They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but the photos I found the other night left me speechless (and rather sick to my stomach).
No, I didn't stumble across images of violence and graphic porn on the Internet or anything like that. What I found in an all-but-forgotten box I tucked away long-ago were old pictures of me. Images taken years before I finally left my marriage. Photos taken of me in my former life. And let me tell you, they seriously startled me.
The difference between how I look now compared to how I looked then stopped me dead in my tracks.
(Ohmygosh, is that me?!) I look awful. I'm buried under shapeless layers of plain, dowdy clothing. I'm wearing that damn dumpy baseball cap that I remember throwing on nearly every day. My hair is styled in an unflattering, chopped-to-my-chin cut that I actually proudly referred to as my "Ramona Quimby, Age 8" look. (What kind of grown woman patterns her haircut after an 8-year-old children's book character?) And then, there are my glasses, which I referred to as "my safety goggles" (how telling). I hid behind those metal frames like they were battle armor. Sure, I did technically need glasses to see street signs and to read, but if I'm honest, they were a symbol of everything I was trying not see in my life. And since the glasses prevented anyone from looking directly into my eyes, I know I wore them so no one could see how dead I felt inside.
I was in an unhappy, nearly sexless marriage back then, one in which I felt small, un-cherished, unprotected, and incredibly lonely all the time.
Was my ex-husband a terrible person? Nope. Quite the opposite. He was Mr. Boy-Next-Door Nice Guy, but we met when we were young, too young to understand what a terrible match we made. We had zero chemistry or true love connection, but for 18 years we were both just too scared, too polite, and too responsible to admit it (to ourselves and to each other). So, I lived my life devoid of passion and intimate connection. As a result, everything that might have been bright and beautiful about me was hidden. It was all numbed out, stuffed down, and locked away. I was a hollow woman walking through life with my inner light turned off. Both my self-worth and my vibrancy lay dormant (much like my body, buried deep underneath my dowdy appearance and layers of shapeless clothes).
I have to tell you, looking at those old photos of myself was downright painful. My stomach churned and tears filled my eyes as I stared at this girl I barely recognized as myself. Sure, you might look at the photos and simply think, "Dang, girl! You were rocking some seriously Plain Jane anti-style in that old life." But what I see now as I gaze at this version of myself from a life escaped years ago, this dowdy girl in a cap and glasses, is that my outward appearance was actually a spot-on barometer for what was going on in my inner world. And I am so sad for that girl in the photo. My heart breaks for her –for the me hidden inside – and I cried for us both, finally, after all these years .
Neither my 'look' nor my life was particularly pretty.
After staring uneasily at the old photos awhile, I pulled out some recent ones for a little compare and contrast action. The difference between the unhappily married me and the me of today was startling. Somewhere along the way a serious transformation occurred. Honestly, I never even realized it was happening. It was an accidental makeover that changed me from the inside out.
I didn't experience dramatic weight loss, change my diet radically, or start Botoxing anything, yet I look almost like a completely different person. How did that even happen? And that's when it hit me, my outer looks changed because I powerfully transformed how I feel inside.
So often, after a divorce or major life transition, "experts" tell us to change our outside (to work out, buy new clothes, and update our makeup) in order to magically shift our insides (improving self-confidence and our sense of happiness and well-being). To me, that felt like jumping through hoops to win external approval in a new world that I honestly was afraid to be a part of, so I did the opposite.
I turned my attention deeply inward and started waking up the sleepy, dormant parts of myself. As I did, I started blossoming and my outer appearance slowly, organically transformed. Thinking back on the journey now, I remember three distinct shifts I made in myself that made my profound makeover anything but accidental.
1. I Got In Touch With My Feminine Side
I'll confess, all things "feminine" were entirely foreign to me before I started my new life. I had always been known for being reliable, responsible, and unfailingly competent. But after ending my marriage, I also wanted to know what it might feel like to be sweet, lovely, and darling for awhile. The first thing I started changing was … my underwear. I made a rule that I could only buy beautiful or adorable panties. They never cost any more than buying the plain ol' boring kind, but I found that something about that subtle indulgence changed the way I started to carry myself.
Then I started buying sweet little cotton slips and things to wear around the house. I work from home, so frequently I go days without anyone seeing me. But I still see me! And I figured the day might feel a tad more special if I did something special for myself. And so "pretty little things" snuck their way into my house. As it turns out, you can still be responsible and competent in a Pink cotton slip while sipping tea from a quaint teacup with Yann Tiersen playing in the background.
2. I Discovered Interests Of My Own
I have no idea what my interests and hobbies were in my old life. I honestly don't remember having any. Even when I try to think of songs I listened to while I was in my marriage, it's really bizarre. I was so numbed that I don't even remember what music I listened to back then.
An incredible delight in my new life has been discovering my true interests: a deep and swoony love for great art and independent film, a passion for creative community projects, and (much to my genuine surprise) an obsessive fascination with science. It turns out I am beautifully interesting. And interested.
3. I Pushed My Comfort Zones
If I had to sum my old life up in a single phrase I would say 'suffocatingly safe and small.' I took no risks. I tried nothing that made me feel uncomfortable. As soon as I separated from my husband, I started saying yes to the boundary-pushing indulgences of small adventures. I went tandem skydiving (only to find out it's not for me and that I much prefer hang-gliding). I started a blog to put my writing out into the world. I went to New York for the first time and learned to navigate the city alone by (semi-successfully) riding the subway. I even took up running for a year (a big challenge for an entirely un-athletic woman like me). Not to run a marathon or to hit any goal around it. I just wanted to see if I could do it. So I did.
I won't lie; after leading a life that incredibly small before, every single new thing I tried terrified the hell out of me. But with each new challenge I faced, my confidence grew.
And now here I am today. As I look at the transformation that is evident in this side-by-side view of the me from my old life versus the me you see now, I have to tell you, I don't remember when I decided to grow my hair this long or to style it in waterfall waves. I also don't remember when my fashion sensibility changed. I just know that in my old life, I felt bland and numb and asexual. And so I styled myself in the same bland and uninspiring and entirely unsexy way that I felt. Now I feel lovely, creative, curious, and even a little bit brave … inside. And when I look at photos of myself today, I see those attributes shining out from my wide-open, sparkling eyes.
Did I get prettier somehow along the way?
I can honestly say opinions (yours or even mine) on my physical appearance don't really matter in the slightest. What I do know is that the light is finally turned on inside me now. My vibrance is activated. I feel better. And a woman happy and alive inside herself is always, always beautiful.
So take a good look at yourself. Pry away your safety goggles and really check yourself out. How do you look? Are you hiding? If so, it might be time for a makeover of your own, the kind that starts with plugging into your life, shining your light, and showing yourself some love.