Sorting through photos recently, I came across one I did not recognize. An elderly woman, her face creased with laughter, was sitting in a rocking chair. A young woman knelt beside her. They were holding hands, sharing a story or a joke, or maybe a story with a joke. The young woman had a radiant smile.
“Gosh, that girl is pretty,” I thought to myself.
That’s when I realized: I was that girl.
What triggered the recognition was the checkered cotton vest I was wearing. It was the first fancy thing I’d knit. I made it from a pattern I’d chosen because of the model. Like me she had brown hair and blue eyes. Unlike me she was long-legged and slender, the body type I desired but which genetics had failed to provide.
I began knitting when I was 21, fresh out of college and covering high school sports at a daily newspaper in small-town New England. On a scale of one to 10, my confidence level was about a three. There were multiple reasons for this, including my age, my warped perception of myself as fat and ugly, and how unsuited I was for my job.
Before Sports Illustrated
I was good at writing sports feature stories but when it came to game stories, I was lost. I didn’t even know what a touchdown was.
My personal life wasn’t much better. The town where I lived was a great place to raise a family but not an ideal environment in which to be young and single. My social life consisted of hanging out with my married neighbors or with the 50-something owner of the yarn shop, perfecting my stockinette stitch.
She doesn’t see herself the way she believes the rest of society does.
My tenure as a sports reporter was short-lived. I was moved to the news department as soon as a job opened up there. However, I kept my subscription to Sports Illustrated, which is how I rediscovered the cover girl from the knitting pattern book in the 1983 swimsuit issue. It had never occurred to me that swimsuit models modeled anything other than swimsuits, but it made sense: the knitting book was the modeling-world version of the small-town New England newspaper.
I began noticing the model everywhere. In the 1980s and 90s, Paulina Porizkova pretty much was everywhere: in ad campaigns, fashion shoots, and outings on the arm of her husband, Cars singer Ric Ocasek.
She was jet-setting stunner, nobody I was likely to encounter, but because I had discovered her in a knitting book and not on the cover of Sports Illustrated, I convinced myself she was approachable, familiar, someone with whom I had much in common.
As it turns out, we have some things in common: she got married a few years before I did and we became mothers around the same time. Her young adult novel was published a year after my first picture book. And now that she is 56, she is experiencing what I, at 60, have experienced most of my life: feeling invisible around women whom society finds more sexually appealing. In her case, that is young, unwrinkled women. In mine, it is long-legged, slender ones.
Porizkova made headlines last month for appearing on a Vogue cover in a see-through bodysuit, but even before that she’d been posting sexy selfies on Instagram sans makeup and without the benefit of Botox. I think she’s as stunning now as she was when she was a teenager in a knitting book. However, as demonstrated by my failure to recognize myself in a decades-old photo, perception has a way of distorting reality.
I was shocked I hadn’t recognized myself and sad that I’d spent my twenties convinced I was fat and ugly. I wish I’d seen the actual me then. I would have saved myself a lot of misery.
Maybe that’s what Porizkova is getting at, which means we have one more thing in common: she doesn’t see herself the way she believes the rest of society does. She sees herself as beautiful and sexy not just because of how she looks on the outside, but because she has the wisdom and confidence that come with age.
That’s why she’s posing for those sexy selfies, to which I say, you go, girl.
I’ve been through enough to understand that how I look is less important than how I feel.
I won’t be joining her. I never wanted to be a model and it’s still not my jam. What I wanted in my twenties was to feel as comfortable in my body and as confident as I imagined those women did. I’m still working on that, though the disconnect between how I look and how I feel is not nearly as damaging as it was back then.
I’m shorter, rounder, and more wrinkled than ever before, but in my head I’m as tall and willowy as Porizkova which is why, sometimes, when I catch a glimpse of myself in a mirror or reflected in a shop window, I still don’t recognize myself.
You could say I’m delusional, but I prefer to believe it’s because I’m wiser and more confident. I don’t waste my time worrying that people think I’m not worth knowing because I don’t fit society’s notion of what’s appealing. If they don’t care to get to know me because of how I appear to them, that’s their loss.
I’ve been through enough to understand that how I look is less important than how I feel. And after spending the past four decades building a loving family, a successful career, and a strong and supportive network of friends, I feel pretty good.
In fact, I feel like a supermodel.