This article first appeared on Role Reboot and has been republished with permission.
We are the only people in the gym’s stretching room, two older women, one of whom is doing a backbend and the other one, whose back hasn’t bent like that since 7th grade gymnastics. Although people say I look good for my age, and I can hold a plank for a full minute, what I see in the mirror while stretching out these post-middle aged muscles is someone who needs to lose some pounds, buy cooler workout clothes, maybe get contacts, someone who wishes she was that woman doing the backbend.
Through the mirror, I am watching her.
She is very pretty and so fit she can get away with the Olivia Newton-John “Let’s Get Physical” leotard, leggings, and head band. I envy her confidence, her poise, her astonishing flexibility. I should stop staring at her and get on with my own cool down but jealousy has paralyzed me…until I see, with horror, that this woman who looks like a star from an exercise video has risen and is coming my way.
Has she been watching me watching her? My panic makes me stand up immediately and try to think of how I will explain myself. I am overwhelmed with embarrassment and self-consciousness: I am dumpy and slovenly and am sure I can smell my own sweat. I wipe my palms on the short nylon shorts I have no business wearing and begin to stammer out an “I’m sorry” when I hear her say, “Can you believe this? I just looked in the mirror and saw these tendrils.”
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Her beautifully manicured hands are each pulling on a strand of hair that has come loose from her ponytail on either side of her face. “I didn’t realize how bad I looked, my hair…but I’m getting it cut, and colored, today. At 2pm.” Then she rolls her eyes as if we are complicit in the shame that compelled her to reassure me, a total stranger, she was getting her hair cut and colored at 2pm, and returns to her mat.
Mirror Mirror on all these walls, who is the most insecure of us all?
My staring was a compliment; she saw it as a criticism.
I thought she looked great; she thought I looked like someone who deserved an explanation for what she saw as the sorry state of her hair. And whose idea was it to line an entire room in the gym from floor to ceiling with glass that so clearly warps the already distorted images we have of ourselves?
I think of the mythical Narcissus, so in love with himself that staring at his own reflection did him in, and yet I know there is something life-saving and necessary and profound about self-love.
I sit back down on my mat and put my legs out straight in front of me, grab my feet and lower my torso down as far as it will go. Usually this stretch frustrates me but I have discovered something of immeasurable value today, something that allows me to recognize that the space between my chest and my knees is much smaller than it used to be and I can be proud of this accomplishment and use it as incentive to push myself further. It’s up to me.
When I lift my head and face myself in the mirror, I realize that I have no idea what other people see when they look at me.
But I want to see who I am: a member of my tribe, we women of a certain age, who deserve to see ourselves and fall in love.