I went to New York last weekend to meet with the incoming and outgoing executive teams of Mochi magazine, where I have somehow found myself as editor in chief. Besides my standard imposter syndrome (I’ve never taken a single journalism, marketing, or business class, I can count my published bylines on one hand, and I still have no concrete idea what I’m doing with my life), this trip to New York brought up new anxieties.
I felt like a hillbilly not knowing how to navigate public transit or book an Uber. My mental browser tabs multiplied in the days before departure. Would my family be clothed and fed sufficiently in my absence? Was I prepared for all weather possibilities? Where did I need to be when and how was I going to get there? (I think l understand now why my parents were so irritable on our family vacations. There are just so many things to keep straight when keeping yourself and your offspring alive in an unfamiliar environment!)
I fixated on my wardrobe as a way to manufacture a sense of control.
That wasn’t particularly confidence-inspiring either. I don’t have any post-baby weight to speak of, though a variety of things are not quite where left them. Style was the issue, rather than size. Over the last three years I have rather gleefully traded my professional blouses and trousers for a variety of stretchy, machine washable, somewhat ambiguous tops and bottoms. (Tunic or dress? Leggings or “slim fit pants”? They’re all fairly interchangeable.) These work well enough for my home office and preschool drop-off, but I didn’t really want to wear them in front of journalism and marketing professionals. Particularly since they were all from civilized cities and had not pushed 10-centimeter baby heads through any of their orifices.
I threw the wardrobe question up on Instagram with three outfits. While everyone was kind and constructive with their opinions, this exercise stirred up a surprising amount of insecurity in me.
Somewhat ironically, I was afraid of looking old and dowdy but also reverting to the negative self-image of my adolescence.
I’ve never felt confident about my style. Influenced by the purity movement (and maybe just taking myself way too seriously), I wore Talbot’s instead of Limited Too when I was in middle school. I spent college in t-shirts and jeans, then went back to 40-year-old soccer mom when I became a teacher. A large part of my fashion dilemmas came from being uncomfortable in my body. (Thanks again, purity culture.) I have never been objectively overweight, nor am I noticeably taller than the general population. But among Asian American teens in the early 90s, I was something of an anomaly. At 5’6″ with a C cup, my figure was positively Amazonian.
If you think I’m kidding, I hope this picture demonstrates what I mean.
I also just generally felt out of place among people my age because it was my job as a teenager to feel misunderstood. All of this led me to dress about twenty years older than I actually was.
Fifteen years later, of course, I’m starting to fear age for the first time, particularly in front of the camera. Asian may not raisin, but I’ve had gray hair since my early twenties. The graying process has only accelerated since becoming a parent, of course. Then there’s makeup, about which I am also perennially clueless. Besides a short-lived and ill-advised stint as a Mary Kay consultant, I have never bothered to do my makeup regularly. Because I have always been blessed with excellent facial skin, makeup was a lower priority insecurity than clothing. So while I was sometimes self-conscious about my sparse eyelashes and monolids, I was also too lazy to do anything about it. Not blaming anyone but myself here. Just saying.
So I brought all this baggage with me to New York, despite packing quite lightly physically.
Everyone I worked with was amazing. (Funny what not being in middle school anymore does to healthy personalities!) And I wasn’t even the oldest person in the room. I did start feeling geriatric when we met with some college-age staff writers for drinks and appetizers, but that was probably just because I’d been working all day and 7:30 pm is approaching bedtime. When I saw group photos from this part of the evening, though, I exploded laughing. Looming 4-6 inches above everyone else, I looked like nothing less than a suburban mom taking her teenage daughters to the mall.
My fellow editors claimed not to see the motherhood, and maybe they didn’t. But I couldn’t unsee it. I don’t really have a huge problem with looking ten years older than someone in college. One of my main motivations for pursuing the EIC position at Mochi was to elevate the Asian American voices and presence that would have been so helpful to me when I was younger. I came in expecting to be something of a big sister if not a full-blown auntie. Mostly I found it hilarious that the the one person in the photo who is a mom just looks like a mom.
Our individual head shots provoked another round of self-deprecation. Asian faces often lack the deep shadows and sharp angles idealized by western beauty. This fullness keeps us looking young, but can be hard to reconcile against carved cheekbones and sharp jawlines. When my executive editor, a highly accomplished and fun human being, lamented her “quadruple chin,” I resisted the urge to just utter some platitude about inner beauty. Instead, I empathized, shared things I was insecure about, and pointed out how we are always drawn to our least favorite features. (And how the extremely bright lighting wasn’t doing anyone any favors.)
Over the years of struggling with my own body image and self esteem, I’ve learned that it’s often ineffective to explicitly deny someone’s perception of themselves, however distorted you may think it is.
That often just makes them feel more unseen or like they should be hiding more of their true self. It’s uncomfortable to watch someone hate themselves. I get it. But you can’t make it go away anyway. So try sitting with them in their discomfort; your presence and empathy may do more than words ever can. /soapbox
After my trip, I interrogated my insecurity. In many ways, my confidence has risen manifold over the last ten years. My diplomas say summa cum laude! I married a smart, loving, handsome man and have managed not to scare him off! Look at this adorable and reasonably well-adjusted little human that I made from scratch and haven’t broken yet! Ten years ago, this was literally all I wanted from life. But lifelong doubts are hard to shake. Often, they just change form.
Objectively, my body looks much as it did pre-baby. I can wear the same clothes, including a blue top I’ve had since sophomore year of high school. (And apparently worn in every single school picture ever since.)
I am as physically fit as I was before I got pregnant and just as athletically challenged. (Some things REALLY never change.) My thin privilege is firmly in place and I recognize that.
But I think part of mom bod angst comes from mental changes as well as physical. Sure, motherhood deflates boobs and widens hips, packs bags under eyes and pulls out hair. But even if your physical body “bounces back,” you can’t escape the fact that your body, your time, your life don’t belong only to you any more. You literally have someone else’s cells permanently living in your body. Your mind is always in at least two places at once and almost never on yourself. The instinct to keep another human being alive never fully shuts off even when the only other people around you are fully capable of wiping their own butts and chewing their own food. Where are the bathrooms? Where are the exits? I’m going to save these napkins in my purse. Did I bring a snack for everyone?
I honestly think that the mental load of mothers shows up in our faces and bodies. Not always as wrinkles or cellulite (though who cares if it does), but just in some mysterious kind of responsibility that somehow shows up in photographs. When I compare myself to women whose bodies are solely their own, it’s hard not to feel careworn and frazzled. But that’s just reality. I can’t pretend I love it all the time, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything either. Okay, maybe springier boobs. But that’s all.
Featured Image photo credit: Lucas Hoeffel