Most parents don’t realize how much their own self-worth gets impressed upon their children. Growing up, my mother hated her appearance — she was overly critical of every wrinkle, every fold, every age spot. She would poke and prod at her perceived imperfections, leering into the mirror every morning and bemoaning each “flaw.” When she would notice an errant zit or ingrown hair, she would stop everything she was doing to “fix” it, which translated to digging at her skin with a pair of sharpened silver tweezers.
To me, she was nothing short of beautiful: her dark hair hung long and straight around her waist, and her face was angled like a cat. I’d always hoped I would look like her when I got older. When I confessed this to her, she immediately dismissed me, never breaking eye contact with herself as she stared at her reflection and fussed over her make-up.
“Trust me," she said, more to her own reflection than to me. "You don’t want to look like your mother, Rebecca. You should find someone pretty to admire instead.”
“Mom," I replied quietly. "You are pretty.”
“You’re eight years old, sweetheart — you don’t know any better.”
My mother was so critical of her own appearance that it became an obsession that shaped the fabric of our household. I internalized the instinct completely, and as I grew up and began developing the same perceived flaws that I’d learned to hate, I began to fixate on them with just as much vitriol.
It started small, as these things usually do — a smattering of whiteheads had appeared across my chin on the morning of Picture Day, and my young teenage heart was shattered as my mother took one look at me and shook her head in pity.
“You’ll want to do something about those.”
She watched as I spent fifteen minutes leaning over the bathroom counter, my stomach digging into the hard metal of the sink’s faucet while my fingers worked quickly at each zit. My face was red, irritated, and bloody, and it looked even worse than it had when I woke up.
Panicked, I remember turning to my mother and pleading that she “help me fix it.” With the practiced and measured gestures of a surgeon, she wiped my face and patted my skin with thick makeup foundation and puffs of powder. Without even turning me to the mirror to examine her work, she gently lead me out of the bathroom and asked me to finish getting ready for school. Sure enough, I looked just fine in my photo — in fact, I was told several times just how “pretty” I was, which did wonders for my thirteen-year-old ego.
This quickly translated into a pattern. My mother or I would see a flaw in my appearance, and then I would “fix it” under her supervision. Looking back, it wasn’t healthy behavior on her part, but it did feel nice to be doted on every day, to have someone you look up to telling you how beautiful you are, or how beautiful you could be.
The “fixing” didn’t stop at my acne. My mother was never cruel to me, but she would cut my hair as often as she wanted if she believed that it was looking “disappointing,” and she would even purchase anti-aging creams and serums for me to use before bed each night — by then, I was only fourteen.
My subconscious focus oscillated between not wanting to disappoint my mother with how little I wanted to perform these rituals, and the almost animalistic instinct to rid myself of any “imperfections.” I was distracted during school if I thought I looked particularly ugly that day, or if I thought someone was laughing at my expense. I had never been an outstanding student but, as I grew older and began to obsess over my appearance, the thoughts became overwhelming and increasingly paranoid. I would miss entire conversations with friends because I was thinking about how awful I looked.
Through all of my fixation on the way I was perceived, I never really achieved a satisfying level of beauty, which did nothing to abate the anxiety that I experienced when looking in the mirror each morning — the total finality of my stubborn ugliness, the unsatisfying mask of a face that I was slowly growing to resent. I was drowning in my own self-hatred and I couldn’t find a way to stop.
Buried under the weight of that self-loathing, when my mother woke me up one morning to tell me that I needed to “fix my face,” I didn’t even question her. I sat up immediately in bed and moved past the various mirrors that I’d affixed to my bedroom walls, moving quickly towards the bathroom and shutting the door firmly behind me.
I was horrified when I looked at my reflection. Several large, angry whiteheads had cropped up along my jawline and cheek, pulsing and red. I could feel the weight of them under my skin when I tilted my face towards the mirror to examine them closer.
Gingerly, I brought a finger to tap against one of the pimples, testing the skin tension. It was deeply inflamed and warm to the touch. I winced.
They had to go. All of them.
I quickly washed my hands and went to work, assuming my usual position of leaning over the sink and pushing my face against one of the half dozen mirrors my mother had placed in the bathroom. I started with the smallest of them, working over the pores quickly. The skin around the whiteheads grew into a deep red as I agitated the skin, but I couldn’t stop.
The largest of the zits was next. I hesitated over the yellow-white pearly head before jamming one finger against it, testing to see if a gentle push would release the dirt inside. No luck. Using both hands, I pressed against the edges of the bump with shaking fingertips. Still nothing. The skin was growing angrier with each touch.
I was growing frustrated, so I moved to sit cross-legged on the counter and bring myself closer to the reflective surface. This time, I tried pushing at the acne from a different angle, applying more pressure than I had before. I could feel something under the surface but I couldn’t quite release it.
With more effort than I thought I could muster, I squeezed the skin around the zit with the knuckles on my middle finger, hoping the blunt angle would release some of the pain. Sure enough, that did the trick. With a spurt, a stream of white gunk flew from my face and onto the mirror. It seeped out of the pore, like a leaking garden hose, and once I released the pus, it wouldn’t stop.
The white dirt covered my fingers, leaking down into my palm, but I couldn’t stop until I was certain that it was finished. The surface of my skin still felt bulbous, so I pushed on, digging my fingernails against the zit as another thread of thick pus pulsed forward.
As I pushed and waited for the pore to empty itself, I realized that the flow of pus wasn’t stopping — the supply felt endless. I could feel the panic rising in my chest at the thought and I lost any semblance of self-control that I had left. I began to dig into the skin with the edge of my fingernail, peeling at the skin until the white dirt became pink with blood.
One nail became two, and I frantically picked at the area until it was deep enough to bleed freely down my neck. The spot had grown to the size of a quarter and was widening with every scratch, but I couldn’t stop. I felt compelled, seized to the errand of purification by something nameless and terrifying. I didn’t even feel any pain.
The more I began to pull at the skin, the more I could feel it peeling away freely from my face and gathering like dirt under my fingernails, some of it hanging unceremoniously from the hole. Still, I kept digging, moving up my cheek to the other spots. Instead of popping each of them one by one, I simply began to scratch at the skin and pull it away from the muscle, clumps of soft flesh gathering against my fingers as I worked. I was manic in my compulsion, knowing that I shouldn’t have been mutilating myself in this way but being unable to pull myself away.
It wasn’t long before the skin began to pile up in the sink, a mess of pink and white and beige and red that looked like a slice of lasagna. I turned the faucet on to push it down the drain, but it remained in the basin, a trophy of my bravery.
Turning toward one of the smaller mirrors that my mother had propped up on the counter, I aimed to get a better look at myself and was struck frozen when I saw my own reflection.
The side of my face had been peeled away in layers, a harsh triangle of red flesh glaring back at me, gleaming with the reflection of the fluorescent light overhead which caught every shallow dip in the muscle. My jaw was aching deeply and my cheekbone stung, and when I moved to poke a finger against the open wound, I noticed that the entirety of my hand was covered in my own blood and pus.
I felt sick, knowing I had done this to myself. My pulse quickened in my throat as panic rose through me. There was a sense of dissociation flowing through me, as though I had been temporarily possessed and was watching the scene unfold from outside of my body. Something came over me as I gently dug a bloodied finger into the fresh wound on my face, and I began to scream.
By the time my mother stormed into the bathroom and found me, I looked like I had been shot. Luckily, she caught me before I hit the bone.
It took six rounds of skin grafting and two sessions of laser resurfacing before my face fully recovered from the damage. A year and a half later, my mother has yet to acknowledge my “accident” or the role that she played in driving me to it or encouraging my tendencies. Our family therapy sessions have been helping, sure, but it’s a slow process.
Regardless of any protests that my mother made, we still took all of the mirrors out of the house.