Mirror, Mirror – Making sense of what I see in the reflection


I have a terrible habit of standing in front of full-length mirrors.

Mirrors are assholes.

Every time I’m in front of one, I feel like I must be looking at my ugly twin brother whom we keep in the attic. It’s like me, but it’s clearly not me. It’s bizarro Sam, what Sam would look like if he were disfigured, recovering from acid burns, and out of proportion.

Oh, and photos, photos are just digital mirrors, with the added horrible-ness of being shareable. And don’t even get me started on videos. Some real sick human thought thousands of photos in rapid succession would be a good idea. Each one of those things has the potential to reveal to the world how unattractive – nay, repellant – I actually am; any innocent Facebook post could virally take over the internet and become a cultural phenomenon, until I am forced to retreat to Alaska, never to be heard from again.

Some might say that it takes an incredible amount of low self-esteem and grandiosity to come up with that kind of irrational fear, but I could never warm up to a person who would think like that.

In other words, you won’t find many videos of me on social media.

I have a complicated relationship with reflective surfaces. We are not “friends.”

Well, that’s not always the case. There’s one specific face and stance combo I like to make in the mirror that I absolutely love, but a few people have caught me assuming this position and found it hilarious. It’s radically different from the expressions and body language I actually make in real life, which is maybe more like Mr. Bean than Mr. Bond.

The intention is supposed to be kind of a mix between Clint Eastwood and Daniel Craig. The ultimate not-to-be-fucked-with, devilishly handsome, badass gentleman, who can wear a suit like nobody’s business.

So, you know, pretty far off from actual me. I have big Bambi-like eyes that don’t exactly scream action hero. In fact, they scream “send money to the Humane Society.”

I don’t know where I picked up the belief that I had to be a certain level of pretty to be okay, and why the “okay” level was set so unobtainably higher than I actually am (I’m making that a word).

I must love the pain, because I don’t exactly avoid mirrors.

There’s something oddly seductive about thinking you’re an ugly piece of shit. It’s comfortable and safe. Nobody can knock you down if you’re already lying on the ground. Standing tall always means risking injury.

I’ve architected a set of aesthetic rules that only apply to me. They are the universal rules for Sam. I assume the whole world inherently knows them, and judges me according to its scale, and I must abide by them. For instance, I must put on some weight as soon as possible (unless it is one of those times when I need to lose weight).

I’ve never looked at a stranger and thought “Dear lord, sir, your nose is just unacceptable for society—please find the nearest cave and live the rest of your days in it.” But still, it somehow makes perfect sense that I shouldn’t look like this, that my eyes are, as a matter of fact, too big and protruding, like a crab.

There are similar facts applied to my ears, nose, jawline, entire skeletal structure, penis, wrists, knees, and hands, to name the biggest problem areas. 

I couldn’t tell you what I did last Friday, but I could tell you the first time some shitty kid made fun of my eyes. I remember the mind-blowing shock of it all, like I’d just been told the earth was flat, and I had to remap everything I thought I knew to make sense of this new information.  My mom had always said I was incredibly handsome, but she has failing vision and a lot of emotional problems.

Like many others, I picked up a lot of beliefs about myself in childhood. Kids can be cruel, and from the outside, it seems like some people make it through unscathed, as if they have a nice Teflon coating. Me though, I’m one of the overly sensitive wad-of-gum types. I had enough sticky surfaces to collect all the hairy junk in my path and the malleability to work it in deep inside, until sifting everything out seemed impossible. I belonged in the trash, or under your shoe.  Or desk.  Or car ashtray.  Whatever.

What I “should be” and what I “actually was” grew further apart, and as the two began battling in almost all aspects of my life, my physical appearance became a key battleground for them to duke it out.

Intellectually, “should” is a ridiculously arrogant concept. Should is the denial of reality, the belief that this absurd world, mostly out of our control, has an obligation to meet our ideals, or may someday if we try hard enough. Should is a lie.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I should look like Zack Efron, because seriously, trust me, I should. You’d like me more.

But there’s something worse than all the bad photos and videos and thoughts that suggest I may not actually look like Brad Pitt, and that is that I have lost the ability to actually see myself as I actually am. I went through a phase of bulking up, and gained 15 pounds of muscle. The tape measure said my arms were bigger, and my chest was wider, but when I looked in the mirror, I still saw the scared prepubescent boy.

There is no external offering I can make that satisfies my insecurities.

The mind is reality-bending. The mind bends truth. The mind is a story machine. It tells me the one thing that I believed as a child, that one thing that gives me any sense of, or shot at control:  the belief that I am defective.

Something funny started to happen when my life was flipped upside-down over a year ago. There wasn’t an abundance of energy to go around, so I had to pick and choose battles with myself. I was looking at the task of learning how to be a good partner to the right person one day (there was a lot of work to done) and being prettier wasn’t mentioned anywhere on any of the exit surveys.

So, in an accidental act of defiance to the rules of Sam, I dropped how I should look as one of my agenda items and the official new policy was “I have no opinion on the matter.” Previously, this would have been kryptonite to a self-righteous, opinionated contrarian like myself.

In the beginning, it was a bit like getting asked a controversial question at another family’s dinner table. I’d grit my teeth and cringe my way through “I have no opinion on the matter.”

I started getting tagged in photos because when friends would ask if they could post the photo, well, I had no opinion on the matter.

I eventually posted photos that included myself in the photo because I didn’t have to take an entire photo shoot to find one photo I could bare to represent myself.

One day being particularly impressed with how many things have to go right for the human body to work I even got “well made” tattooed across my knuckles. That day, my mom was the one with “no opinion on the matter.”

Coincidentally mirrors got awfully quiet, almost like inanimate objects. Their usual routine of picking me apart piece by piece in a voice that sounds surprisingly similar to my own was replaced with silence.

And sometimes, when it feels right, I’ll even break the new no opinion policy, and blurt out something nice about myself in the mirror and run away before it can respond.



  1. Oh, Sam. You are full of courage. I have thought of you as one of my grand-darlings (and I have dozens) ever since you were “Samwheel” and even earlier. Your Mom lives in my conscience, thankfully, daily. I think Zack Efron and/or Brad Pitt are not particularly handsome…unique, maybe, but nothing special. I will share you my grandmother’s thoughts on personal appearance: “She/He looks good out of his eyes”! As the oldest of 13, Grandma had lots of experience in seeing lots of human beauty, in all sizes and ages and conditions and I always knew of someone “looked good out of his eyes”, this was a person you’d want in your life. You are a father, son, nephew, maybe uncle, partner, friend and those who are important in your life see the good in you out of your eyes. Stay strong…love, given and received, creates beauty…you are gifted!

  2. Beautiful and heart-wrenching. You’ve articulated what can go on inside so many of us. Similar sad appraisals went on in my head in vague, nebulous ways. After years of struggle, I put a post-it on my mirror. It read, ‘I love you Ina; and you’re beautiful’. I said it to myself every day. After a year, it occurred to me spontaneously one day. The feeling of it crept in slowly and took over, living there now, more often than not.
    Thanks for your courage to share.

  3. Impressive! I’m older than your mom, never, never, ever look in mirrors and still think I’m an ugly piece of shit. The older I get, the less I care, but the belief remains firm (even though there is nothing else firm about me). I only wish I had your courage!

  4. I saw a famous, really good musician/singer/song writer on t.v. today whose songs I’d only ever heard on the radio. I’d never seen him before. He was pudgy, bright Raggedy Andy orange hair, bad skin, and with ugly glasses. I thought, “Whose this dweeb?” Then I listened to the deep, powerful, down right enlightened things he was saying and had my doors blown in. I found myself in awe of him and thought how cool it would be to be friends with someone like that. Suddenly, he was beautiful.

    But you, you’ve been beautiful from Day 1, Sam. Those Bambi eyes, as you call them, are the portals through which you take in this mess of Life, and like your dear mama, you will find the Good, the Love, the Divine. Keep looking, always.

    In those times of self-doubt, know that you have an invisible blanket of Love around you. I laid it over you when you were but an infant. It’s permanent.

  5. I can assure you that ten years from now you will see the photo and say “What the hell was I complaing about!”
    Just make sure there is nothing hanging from your nose.

  6. Your story is also my story. I struggle with my appearance because I think it defines who I am as a person. In a world that loves pretty, I am an outcast. But I am working on changing that narrative. Some days are better than others. Thanks for sharing your story Sam.

  7. Sam, “Operating Instructions” introduced me to your Mom when I had two toddlers. Oh, the difference that book – and she – made to my mothering and to me. Ever since I’ve had a real affection for you, I’ve been following your growth and cheering you on. My “boys” are in their 30s now and I know struggle and survival start with the same letter. Parenting is the ride of a lifetime and I’ve blessed Annie for showing me what courage and love and patience look like. I bless you too, Sam, each moment of your journey: “traveling mercies!”

  8. I am 68, I see pictures of myself during different ages of my life and wonder how come I didn’t know how cute I was? People always told me I was…but what do they know? Now I tell my younger friends, nieces and nephews etc to enjoy who they are and what they look like now..appreciate your beauty and quit focusing on your flaws. Look for the Good..you will find it. If you look for the shit, you will find that too. It just really depends on where you put your focus. Looking at the sky will bring more joy than paying attention to the crap. Being ok is an inside job and you get to decide how you want to feel…every day! Much Love to you, Sam. None of us is perfect, yet we can all learn to be happy!

  9. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.

  10. Love this piece. Really. My favorite phrase “should is a ridiculously arrogant concept” Being a classroom teacher for 30 years forces one to be all up in the business of how other humans “should” look when they appear at school each day. Some guidelines are reasonable; but far too many of the rules exacerbate those frail self images. I hope lots and lots of those kids see this piece.

  11. Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to generate a top notch article… but what can I say… I put things off
    a whole lot and never manage to get anything done.


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