Self/Reflection is a week of stories on the Cut about how we feel, versus how we look.
It used to be that if you wanted to find out what you really looked like, you had to go downtown to the Pink Pony Café, where the mirror in the restroom was non-reversing. The experience was lightly hallucinatory at best, and you’d leave after staring three minutes too long, having immediately forgotten what you saw. Now, many of us can navigate to our Facebook and Instagram pages, and scroll through our tagged photos — a library of likenesses. In the aggregate, these make something like a composite sketch, a grotesque approximation of what’s impossible to capture in two dimensions.
What we look like should theoretically be easier to grasp than ever, but what we sense of ourselves and how we perform our appearance has grown more complicated than ever in the age of social media. It’s enough to warrant an updated edition of the sociologist Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, with a foreword from Kim Kardashian. The Cut asked five different women to answer the question, “Do you feel like you look like yourself?” Scroll down for their answers.
Sara Kate Wilkinson
At 19, I started going prematurely gray, like the other women in my mother’s family, and I could not have been more pleased. I had spent all my time since middle school trying to look older, more interesting, more sophisticated, and a noticeable streak of silver at my temple looked just like me. When I was 26, my weight and dress size were at an all-time low, and I smoked a ton of cigarettes and ate nothing at all and barely slept. I was pointy and stringy and dramatic then, and I looked it, but I didn’t look very much like myself. Late last summer, I was very fat and unemployed and anxious, and I didn’t put on makeup or pants with a zipper for ten weeks straight. The resemblance to me was pretty startling, but it wasn’t me, it was just a doppelgänger, which is an illusion and a lie and is supposed to scare you.
I look like my mom did at my age, and that is what I really look like; anyone could tell you that. I look least like myself reflected in the elevator doors at my office; I don’t look bad, precisely, but I think my hair is actually shorter than this, and my natural resting face is not so distracted, and I’d never carry that insulated lunch bag. I actually look quite a bit like Jami Gertz in The Lost Boys, except in my eye color and hair and skin tone and wardrobe and mirror. That is what I look like in my purest form, though, I bet.
I look like myself in my single set of selfie nudes, taken at exactly the right angle, in exactly the right light. They are very good pics of a mouth and chin in a burgundy camisole, my tits having been carefully removed from my armpits and set where they belong. That was four years and 45 pounds ago, but that’s still what I look like; I just don’t look like it. It’s baffling. I look like my gorgeous self when I flirt with my own reflection in the mirror behind a restaurant bar. When I accidentally open my front-facing camera I don’t look like myself at all, at all, at all. I used to look like myself in Blackest Black eyeliner, but now I look more like myself in Blackish Brown.
On Instagram I am usually a woman with a messy ponytail and very pink cheeks, one earbud in, one dangling, lip tint and sunglasses on, standing by a creek or a fence or an interesting tree, deep in the woods 1,200 feet from a highway. Occasionally I am a driving selfie, fully made up and on my way somewhere, in perfect natural light with freshly brushed hair and a seatbelt carving up my look. Very rarely I am a sloppy middle-aged aunt with visibly gray roots and disproportionately large hips, but still instantly recognizable because the little blonde girl in the picture with me is so consistently perfect. Those women all look exactly like me. So do the power-line towers, and the elaborate cheese plate, and the jigsaw puzzle in progress. Just lately I think that I look like myself in every picture.
On Sunday mornings I look like myself, only eight years from now. I can usually fix that by 9 a.m.
The driving force of my relationship with myself is that of tension and unresolved conflict. I’m a trans woman and — ahem, As A Trans Woman, dysphoria is a constant. Like placing a bookmark in a memoir mid-chapter. How could I possibly feel like I look like myself when almost every woman I interact with looks more like me than I’ll ever look? They didn’t even have to work for it. It drives me mad.
If I operate under the notion that my body never has, nor will it ever, be what I want, then all of the pressure will be gone. I wouldn’t strive for anything. There’d be no goal to attain. I’d just be me, whoever that is, alone. But I met someone and, for now, I no longer feel estranged from my own body. I’m not looking for the ending, projecting dysphoria, or trying to protect myself. It’s just me, with her.
On our fifth date, she came back to my apartment in Brooklyn and we split a bottle of Bordeaux that I had saved for a special occasion. She has this way of making the mundane feel special. While resting on the couch, she told me all about her day — including the bit about the cat she had reluctantly adopted, and I talked, in detail, about the plot of Moonlight, which we had seen together on our fourth date.
There was something about that moment that felt so calm, natural, and pure. Like I could trust her. I slid into my bedroom and closed the door so that I could change and put on a piece of see-through black lingerie that I always hoped to one day wear for someone who deserved the intimacy of my body. When I stepped backed into the room, I could see the rhythm of her heart dance to a faster time signature. When she laid me down, I felt how I looked.
On one hand, I’m so frustrated that it took another person to help me feel like myself. But on the other, and arguably more important hand, I’m just so thankful it finally happened.
I can’t really see myself in a mirror. I don’t mean that I don’t like to, I mean I don’t actually see a person. I see a checklist, for grooming: Stray hairs? Clean face? Blemishes? Lumps and bumps? Check. I even have one of those magnifying mirrors you find in hotels, the ones that show you every clogged pore and weird vein. I like having all the information, so Things Can Be Addressed. But my mirror is for inspection, not observation. To observe myself, I have to turn to photos, and, historically, having my picture taken infuriates me.
I recognize myself in baby and toddler photos, because they do capture my essence: Plump, intense, burning a hole through the lens. I look like you’re wasting my time, which is accurate. Early childhood is good too, because it’s mostly photos of me and my baby brother, my face shining with obsessive love, as I squeeze him breathless.
From about age 10 to 30, I don’t know what I look like. Those photos are a waste of a good face. We moved a lot, and while most of my childhood memories are blissful, I’m documented as uncomfortable and grumpy, throughout. Furious in Florence. Pissy in Paris. Bored in Berlin. And college! My friends, unfortunately, were the type to carry cameras everywhere, and they have a trove of party pics that hopefully are not digital. For about 20 years then, I look angry and mean. And to be honest, I was angry and mean. I can’t explain why, I was just trying some things out, and it was deeply unpleasant for everyone. So technically the pictures from that period DO look like me, but not the me I want to have been.
I’m not sure anyone captured me smiling, on film, until my wedding, at 31. I was never one of those girls who had any fantasies about marriage, but I did luck into pairing up with someone who has made me a better person. He also gently nudged me to find a job I actually liked, so my life improved on all fronts in my 30s. The photos of me when I was pregnant, had a baby, even the terrible postpartum-crying-jag days — I start to recognize myself, and despite the sleeplessness, despite the lingering depression, I see that I’m turning into the person I’d like to be.
As a child, I decided that when I became myself, my hair would be green, my nose would be pierced, and I would have no period, no tits, no ass. On my 15th birthday, someone would want to sleep with me, and when we finished he would propose. That’s what happened to my mother, who looks nothing like me. I was convinced she had been given the wrong baby at the hospital, or worse, that she had taken me away from my real mother, my spitting image.
I didn’t believe in a god, so I approached my body like a shrine. Before school, I laced my hair with green paint, and during class I bent paper clips into loops and twisted them around random pinches of skin —eyebrow, cheek, elbow. I had two boyfriends, whom I sang to daily. They didn’t know about each other, and it didn’t matter. They were two halves of a future person, the one I hoped to love, and then forsake, and then regard politely as a friend.
Becoming an adult is awful, mostly because it means having to reconcile the fantasy of your grown-up self with the terror of physical growth. By the time I realized that I had no tits, I was spending the entirety of my allowance on push-up bras, and when my period didn’t arrive, not even after the doctor prescribed a pill that “would make a banana bleed,” I became consumed with the anxiety that my body could not shelter life.
The first person I kissed, who was white, asked if I was Latina. When I said no, he said he planned to count me as Latina anyway. The first person I loved, who was not white, referred to me in his head as his “black bitch” — he couldn’t help himself. Eventually I left him and began seeing my boss. I was the intern, but in the dream of his life I was the wife.
Since before I had a memory, people have told me how much I looked like my mother. When I was very small, this made me proud: My mother was very beautiful, tiny frame, blonde hair, blue eyes. I had none of that. I was tall and lanky for a child, dishwater hair, muddy, indistinguishable eyes that were sometimes called “brn” and sometimes “haz” on my driver’s license. As I grew up, and my mother grew into somebody whom I had great cause to disagree with, I came to dislike being constantly reminded that we “looked so much alike it’s almost creepy.” What I took away from this was: I have someone else’s face.
But as I went out into the world on my own as a teenager, I began to hear, not that I looked like my mother, but always like someone else. With my hair cut short I was someone’s kid brother trying to buy smokes at the convenience store. With my hair dyed red, I often heard that I looked, variously, like either Ally Sheedy or Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club. Both were compliments often said with the tone of an insult. Whom I resemble depended very much on the age and the context of the teller. I have been told I look like the French actress Léa Seydoux, and the English actress who plays Queen Elizabeth on The Crown.
On the evening of my tenth wedding anniversary, suffering from pneumonia and a cancelled night at the opera, my husband and I went to a Best Buy in Manhattan to get a cord that would enable us to watch Stranger Things in our expensive hotel room. The cashier, a handsome young man, pointed at me, and asked, “Is she famous? Who is she?” Two months ago at the gas station, a man in his late 50s stopped me to tell me I looked “just like” his friend from college who was a big deal real-estate broker in Las Vegas. The lesson was clear: I am in possession of a vague face, one that looks like, sometimes, many different women, none of whom look like one another, all of whom are far more beautiful than myself.
This past month, I had to have author photos taken for my book. I tried to avoid this for as long as I could, knowing that I would inevitably be disappointed with the results. And I was. I sent them to my editor, who called me right away to say, “This doesn’t look like you.” And I agreed. The woman in the photos had someone else’s face. The second time, we got it right. It is, perhaps, the first photo of myself I have ever seen where I thought immediately, This looks just like me.
I was overjoyed, not because I looked beautiful, but because I looked like me. My husband, my editor, my father, my brothers, my friends, all agreed: I looked like myself, which was all that we’d wanted. I posted the photo on Facebook, where I am mostly friends with distant family members: second cousins, aunts, people I’ve known since I was 4. A woman I remember holding me tightly in a swimming pool when I was no older than my daughter is now messaged me privately to say, “Zelda looks just like you.” Zelda is my daughter. The torch has been passed.