We only have one bathroom. The door is always open. On any given day the entire family -and probably the dog -can be found skulking around its white tiles in various states of dress; toothpaste moustache on one while the other masters the potty, singing; Cap rummaging through the dryer for socks while I try and squeeze in a 45 second shower.
There doesn’t seem to be very much privacy. There never was. You see, this is the same bathroom that I shared with my family over 35 years ago.
I watched my sister and my mother style their hair over by the same mirror. I was mesmerized by the gentle stroke of mascara that my mother’s steady hand applied; the expert blot of my sister’s lipstick and the berry-stained tissue it left behind.
I watched daily final self-inspections in that mirror. I watched scowls and rolled eyes before ‘I give up’s were muttered. On some days I saw tears stream. I saw eyebrows arched and plucked. I saw stomachs sucked in and pushed out. I saw thighs examined and pinched and examined again. I saw disapproval. I saw frustration. I saw dissatisfaction. But then I also saw acceptance and sometimes, I saw celebration.
I remember I asked my beautiful mom if she was happy with her body. “I love me. I’m great!” She was telling the absolute truth, but I lingered on her words, replaying the bathroom scenes in my mind. The bathroom was the backdrop to all the untold aesthetic effort that went into every precious and important moment and family event.
For every photograph my dad dutifully documented in his family albums, there was a moment of self-scrutiny in that bathroom. There was a “Do I look fat?” conversation, or a “hold on let me put my face on” interlude. It was the secret, ‘behind the scenes’ to the veneer we all master as we do battle with our beauty myths.
And it wasn’t negative. It just was what it was. It was functional. A vast array of emotion, from the most saturated self-doubt to brilliant esteem was relayed in simple actions behind a closed door- whether it was the tugging of jeans the wearer deemed too tight, or the quick flash of a smile and toss of hair. “Eat your heart out!”, my mother would say to the mirror on especially good days. And that strange room held it all.
There were beautiful moments of women uplifting women- bolstering moments where we all talked about what real beauty was, and what real bodies looked like. There were make up lessons. There were tender assurances that ‘things would get better’ – that bodies change and beauty changes, and even our perceptions change.
The bathroom was a sanctuary of feminine insight, and for all its lack of privacy, a place where so much of my private inner workings took root, from self-care to self-critique – whether I realized it or not.
I didn’t think about any of this when we first moved back into the space with my little family and made it our own. But recently our ‘unlocked door’ policy opened my eyes to just how much my children see and absorb; how much I absorbed and replay as legacy, and how much gratitude and love I have for the women in my life who navigated all of these issues before me.
One day I felt the weight of a curious stare as I applied bronzer. I looked up to see Vee watching me intently, analyzing brush strokes just like I used to. It struck me that my actions modeled the truth more than my words ever could. I suddenly wondered if I had scowled or appraised my appearance in any other way, and what she had observed.
I put my brush down, gathered her to me, and put my arms around her shoulders. We both faced the mirror and she giggled.
“Repeat after me,” I said. “I am beautiful. I am smart. I am kind. I am compassionate. I am strong-“
“Awwww Mom come on, do I have to?”
I nodded and she dutifully repeated me.
“Now I want you to say 3 things that you love about yourself.”
She thought for a minute. “I love animals. I’m a good friend. And I love reading a lot.”
“Oh that’s good!”
“Now you go, Mama.”
“OK. I love my smile, I love my belly, and,” I added playfully, “I love my butt.”
She laughed. “Mom, I really like this. Being here with you and having girl time. It’s really nice. But we don’t need a bathroom for this- we don’t even need a mirror.”
“Really? Well, how will I finish getting ready then?” I asked, going to pick up my brush again.
She turned towards me and reached up to put her hands on my face. “I can be your mirror, Mama.”
I looked into her obsidian eyes, and for an instance saw the glimmer of infinite paths all stretched out into limitless futures.
“You already are, my darling. You already are.”