The Picture I Never Thought I’d Share

Norman-Rockwell-Girl-at-Mirror-1954

Do you ever find yourself so mentally exhausting/exhausted you just can’t deal with your own neuroses anymore? That’s where I’ve been this past year or so.

Honestly, I think this is the best thing about middle age. I’m not talking about a midlife crisis; it’s more of a midlife catharsis. I think we all get so damn sick of the same insecurities, hang-ups and excuses we’ve suffocated ourselves with for so long that we finally stop bitching about it – to ourselves or others – and begin the arduous yet wholly satisfying task of beginning to breathe fresh air rather than continuing to choke down the toxic fumes we’ve carefully, carelessly manufactured inside our own thought bubbles for decades. Because time’s a wastin’, people.

More to the personal point: I wore shorts this summer. All summer. Granted, not every day, but enough. Much more than in previous summers, which was basically never. I wore them in public places and in my own backyard. I wore shorts on long runs around town and on short trips to the park with the kids. I wore them on vacation. I wore them out with friends and while running errands. I wore them on dates. I wore them at the lake and the pool. I went to the lake and the pool.

And you know what? I not only lived through it, I eventually began to enjoy it. The more I ran in shorts, for example, the happier I was that I wasn’t overheating, and the longer I was able to run, and the more I began to notice that the muscles in my legs were really starting to come into clearer focus. Funny how that works.

It took awhile, but I no longer worried about people snickering behind my back, looking aghast at my pasty gams – shuddering at the awfulness that is me. Those were all legitimate(ly crazy) fears I’ve always lived with. I’d spent all previous summers wearing yoga pants around the house regardless of the temperature, because not even I wanted to see my bare legs in the privacy of my own home. A few years ago I wore jeans to the beach in August, for Christ’s sake.

You might think I’m crazy, but I bet you are, too, and I hope right now you’re thinking more about your insecurities than mine. Maybe for you it’s not shorts; maybe it’s wearing a bathing suit that’s difficult. Maybe it’s your crooked tooth you can’t stand, or your stretch marks, or your thinning hair. Maybe it’s the size of your fill-in-the-blank you don’t like. Maybe it is whatever it is, and that’s for you to know and not me.

My point is, this summer I said ‘Screw it.’ It’s hot outside, and nobody cares about this but me.

Obviously, I’m oversimplifying things. I did not miraculously reach a point where my long-held, damaging self-beliefs were suddenly hauled away like last week’s trash. In reality, it’s been a painstakingly slow process. I’ve had, collectively speaking, years of therapy regarding my various insecurities. I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed about them. I’ve been in an ongoing support group to deal with trauma from my childhood. I’ve read books professing my worth as a child of God and a person of value in this world. These books all have passages underlined and highlighted by me, hopeful notes scribbled in the margins and eventually left to gather dust. I’ve journaled and meditated and tried to “run it out.” I’ve taken lessons from a crumbled marriage and a life of trial and error and applied them, like layers of Papier-maché, to my worldview.

All the while, I’ve alternately avoided mirrors or I’ve glared and grimaced into them. Neither tactic worked. Until.

You know how sometimes when you say a word over and over it begins to not sound like the word – like any word – at all? Flaw. Flaw. Flaaah. Measure. Measure. Mezsh-ur? Mezzzuuuurr.

That’s what happened when I stared into the mirror long enough to realize it was just me staring back – a dizzying and disorienting revelation.

When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I came across this framed Norman Rockwell print, “Girl At the Mirror,” in an antique store in downtown Saratoga Springs. The expression on the young girl’s face was exactly how I felt, and would continue to feel for another 20 years. I bought it immediately and took it to my first apartment; it moved with me 12 more times in the ensuing two decades. Oddly, though, in all those apartments and rental houses and duplexes, I mostly kept the print in the basement or tucked away in a spare bedroom. As a grown woman, I was embarrassed that it resonated so deeply.

But sometime last year I Googled the painting and read that Rockwell said the magazine picture of movie star Jane Russell was an addition he regretted including; the girl who posed for the portrait did not actually have it on her lap.

This created an opening for a new interpretation in my mind. If you take away the magazine, what is she looking at? I wondered. What is she comparing herself to, if not to the Jane Russell she’d seen in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (or the very title of that film)? She must be comparing herself to something. To the popular girl in school. To a comment her father made. To the way she’d seen her mother look at her own reflection in a mirror.

Because we don’t just see what is in the mirror, we see what is there in relation to everything else we have seen and heard. The question is, can we unsee it? Can we close one eye and blot out Jane Russell with our outstretched thumb? Can we un-hear the playground taunts from grade school about whatever innocuous physical characteristics made us stand out? Can we un-feel the heartbreak of rejection from our teen years? Can we flush from our systems the constant hyper-sexualized messages pop culture skewers into our TVs, phones, magazine stands, radios, clothing racks, brains, friends, sexual partners and psyches?

Flaw. Flawe. Flaaaah. Measure. Measure. Mezzzhuuurr.

I used to say I hated mirrors; I would mostly avoid them, walking briskly by with averted eyes, looking down at the sink while washing my hands, never straight ahead. That was dumb. I was a 2-year-old throwing a blanket over my head and thinking that would keep me invisible.

Nah, nah, I can’t see me!

A mirror shows you the truth; it’s your mind that immediately distorts and judges it. So, bolstered by all the self-improvement steps previously mentioned, along with my newfound knowledge of Rockwell’s Jane Russell regret, I started to treat the mirror like the object that it was meant to be. I tried to stop distorting and judging. I stopped looking into the mirror, and started to just see what was there.

I started to see my legs exactly as they are. The calf muscles I’ve always known were too wide (Says who? “Society”? Magazine covers? An ex-boyfriend?) slowly became, simply, my calves. I took ownership of the ankles I always wished were thinner, the pale skin I always wanted to be more tan, less freckly, the thighs I had longed to be more toned. Mine. Mine. Mine. Only mine. Only for me. For the movement of my body through my life. For dancing and running and walking and swimming. To serve as a lap for my boys. To allow me to wander and explore, to climb and to hike. To wrap around someone special. To let me see the world from a vantage point that’s 5 feet, 8 inches off the ground.

I saw my legs, my whole body, in the mirror. And what I saw was not “better” or “worse” or “thinner” or “fatter” or “paler” or “darker” or “shorter” or “longer” than yours. It was just mine. It’s so obvious I can’t believe I’d missed it all these years. Of course my legs don’t look like Faith Hill’s; they’re not hers, dumbass. They’re not supposed to look like her legs. They’re supposed to look like Robyn Passante’s legs. And they’re doing a damn fine job of it.

These legs look different today than they did a year ago, partly because I’m running more than I ever have, and partly because I see them in a different light than I ever have. Then again, I am also not the person I was a year ago, or three years ago, or six months ago.

Every day I am trying to be more myself and less other people’s expectations, more confidence and deliberateness and less old habits and cyclical mistakes. I am trying to figure out what it means to live a really good life. I am trying to be more open to experiences, to chances, to life as it unfolds. I am trying to be less apologetic, more giving, less cynical. I am trying to abandon the false idea of perfection. I am trying to live out my faith. I am trying to trust people. I am trying to trust myself.

I am trying to stop looking so hard into the mirror, and just see.

Rob legs

3 thoughts on “The Picture I Never Thought I’d Share

  1. Hi Robin, I’m glad I stumbled upon your post. I used to wear shorts in Florida but it took many years to get there, including trips to the beach in jeans, and also denying myself the benefit of plastic leg braces (orthotics) that eventually improved my walking (and life) immeasurably. My legs were always skinny but an L5 injury in 1982 when I was a cross-country cyclist made some muscles disappear and others atrophy leaving my legs thinner and different shapes, if you look closely. About 15 years ago I got my first pair of plastic orthotics and resigned to never wearing shorts. A couple of years ago I saw a woman at the grocery store with a plastic brace like mine wearing shorts and it was then that I remembered what a psychologist asked me in college. “When you look at other people, do you judge them like you think they’re judging you?” No, of course not. Now I have “cool” carbon fiber orthotics and last summer was the first time I wore shorts in public, too, including volunteering at an event with dozens of friends and going out with family. Like you, I lived to tell about it. No one gawked, stared or barely even looked twice (or once) and I was cooler and more comfortable and able to tolerate the heat much better than ever before. I have yet another new pair of orthotics called Phat Braces that I’m trying out that are supposed to help me more on hills and standing on my bike to pedal, which I haven’t been able to do since I was hit by a car in 1982. It’ll be another mental game to get myself to publicly expose my legs with the differently designed Phat Braces, but I think, after what I’ve been through, I’m up for the challenge. Oh, and hey, nice legs!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Chris. When I read your story I think “survivor” and “badass” (cross-country cycling alone, holy hell I could never…) and I’m sure you’re proud on many levels about your recovery, yet the scars you bear on your body from that experience — one that totally sets you apart from the pack in amazing ways — have not been worn like badges of honor and courage. At the end of the day, our basic human desire is to blend, to be like everyone else, even when we know that a) is impossible and b) diminishes who we are. I’m so glad you’re figuring that out, becoming more comfortable in your own skin, and enjoying life with increasing confidence and ease. Here’s to standing tall on that bike.

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