My mother had a theory: Dress every day so that you feel good when you look in the mirror. Her advice was to do this every day, even if you will not be leaving your house.

Each morning, my mother made sure that she was dressed in a color-coordinated set of slacks and tops. Every day she paid attention to what necklace and earrings were best matched to her outfit. She applied makeup conservatively: a neutral foundation, light blush, and subdued tones of pink and rose for lipstick. She chose an easy-to-manage hairstyle but one that required her special touches to look just right. She never colored her hair—a wise woman who knew that there is beauty in gray or white hair that no dye can match. My mother wanted to look attractive for my father, even when they were in their eighties. My dad was convinced she was as beautiful as the day he first met her. But the style Mom chose for her total appearance was her style, not dictated by my father or anyone else.

Since my mom is no longer with us, I’ve taken her counsel to heart. I try to carry on her tradition but with my own style of clothing. What makes me feel good when I look in the mirror is not what Mom would have chosen for herself; it is what I choose for myself. Sometimes, that means nicely fitted blue jeans with a colorful top and coordinated jewelry; other times it means something closer to business casual or planting-in-the-garden casual. Each morning, I choose clothing that is a bit more positive—though perhaps not fancier—than my mood, no matter what that mood is. My sisters have found their own styles, ones that match their own personalities and are not based on others’ opinions.

Before my day’s activities begin, I check in the mirror and feel better for having checked in with myself—not because I look attractive but because I look like a person who cares about herself. And then I look eye-to-eye with myself and check what’s going on inside. Because, ultimately, external appearance doesn’t matter if what’s happening inside is unappealing. I remind myself frequently that we are all works of art in progress. This interior art isn’t apparent in the clothes we wear but is quite visible in our behaviors. Nevertheless, knowing I still have work to do doesn’t keep me from appreciating the progress I’ve made, and that serves as self-encouragement.

This morning, as I dressed to keep my coronavirus vaccine appointment, I chose black jeans, a black tee, a simply draped green top layer, a green necklace and earrings, and a smile. Home again for a day of writing, it’s a plaid flannel tunic and jeans. I checked again and smiled again. My hairstyle is determined by pandemic restrictions—an un-style that comes from hair that’s too long and can no longer be controlled. I look like the before picture for a hair stylist advertisement. And I’m okay with that today.

Maybe we can’t tell a book by its cover, but our choices in how we cover ourselves can’t help but affect the way we feel about ourselves. My mother was the proof of that, even at the worst times in her life.