Personal Statement: Reflection
Based on “Long Distance” by Victor Lavelle
Preface: This is an essay originally published by my high school Prize Papers collection at the end of my senior year. As a senior in college graduating in three weeks, many of the same insecurities I struggled with at the time are still with me today, which is why I decided to come back to this piece. The essay has been slightly revised from its initial version.
The longest I had gone without viewing my reflection was three weeks when I was in high school. I had a systematic way of avoiding mirrors. I would wake up in the morning, look down as I entered my bathroom, brush my teeth with my eyes on the faucet, brush my hair with my head turned to the side and apply copious amounts of kohl around my eye rims, using the cheap drugstore mirrors that only show your eyes. This was how I started my day.
I remember thinking that avoiding my reflection wasn’t too hard. I wouldn’t use public bathrooms where the mirrors were so big and hard to avoid, and if I really needed to look at myself, I would try to use opaque or grainy reflectives, such as car door windows. Looking back, this entire practice seems bizarre, as I knew I was a kind, passionate, loyal and intelligent 15-year-old. But I also believed I was ugly, and this somehow marred any good quality I possessed.
I wouldn’t always do this ritual. My parents used to tell me I was a cute baby, and my deep black eyes would twinkle in the sun. Not only that, but I had a pretty smile — one that made my eyes scrunch up and my lips pull back to reveal my entire top row of teeth.
Things went downhill when I began losing teeth. I had dreadful teeth. Not only did I lose all my top and bottom ones at around the same time, which ruined my precious smile, but my adult teeth grew in uneven and angled. My unsightly orthodontics, coupled with the pubescent shadow on top of my upper lip and between my eyebrows, were reasons why I lost the attention of adults and began my lifelong battle with self-image.
Then came my “tween years.” My body stretched vertically, my hair got oily, my cheeks sunk in, my feet grew too fast for my balance to keep up — I thought I looked like the South Asian version of the girl from “The Ring.” But since everyone around me was equally awkward, I was still looking at mirrors just fine.
It was in my sophomore year of high school that my self-perception dropped to an all-time low. All of a sudden, everyone left behind his or her awkward stage. Braces were coming off as bodies were filling in. Except for me. I stayed brace-faced, bony and undesirable.
I blamed my mirror. It showed me everything that was wrong with my life. I came to believe that if the mirror showed me someone beautiful, someone like the models or actresses, my life would be better. Instead, boys didn’t want me because of what I saw in the mirror. I mean, how could they, with my braces and my stringy hair and my oily skin. Out of shame, I walked with my head down most of the time, my shoulders hunched, trying not to let anyone, including myself, see my face.
In my delusional state, I convinced myself that after my braces came off, I would finally be attractive enough to look myself in the mirror. I believed that my entire world would change — that I would go from being an awkward, gangly teenager to a straight-toothed young lady. So upon coming home with my newly unshackled pearly whites, I went straight to my bathroom, turned on the lights and faced my mirror.
But nothing happened.
I was expecting fireworks, a beautiful brunette with tan skin and a Julia Roberts smile to stare back at me. But my mirror did not show me that. I was basically the same girl — the same awkward girl with lanky hair, bony elbows and a budding hunchback. I stared at myself for half an hour, trying to see another reflection, but I could not.
And that’s when I realized it wasn’t the mirror — it was me. I avoided mirrors to convince myself that I could be happy even if I knew I didn’t like the way I looked. However, only after looking at my reflection, really looking at it, did I realize that this was not true. I hated mirrors because I believed I was “unattractive” and somehow less of a person. But I realized I was blaming my looks for my own personal failures in life instead of taking responsibility for them. So no matter how hard it was, I forced myself to look at mirrors and appreciate what I saw. I forced myself to stop avoiding my reflection and come to terms with who I am, flaws and all. I made myself pick my head up when I walked and look people in the eyes so they, too, could see my face. It wasn’t easy, but as I became more comfortable looking at myself, I slowly started to like what I saw. I was starting to stop hating mirrors.
* * *
Summer 2012. I was at day camp, trying to get my group of rambunctious 6-year-olds to settle down and do their coloring activity, when I caught Demetrius looking at me. He was one of the few counselors I had never spoken to, but I knew he was really popular with the kids. He had curly hair, a tall, slender build and hazel eyes that were pointed right at me. My palms immediately started sweating — I knew there must have been something on my face or something embarrassing that I had just done. I quickly shuffled to the other side of the table, away from his vantage point.
He stayed back after class to help me clean up and introduced himself. We spoke for a bit, mainly about the kids we thought were cute or the other counselors we both knew. On his way out, he smiled at me and said, “You have pretty eyes,” before shutting the door behind him.
I caught my reflection in the window, ash gray and dotted with translucent raindrops. Now when I look in mirrors, I see a new girl staring back at me. I see a girl who has a sincere smile and kind eyes. I see a girl who doesn’t need physical beauty to define her, as she knows physical beauty should not determine a person’s worth. She walks with her head held high and makes better eye contact with people. But she is only who I appear to be.
The girl I see, the one who stands tall and tries to make it seem like she does not care what anyone thinks of her, somehow formed around the reflection I used to see, the skinny, awkward girl. Although this new reflection may appear confident, she still has the insecurities of the old reflection, buried inside her, that will never fully disappear. But she’ll never stop trying to overcome her self-doubt.
Allana Akhtar is an LSA senior and former senior news editor for The Michigan Daily.