As an Indian-American woman, who is also a two-time traumatic brain injury survivor, and was regularly chastised about her weight problems for decades, I have had a very interesting relationship with mirrors over the course of my life. Growing up, mirrors were for making funny faces and for combing my down-to-my-butt long hair. But that relationship changed as I grew up and as I started internalizing all the cultural and societal standards for perfection that I was fed constantly. Mirrors became my sworn enemies for highlighting all my flaws while also being my accomplice in covering them up with the latest new tricks in makeup products and effects. For many years, I even joked that I may be single-handedly keeping the billion dollar beauty industry afloat. But I couldn’t ever achieve perfection. Some of these flaws went so far beyond my surface that no makeup could hide them.
Twenty years ago, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a young woman who was constantly told she would never be good enough or expert enough. My reflection was that of an insecure woman who was being suffocated by cultural expectations that felt mind-blowingly contradicting in nature—get the highest education you can so that you can be independent but don’t forget to be submissive because your life is dependent on your family. Be a career woman but remember you can’t prioritize your career over marriage and family; be strong but remember that you can’t have a voice that dominates. Your career and education are top priorities, but you can never prioritize yourself over others’ needs. Be a leader but don’t be assertive or sure of yourself. Be confident and sure of yourself but don’t show it because people will think you’re arrogant or bossy. Over and over, for many years, what any mirror showed me was a malleable young soul who was being pushed by forces all around her — forces that she thought she had no control over. Growing up Hindu, I struggled with the power of the goddess that I could never claim to be my own because goddesses were goddesses and I was just a flawed human being. My constant anxiety and depression were palpable. My insecurities and misery did not make for good reflections. This affected the way I presented myself, my ideas of success — of which there were none — and my sense of being a failure. (This was constant.) Especially after my second brain injury, which was quite severe, I resigned myself to go through life just being a failure.
I got a doctorate just three years after that, and it didn’t change my flawed reflection. I got married to the most amazing man who saw the best in me, but that didn’t change a thing about what I saw in myself. And I had a child after my physician told me that I couldn’t have children (a thing that is so deeply tied into an Indian American woman’s sense of womanhood), but I was still a failure.
Then, one day, I saw my reflection in my then nine-month old daughter. It wasn’t a stretch — I am constantly told she is a mini-me, a carbon copy. My whole world stopped spinning for a few minutes. While I saw myself in my daughter, I knew I couldn’t let my daughter see that flawed version of me in herself. I knew that I, and only I had the power to change what she saw in me, and what she would learn to see in herself. But that was only going to happen if I saw myself for all of myself, in my wholeness. By seeing the visible parts of me and by uncovering all those parts that had been rendered invisible by myself and by others. That was the singular moment when I intentionally and consciously began the work to transform my self by taking ownership of my life.
The journey to get to this point was long, excruciatingly painful and without any real support or guidance in the way I needed it. Sure, I had plenty of well-intentioned family members and friends who still told me all the “shoulds” and “ought tos,” without allowing for space for me to take back agency over my own life and figure out what makes best sense to me.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I see an older, grayer, short haired powerhouse who took the road less traveled by, fell down many times over, but got back up, persisted, and made an adventure out of life. I gaze at a strong woman who found all the pieces of herself by reframing cultural and societal expectations in ways that allowed her to thrive as a human being; as a child of the universe who is interconnected with every part of it. I see a mother who is teaching her child that it is literally impossible to be a failure as long as you keep learning and keep going. In the mirror, I look at a board member of several organizations, a founder, CEO, consultant, author, podcaster, and coach who impacts hundreds of people. My reflection is now visible in every one of my clients who take back control of their sense of self, forge their own identities and leadership styles, and achieve the success that they define for themselves personally and professionally.
These days, what I see in the mirror are the faces of all the goddesses I was taught to worship as a child, looking back at me, in their power. In my power.