Yeah, yeah. I know.
When I was a little girl my mother would cut herself out of our family photos. Our albums were filled with dozens of strange pictures with mom-shaped holes on either the right or the left, or smack in the middle of the milky print. Back then you couldn’t edit photos easily. Once you dropped off your roll of film at the drugstore there wasn’t much you could do but wait. You couldn’t check the camera or take a hundred digital do-overs before choosing what image of yourself you considered worthy of memory.
|My mother, absolutely beautiful then and now.|
My mother was then, and is now (in my eyes and in eyes of the world), a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, editing photos with a scissor was not her only form of self-critique. There was also plenty of negative self-talk in front of the mirror or to her friends, a practice both widely expected and accepted by all the grown-up women in my life. Talk also included declarations of certain foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, singling out hatred for specific parts of their bodies, and the latest cures for fixing ‘the problem’, like diets, exercise, surgery or pills.
|This photo of my pre-pubescent self somehow made the cut.|
I’m sure it’s no surprise to any woman (or man) who suffers from body and image issues that I internalized the negative self-talk which permeated my personal and public cultures. Or that the negative feelings extended well beyond my physical features. A life-long, love-hate relationship with myself began in my teens as my weight moved up and down the BMI charts. I too began editing my image in the world. I didn’t use a scissor, instead I would simply throw ‘bad’ photos away or not have my picture taken, at all. I also developed this odd tic where I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror if someone else was in the room. Alone with a mirror I didn’t have to hide the displeasure that seeing my body, or face, provoked. I hid this way for years, in plain sight. Until I had a daughter.
|Mirror, mirror in my arms. I clumsily Photoshopped my complexion here because I loved this photo so much.|
Oh the big, blue eyes of my little mirror. They followed me everywhere; to the pantry where I hid a package of cookies, to Old Navy, where I desperately sought a pair of pants that fit my post-mommy form. To my bedroom mirror where I turned and twisted and tried to find a version of myself that I liked. She was watching. She was listening. She was learning. The day I realized that I was teaching my daughter how to hate herself was sobering. It started me down the road to getting help for my disordered eating and self-loathing, a road I still happily walk.
|First Selfie, red filter, via Instagram.|
Learning self-love and self-acceptance as an adult takes time. I made great progress but there remained the matter of the photos, finding the courage to literally look myself in the eye, alone, or with other people watching. The social web gave me the opportunity to overcome this fear. Numerous platforms, including Twitter, were asking me to upload a profile pic. I took my iPhone and starting shooting. I settled on the image above, choosing a red filter to mask the rosacea that seemed to bother no one but me. I used this photo liberally for the past four years, happy enough to let my tentative smile and odd, red glow represent me on the web.
The inclusion this year of my essay in The Good Mother Myth marked a new level of self-acceptance. I felt tremendous pride in contributing to this remarkable anthology that asked us to confront the myth of what makes a good mother, and Avital, our editor, was asking for self-portraits with book. There would be no filter for this photo, only the natural light of my bedroom. I didn’t put on any make-up and I doubt I had brushed my hair. For the first time in my forty-something years, I had reached a point where I truly liked myself on the inside, which was reflecting back on the outside — and I had a photo to prove it.
|A Selfie a day keeps the negative self-talk away.|
I grew emboldened, even trying my hand at a few self-boudoir pics (with filter, yes!). It was incredibly liberating. I found out that a good friend had discovered the same secret and we played I’ll Show You Mine IYSMY. Her photos made me cry. I had always seen her beauty. To see her fully embrace herself was thing of joy.
|I Selfie, therefore I am.|
I’ve found that one good Selfie leads to another and I’ll continue to experiment with the form. I’ve also discovered that self-love doesn’t mean you’re suddenly perfect. I still screw up, almost daily — but I accept myself now, warts and all. I found the courage to examine my character defects as thoroughly as my diet and to find my own voice. I no longer blindly ingest the criticism, guilt or shame that is still dished out daily to women in American culture and abroad.
You are invited to cross this post off as yet another self-indulgent musing of a middle-aged blogger with an Irish complexion. There are bigger problems in the world that beg solving. I agree. But the pernicious attack on the psyche of girls begins in the home, telling them they are too fat, too ugly, too dark, too stupid, too fragile, too weak to succeed, or be of value. Too too whatever, yet never enough. The bias against girls is reflected back to us in our magazines, our movies, our music, our politics, our female teenage suicide rates and the still ridiculously low percentage of women as leaders in business and government. Fat is still a feminist issue, and self-loathing is a public health problem that leads to many ills.
My struggle to quiet the negative voices in my head has been absolutely worth it, as evidenced by the thousands of proud Selfies I find on my phone, taken by my now ten year old daughter. She loves herself on and off camera and isn’t afraid to look herself, or the world, in the eye. I hope it stays that way beyond high school. I will do everything in my power, including producing plenty more audacious displays of self-love, to keep it thus.