2 Instant Shots of Self-Esteem

Photo: ThinkstockPhoto: ThinkstockTwo women tell about the fresh, strange, liberating moment when they saw themselves in a new light.

A Swelling of Confidence

By Elaina Richardson

One of my favorite pictures of my mother was snapped by a street photographer in 1956 when she was in her early 20s. It's in black-and-white, but I know from listening to her that the slender coat she's wearing, with its little velvet collar and matching hat, is dark green and that she loved it immeasurably because it made her look elegant and sophisticated, which is exactly how this beautiful, high-cheekboned woman with lovely legs and a slightly hesitant expression wanted the world to see her. She didn't want her poverty-ridden, education-interrupted origins to show through. That cost her, and the reason I know it did also has to do with the green coat. An oft-repeated story of hers was about the day she was wearing the coat and caught the eye of a young doctor. They dated some, until the night in his car when he felt obliged to lecture her on her sexual shyness, on how she was too uptight, too much of a lady to become a satisfying partner. Many years and two children later, she still seemed to worry about it. In my mind, this supposed lack of sexual confidence and the aspirations behind her expensive coat are stitched firmly together.

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My style has always leaned more toward the understated, dressing down seeming chicer and stronger to me, especially in my teen years, when, as a competitive athlete, I'd show up at dinners with wet hair and limited makeup. Making too much of an effort, trying too hard, screamed insecurity, I thought. Not that I haven't been known to cut a swath through my wardrobe before a night out, pulling on and off outfits in a frantic attempt to look exactly right, fiddling around with how much I'm comfortable revealing. It's hardly a news flash, but it's certainly true for me that the more discomfort I feel on the inside, the more I'm likely to fret about the outside. And, like almost every woman on the planet, I've always believed (no matter what the scale says) that I could stand to drop a pound or two.

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I had never particularly focused on what this appearance anxiety was really all about (my mom had a version of it, so did my sister-wasn't it simply the raw stuff of being female?) until it disappeared. It's a moment I can pinpoint: December of 1990, me aged 29, extremely pregnant with my daughter. I had popped, in the lingo of expectancy, going from hardly showing mom-to-be in slinky velvet to the realization that my entire body had lost what I'd once valued: Lean athleticism had melted into soft flesh, restraint had given way to voluptuousness. I couldn't possibly appear in the sort of light I'd always stage-managed for myself, so I put on a swingy black tunic thing (this was pre the likes of Liz Lange, when pregnancy clothes still equaled polyester) and a pair of patterned leggings, went to a party filled with high-powered types, and had a blast. Somehow I had gained a miraculous trust in my ability to be interesting whether or not I looked overtly sexy and appealing. This is pathetic to confess, but it was honestly the first time in my adult life that I'd felt a right to attention and appreciation regardless of how I looked. (Admittedly, some of this newfound confidence had to do with a sense that my appearance-i.e., somewhat swollen, with hair roots showing because dye was forbidden-was no longer under my control. I couldn't not be who I was; enormous forces, like hormones and genes and evolution, were now in charge.)

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Most of the magic had to do with the fact that I had finally articulated, physically and plainly for all the world to see, what I wanted and, in particular, what I wanted to do with my body. I wanted to be pregnant; I wanted desperately to have a child even though, up until that moment, I had hated any suggestion that I had even the slightest tinge of the earth mother about me, that my beauty or sexual appeal was bound up with fertility. Once, when I was about 15, my gym teacher had provoked a horrible crisis of self-image when she remarked, "Your whole body changed this summer-look at you, you have childbearing hips!" I was appalled and hurt beyond any sane sense of what she had said. Now here it was, finally, self-acceptance: freckles, fluffy hair, roundness, a slight flush to the cheeks. All good, and all me.

Former magazine editor Elaina Richardson lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she is president of the famed artists' retreat Yaddo.

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Photo: ThinkstockPhoto: ThinkstockA Fine Mess

By Cecelie Berry

Recently, I came to the aid of two mothers who dropped off their boys at my son's birthday party. They wanted to exchange cell phone numbers to negotiate the pickup and needed a pen. "I have one," I volunteered. Eager to be the hostess with the mostest, I dug into the torn right pocket of my beloved old snow jacket. "Here you go"-triumphantly, I pulled out a down-encrusted lollipop, minus its wrapper. "Oh, you don't want that, sorry." I laughed. Unfazed, I plunged my hand into my pocket and felt around madly. "Got it, got it!"-and out came a jagged-edged eyebrow pencil, completely hollow. The two women were eyeing each other now, wanting to ask someone else, hoping I'd surrender, but I definitely, definitely had a pen. I fished about in the other pocket: spare change, used hankies, a single glove, old movie tickets, and finally, a dime-store pen hemorrhaging ink. "It writes." I offered it. "Trust me." They stared at my blue-stained fingers, and I heard the echo of all the family members and teachers who used to ask me, "Girl, when are you going to get yourself to-geth-er?"

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I always wanted to be one of those "together" people. I thought the day would come when what I thought of as the exotic style words-panache, soigné-could readily apply to me. Witty badinage would fall from my lips like pearls before swine. I would even be a neat eater. Achieving perfection would free me to be the confident woman I longed to be. Then I'd be able to handle everything; I'd be on top of things and ahead of the game.

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As I neared 40, I'd imagine myself swinging down the street sporting a snappy trenchcoat, carrying in a manicured hand a featherweight briefcase containing the essential gadgets of life-completely mastered and readily available-and then I'd pause in my reverie, put on my eyeglasses, and examine the caption beneath the picture in my mind's eye. It read, "Never gonna happen."

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Oh, I have days when I wear and say the right thing, but those moments of poise still go toe-to-stubbed-toe with my gaffes. Life for me is always going to be haphazard, and I figure I'll never outfox it, so I'd better brave it instead. Ironically, knowing that I will make mistakes, that I will forgive myself and keep on trying, has given me the confidence I craved. When I was young, I thought confidence could be earned with perfection. Now I know that you don't earn it; you claim it. And you do that by loving the wacky, endlessly optimistic, enthusiastically uninhibited free spirit that is the essence of style, the quintessence of heart, and uniquely you.

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