Her Face

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By Abi Bechtel | Twitter: @abianne

L_Abi

I’ve been wearing her face my entire life.

Even before she died, people used to tell me: “Oh, you look so much like your mom!” I’ve never been quite sure what my response is supposed to be: Thank you? Once she died it became my job to wear her face around, to perpetuate my mother’s nose, her cheekbones, the way she laughed from deep inside herself, the way she stroked the rough skin of her elbow when she was thinking.

She was thirty-three when her body first betrayed her, when the lump formed in her breast. The breast was removed and replaced with a flat pink scar, but not before the lump sent cells scattering out into her bones, eating away at the infrastructure of her body like termites. Now I am nearly thirty-three, and I wonder if something is waiting inside me, if my body will betray me too. My mother looks at me from behind my cheekbones in the mirror as I examine myself braless, feeling for lumps, trying to imagine the shape of myself without my breasts, flat pink scars on my chest.

***

After she died, when I was outgrowing all my own clothes and no one thought to buy me new ones, I began wearing hers.

During lunch period a girl in the middle school cafeteria asked me: “Does your mother dress you?”

“My mother is dead,” I spat, holding the tragedy like a shield. I was wearing my mother’s black stirrup pants and her button-down blouse with cars printed on it. I was twelve years old and dressed like I was thirty-seven.

But it was becoming clear that I was not shaped like my mother. She was tall and willowy, thin even before the cancer, but I was growing a curved, rounded, cartoon body unlike anything she had ever worn. Her clothes began to pull and bunch oddly around my figure.

After she died, I stopped brushing my hair. She had always worn her brown hair in a short, tidy pixie cut, until the chemo made it fall out and covered her scalp with colorful scarves. My hair was blond and nearly waist-length. She used to pull it back into french braids and side ponytails and decorate it with barrettes with ribbons hot-glued to them. After she died I let it snarl itself into a thick mat of tangles.

One day a grandmotherly woman from my church came over and spent an afternoon and half a bottle of conditioner slowly, gently working apart the knots with a comb. After that my dad took me to a beauty shop and had the stylist cut my hair in a shoulder-length bob while I wept.

I didn’t look like myself anymore. I didn’t look like anyone.

***

At family reunions and funerals, people tell me I look like her, even though she has been dead for fifteen years, and I mumble thank you and cringe and look at the floor. I am twenty-five and I weigh three hundred pounds. I have betrayed her long neck and her collarbones and her smile, wrapped them in a layer of someone who looks nothing like her. I wear the sort of clothes she would have worn: cotton t-shirts silk-screened with watercolor flowers, decorated with glittering rhinestones; tasteful, conservative dresses in pastel shades. I feel like I am playing dress-up.

I feel the weight of her legacy on me, the obligation to keep her alive in my skin. And I feel the guilt, the sorrow, of letting her down, of never being able to live up to her.

***

Time passes. I stumble onto the fat-acceptance movement. I begin learning that my worth is not tied to my fatness or thinness. I begin seeing the diversity of shapes and colors and genders and abilities of all the humans around me as vital, sacred pieces of the multifaceted image of God.

I make peace with my size. I begin to see my body as adequate. A long time later, I see it as good.

I stop dieting. I purge my closet of pastels and watercolor florals. I buy clothes that feel like they are mine: a hot pink dress printed with ice-cream cones, earrings shaped like octopus tentacles, galaxy-print leggings. I mostly don’t see her in the mirror anymore, and I’ve stopped looking for her. Mostly, I see me.

***

And then, this winter, I cut my hair short. Now, suddenly, there she is — I catch her out of the corner of my eye when I walk past a window, or find her peering at me in the mirror in the shape of my eyebrows and cheekbones when I’m taking my makeup off before bed. It’s a little unnerving, honestly, catching her there watching me wipe off my mascara and brush my teeth. All of it comes settling back into my shoulders: The shame that my body has betrayed her, encased her in fat; the fear that my body will betray me, too, the way my mother’s body betrayed her.

But this time, I am fighting back. This body is hard-won territory, and it is mine. This face belongs to me.

I plant flags, staking out the borders of my self: a piercing through one eyebrow, a tattoo on my arm. Things my mother would never do to her body. I do them not to spite her, but to proclaim: I have marked this face and this body as mine, and they are beautiful. I look in the mirror and it’s a lenticular picture: I turn my head back and forth and the image changes, from me to her to me again.

“You look just like your mother,” someone tells me, and I smile and say, “Thank you,” because I do look like my mother. But especially, I look like myself. My tattoo and my piercing make my face and body mine, and I am no longer ashamed that I have betrayed her. Instead, I am glad to carry her with me.

Come in, I tell her. This is my home. There is plenty of room. You are welcome here. Come in, come in.

____________________

About Abi:

Abi_BechtelAbi Bechtel is a grad student, wife, and mom of three living in Akron, Ohio. She blogs sporadically at http://adiposerex.wordpress.com and tweets about feminism, church, fat activism, and her cats as @abianne. She has a tattoo of Ursula the Sea Witch and the fashion sense of Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus.

__________________

Image credit: Jody Morris

 

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  • Stunning, stunning, stunning, Abi. Love your words here and your story. My hubby’s mom passed away when she was 40 and my sis-in-law hears this quite often, so your post is particularly poignant over here.

  • This is so beautiful, Abi! Thank you for pouring your heart out to share with us.

  • My daughter hears that a lot, especially if we’re standing together, and I wonder how that makes her feel. She smiles graciously, and I love it but….I like how you’ve come to terms with it by welcoming her into your home. Beautiful integration.

  • Ahhh, I needed this. <3 And kinda wonder if I pierced my nose for a subconsciously similar reason.

  • Chalcea Malec

    Powerful words, shared ever so respectfully. Oh my goodness. Thank-you.

  • Amy Hunt

    Abi, I have chills reading your story because though our stories are very different, I see how kindred we all are. I recently had a very candid conversation with my mom in which I was affirmed that none of us get out of this world without body image and identity issues. It wasn’t until the past few years that I’ve realized my mother has a darkened corner of her heart around this, too, even though her body is one I tried to have, like you did with your mother. I’m learning to accept me, as I am. And I have such joy that wells in my heart when I see others in the process, too. It’s hard to accept our imperfections and to start to consider that we’re “perfectly imperfect, as we are” — yet, I think that’s the stuff real worship is made of. So, I’m with you, sister . . . I’m here to say, I get you and you’re not alone. Hoping that with each passing day your heart becomes ever stronger to discover and accept yourself as simply: YOU.

    • Thanks, Amy. It’s so strange to think of the people we admire and strive to look like having their own insecurities and body image issues, isn’t it? My mother never communicated hers to me, for which I’m grateful, but I can’t imagine she didn’t have them, too. We’re none of us alone in this.

  • Monica

    Love this, Abi! I look exactly like my mother and I hear it all the time. She too died of cancer and I always felt that I had her spirit within me. For years I have lived feeling that I was responsible for looking out for my siblings and making sure I was always there for them like my mother would have been. This has been hard on me as I have struggled with being responsible while also trying to live my life. I can only do one or the other. Just last week I had a vision of my mother’s spirit leaving me, making room for me to be who I am. Now I am learning to do what I long to do all while releasing everything and everyone I thought I was responsible for but am not.
    Thank you for sharing how you are discovering who you are. Have fun!

    • That’s a beautiful image, Monica, of your mother giving you the room to be yourself. Thank you for sharing it.

  • Sarah Joslyn

    Abi, this is incredible. That’s it. Just incredible. And I’m so grateful to have met the woman behind these amazing words. Thank you for sending this in to us.

  • Bethany Olsen

    Abi, this is stunning. Absolutely gorgeous story, and brilliant writing. I love the way you wove together your story of grief and body acceptance, and the way you described reclaiming your body as your own, and “staking out the borders of yourself.” I am in the process of saying goodbye to the parent I’m most like too, alongside of learning body acceptance, and it rings very true to me that there’s a strong connection between the two. Thank you for sharing this!

    • Thanks, Bethany. I’m so sorry for your loss-in-progress.

  • michelle lucio

    This is wildly beautiful. Wow. It resonates with me in that I, too, look like my mother and how in many ways after my parents’ divorce, it held me hostage against myself and was used as a weapon. A thousand thank yous for writing this and revealing that it doesn’t have to be a liability, and that there is still infinite space for me to grow into who I am.

    • “Held me hostage against myself” — YES, well said.

  • Oh, mercy. I am shattered by this. By the progression of it, the flow. By the relatability of it, to which my own growing-up experience testifies.
    This is a coming of age story, Abi. And you? You are the adult here, leading us to wholeness. Thank you, friend.

  • Anne-Marie

    Hi Abi, and thank you so much for sharing this tender part of your heart and place in your life, and the long process of moving forward. My parents were non-functional alcoholics. As I get to the same age – I keep seeing my mom- giving up on life and sitting there in the chair the rest of her days. Sooo tough to step away from these things, and not feel the same when I’m living and writing and doing positive things, but inside my house. What a great post. Blessings!

  • Abi, this is spectacular, just spectacular. Thank you: ““You look just like your mother,” someone tells me, and I smile and say, “Thank you,” because I do look like my mother. But especially, I look like myself. My tattoo and my piercing make my face and body mine, and I am no longer ashamed that I have betrayed her. Instead, I am glad to carry her with me.” As a mom of two adopted girls who lost their biological mom to cancer, it makes me think about how they see themselves… how to help them see their unique identity, value, purpose. Thanks for your story.

  • sarahoverthemoon

    <3

  • Really really really beautiful. I like reading the things you have to say.

  • pastordt

    This is just OUTSTANDING. So beautifully written, so poignant, so totally believable. Thank you so very, very much. I want to read your story as it continues to unfold because you are a remarkable person. And a gorgeous writer.

  • Those words, “you look just like your mother,” are so bittersweet to me now, after hearing them for my whole life. It was always a point of pride for me when my mother was alive, but now it’s hard to look in the mirror everyday and wonder if my body will betray me the way hers did, and to be okay with my body as it is. This post resonates on such a deep level, friend. Still brings tears to me eyes, and I’ve read it about a dozen times since you sent it in a couple months ago. You are such an incredible writer, Abi, and even more than that – an incredible woman. So grateful to know you. <3

  • Abi, this piece is so important. I just don’t even know what to say. Thank you.

    • Carmen

      Pretty much, that.

  • CourtneyD

    This is so beautiful Abi. Thank you for sharing!

  • Bev Murrill

    Brilliant writing Abi. I didn’t know whether to smile or cry at times, but you’ve done well dealing with some tough stuff! Good on you!

  • beautiful, Abi!

  • Erin Wilson

    (off topic, but I popped over to your blog…and I love the way you engage with the world. I love the way you’re raising your boys. And love the way you make space for others.)

  • CDub30

    Oh my gosh. Seriously? these words and the way you have strung them together are magic. Thank you for trusting us with your story.

  • Leslie

    Wow this is so powerful, I love how you were able to become your own person and still love that you resemble your mother. I think your haircut in your picture is quite beautiful. Have you ever thought about coloring it? I think you would look powerful with a bright and stunning hair color, like pink. Something that says I am woman and I own who I am! It’s a color men and companies force on us, but I say we make it ours again and wear it out loud. I think you look amazing the way you are, I just was wondering if you ever thought about a bright pink and powerful hair color.

  • Abi, this is beautiful. Truly. “…staking out the borders of my self.” Important perspective on piercings, tattoos and all personal image choices I’d never considered. Made me think some deep thoughts. Thank you for this.

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