Jodi of MCP Photography wrote a wonderful post a few days ago. The topic is “What happens when a photographer gets photographed,” and the post is a tender and honest exploration of how Jodi hated being in pictures because she didn’t like how she looked, then forced herself to be in them for the sake of her kids (so they’d actually have pics with their mom in them), and now finally has come around to a place where she’s been able to see what is beautiful about her.
I really appreciate this post. It’s such an incredibly vulnerable thing for a woman to say out loud (especially in front of other women) that she thinks she’s beautiful. It’s the opposite of that tradition we have as women where I put myself down and all my friends rush to reassure me that I am indeed attractive. We’ve been conditioned to pounce on people who think they look good (perhaps we pounce only in our heads if we’ve been raised to be polite) and tear them apart. “How dare she think she’s beautiful? She’s fatter/zittier/shorter/skinnier/hairier etc. than I am, and I’ve been pummeled by media until I think I’m not attractive. So where does she get off delusionally thinking she’s beautiful?” That’s what I’m worried is going on in other people’s heads when I say I think I’m beautiful – that it will actually prompt them to look for my flaws. But I keep on doggedly saying it, and then I tell them that I think they are beautiful, too, and that I want us all to reclaim the power that feeling confident in our looks can give us.
I have a few stories from my own history with this that I wanted to share.
The first is that never once when I was growing up did I hear my mom criticize how she looked. And it would never have even occurred to me that she might criticize how I looked – she never told me anything other than that I was beautiful to her. And now I’m a rarity among the women I know – I’ve never had an eating disorder, and I have pretty good self-esteem and body image, despite being definitively not the celebrity ideal. Now that I’m an adult my mom complains sometimes about the things she doesn’t like about her body and looks, but I am SO GRATEFUL that she somehow managed to keep from expressing that in front of me when I was young, and to keep this attitude from being instilled in me. I think that’s another important thing to think about when we avoid being in pictures – it’s not just that our kids won’t have pictures of us – we’re actually raising girls who will follow our model and grow up to be women who don’t feel good enough about themselves to be in pictures!
The second story is how I became beautiful. I remember one day in my early 20s saying to myself, “What would happen if I just decide I’m beautiful?” It felt very daring and transgressive, but I tried it out. The effect on people I was potentially interested in was fascinating – they found my unusual confidence attractive in itself. The effect on myself was even more fascinating – I saw so clearly that I was gaining NOTHING by disliking how I looked. Nothing by feeling like I needed improvement. It didn’t encourage me to exercise, or do anything else healthy. Feeling unhealthy might do that – but not liking how I looked wasn’t actually an aid in that department. Feeling beautiful, however, made a huge difference. I felt happier and more peaceful, it contributed to a general sense of self-esteem beyond my looks, and there was this big area of life I didn’t stress about as much anymore. I realized it doesn’t matter if I am conventionally attractive or if a stranger on the street would agree that I’m beautiful. I am beautiful to myself and to the people who love me – romantic, family, friends; the beauty they see in me is both part of why they love me and called forth by their love for me.
This whole worry about whether or not we are beautiful or pretty or attractive is so ingrained in us we never stop to question what PURPOSE it’s serving. Maybe to attract a mate, but I know so many people in secure, satisfying relationships who still don’t want to be in photographs or don’t like this or that about their appearance. The main purpose I can think of for worrying about this in our modern society is that this fear is what drives consumerism. I think it’s pretty well agreed upon that advertisers cultivate this feeling of lack in us so we’ll buy things to try to fix it or make up for it. Well, I reject that. I can’t actually remove from myself the desire to look certain ways (that would take a lobotomy or something, I think) but I can decide whether or not to feel beautiful right now, looking the way I do.
So my last story is that there was a final hold-out to my whole “I am beautiful” self-campaign. Circling back to the topic that started this piece, I’ll admit that even years after my whole transition to feeling beautiful I still hated photographs of myself. I tried to be all sneaky and get around this by bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t “photogenic.” Like, I look in the mirror and see beauty that just isn’t captured in a photo. And that may be true, but once again – WHO CARES? When I started my photo-a-day project four years ago I set a goal of trying to be in at least one picture every week. Suddenly I was constantly looking at pictures of myself. And yeah, I still delete my fair share of awkward shots. But something about just giving myself over to the reality that there were going to be pictures in my albums where I didn’t look perfect eventually helped me to widen my range of tolerance for seeing myself in photos. Maybe I don’t have to look pretty in every photo. I can also look goofy, or in motion, or sad, or even exhausted (because that’s the reality of my life a lot of the time). And then there are the shots where I’m incredibly happy with people I love and smiling so big and when I do that my chin does this weird thing and… And you know what? I have pictures of myself where I’m incredibly happy with people I love. When I look back, will I be sad to have so many awkward chin photos or grateful to have captured so many fun times?
There is power to be had in claiming our beauty. There is peace there, too, and a certain kind of freedom. And it doesn’t take a makeover or liposuction or plastic surgery to get us there, because we’ve already arrived; we just have to look around and notice where we are. So I invite you to join me in this experiment. Look in the mirror and let what you see there be beautiful. And then notice what, if anything, changes for you. What becomes absent from your life, what enters it? Without making any assumptions, really peer closely at this part of your life – is worrying about how you look helping you to accomplish things, be a better parent, a better partner, more the person you want to be? If it is, I’m surprised, but more power to you, you’ve found something that works to motivate you. And if it isn’t, maybe you can try letting it go. It’s not something that happens all at once, it takes dedication and frequently remembering to come back to those three little words, “I am beautiful.” But I can promise you that the rewards are totally worth the work. Imagine what the world would be like if we all felt okay about how we looked. It would be beautiful.