me. Which was exactly why I hadn’t been looking at myself lately, other than for bouts of self-criticism. (Nose still too big? Check.)
My temptation was to quit the exercise, since it was too painful, something like studying your own chest x-ray to see the cancer’s progression. But then I thought of a friend of mine (a truly gorgeous woman) who’d grown so appalled by America’s obsession with appearances and so sickened by her own self-hatred that she’d vowed to never look in a mirror again. And she didn’t, for almost 10 years. Which was brave and defiant, but also sad. The topic of her face had become so emotionally loaded that she had stonewalled reality for a decade. What had she missed, as a result? And what was I missing?
So I sat through my tears and discomfort, watching myself cry. Then, about a week into my experiment, slowly, I began to feel compassion arising. Something about the distancing effect of the mirror helped me see myself not as “me” (a pathetic mess) but as “her” (that human being over there, in obvious pain). So I focused on that compassion, and soon, soothed by my own kindness, the tears stopped and I could actually stand to look at myself without freaking.
And that’s when I started to actually see.
A human face—anybody’s face—is a particularly cooperative subject for contemplation, as our faces are such miraculous and expressive creations. From the small vicinity of my face, I am able to observe, smell, taste, hear, blush, kiss, speak, sing, and weep. It is by my face that I am recognizable, and also from my face that I am able to recognize others. More than 1,500 years ago St. Augustine wrote that he was astonished every time he walked down a city street and considered the sheer variety of human faces. What an extraordinary artist God must be, he contemplated, to create such a multiplicity of appearances using only the same basic components each time: two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth…
After a few weeks of this mirror-time meditation, I, too, began noticing the people I was passing on the street. Suddenly, I was fixated on everyone’s amazing face. It’s a fact that depression is a narcissistic phenomenon; when you feel miserable, you become blind to the world, capable of focusing only on your own angst. I hadn’t been seeing anything lately but my own misery, raising my head out of my own meager stew of sadness only to occasionally glance around with envy at how everyone else seemed to be happy, pretty, and successful. But my hours spent looking into the mirror (which you might think would’ve made me more self-involved) were somehow pulling my attention back to the incredible diversity of life all around me.
The next step was to realize that I was part of that diversity. I was handcrafted to be distinct. Therefore, it occurred to me at last, my nose is not too big; it’s actually perfect, because somebody (or something) made that nose, just for me. If it weren’t mine, I wouldn’t be recognizably distinct. And these eyes of mine are miraculous, too. Tirelessly they process unbelievable amounts of visual information, reflexively they blink out danger, and reliably they remind me every night when it’s time to sleep. But they are more than just high-functioning. If you look at them closely, my eyes are six or seven shades of blue all at the same time. Which means they are actually kind of…pretty.
Ah, there it was at last…that magic and elusive word. After about two months of meditation on my own reflection, I finally, grudgingly, had to admit that what I was seeing in the mirror was prettiness. Not just in the color of my eyes, but in the line of my jaw, the hopeful shape of my mouth, the pink of my skin, the velvety smallness of my earlobes. I was pretty. I was more than pretty. Oh, let’s be honest, people—I was flat-out flippin’ beautiful.
At which point I faced an odd, unexpected conundrum—what to do about it?
Here in the Western world, spiritual people have always felt suspicious about prettiness. The first thing a novice nun does upon entering a convent is shave her head, thereby renouncing her attachment to worldly, dangerous beauty. Protestant culture (established in stark contrast to the gold-drenched excesses of the Catholic Church) has always seen plainness as the highest expression of serious divinity. Look at a Quaker meeting house. (Completely unadorned.) Look at an Amish bride. (Completely unadorned.) Look at the hardscrabble New England farm upon which I was raised. (Now you’re getting the picture.)
Yet, it occurred to me during my meditations on my own face, the creator of this world would surely not have filled the earth with such a staggering, unnecessary overabundance of beauty (or made us capable of recognizing it), only to wish for all that beauty to be renounced. Who would bother to make a cobalt blue butterfly with a six-inch wingspan, only to want it ignored? And who would make my eyes, with their many shades of butterfly blue, only to want them flooded in constant tears as the result of a narrow obsession with my perceived shortcomings?
This is not to say that I think we should worship superficial beauty, as our secular American culture has done with such insane results (cosmetic surgery for vulvas!). But on the other hand, it’s delusional to deny our exquisiteness entirely. And not merely delusional, but sort of rude to the extraordinary artist who made us. As a friend of mine says, “It’s like God is throwing an amazing party, and nobody’s bothering to show up and look around.”
Then came the most daring step of my mirror meditation: I had this thought—suppose that I do actually have a pretty face? And, behind that pretty face, suppose that I also do have a pretty soul, rich with hidden virtues and interesting quirks? If so, then … how about simply and peacefully, knowing it? Because the truth of our remarkable beauty is that we are each part of something—part of the great, gorgeous cycle of blooming and fading that makes this world such a superb and varied spectacle. Which is to say—in my own small way, I am Miss Universe.
And once I’d realized that, I was ready to step away from the mirror and start reflecting my own beautiful self all the way back up to the stars from which it came in the first place.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything, Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, and other books.