Self Esteem Sucker Punch: Why I Actually Like Looking At Terrible Pictures Of Myself
Back in the middle 00’s I was a moderator on a Livejournal community called Fatshionista -- this community sought to mix plus size fashion with fat politics, and over the years it was most active, it served as an early introduction to both for a lot of people (many of whom are themselves big-deal plus-size bloggers today, which is kind of awesome).
Fatshionista was magical for a lot of people because it was the first place they saw fat people who dressed in attention-grabbing ways. It was the first place they saw real-life examples of people who weren’t waiting for some future day in which their bodies were smaller to wear the clothes they really wanted to wear. It was also the first place a lot of fat people posted pictures of themselves online.
On the other hand, it was ALSO the first place people got shit on for posting “bad” pictures online. We tried to keep the disparagement to a minimum, but I mean, Livejournal. There was going to be drama. Thus another popular topic was how to take good pictures -- and how you really need to take a bunch of “bad” pictures before you get a “good” one.
Unexpectedly, the bad pictures were often more of a relavatory experience than the good ones, especially for those of us who hadn’t really been much for having our picture taken before now. It was a weird sort of inside-out aversion therapy; here we were fighting our own fears to take and post images of ourselves publicly, because doing so made us feel good, but to get there we had to wade through untold numbers of our greatest fear -- the pictures that were actually terrible.
Earlier this week, Emily wrote about seeing a picture of herself that triggered a lot of self-loathing that is familiar to many of us. I’m not about to tell anyone their emotional reaction to a bad photograph is invalid. But it did get me thinking about how much I don’t give a crap about bad photographs of myself anymore -- and how I got there.
To challenge myself on this, I dug up four of my most unflattering non-selfie pics from the last few months. I almost never delete “bad” pictures unless I’m out of storage on my phone, so this wasn’t that hard. Actually the “good” pics from most of these series have been used in other things I’ve written here on xoJane, so feel free to do a little compare-and-contrast if you like.
My husband is responsible for the majority of the non-self-taken pictures of me that exist, and I’m lucky that he is both a pretty good photographer AND a person I trust implicitly. He also usually manages to make me laugh, which is always good for a photo, and keeps me from having terrible TENSION FACE which makes anybody in any picture look awkward and uncomfortable.
OK, we had been hiking and had taken a break and I was actually in the midst of standing up from sitting on that rock, but DAMN is my bellyfat ever center stage in this one. My reaction: I actually laughed. Ain’t no amount of pretending my belly doesn’t exist or can’t often be seen will make that true.
Olivia (whom you should not judge by this photo but instead follow her on Instagram) was pretending to be Cornholio, just so that’s clear. This is from my NY visit last month, and I think Emily took it. My reaction: BIG FACE. CHINS. Nose is kinda shiny. Hair is flat.
Swimming at the beach, earlier this summer. Mostly what I remember about this day is that is was a gorgeous late afternoon swim with my husband, and the water was wonderfully warm. My reaction: I am like, segmented. I have no waist. Flabby arms.
This was an outtake from the sandals-and-socks Do This Don’t I wrote back in May. My reaction: OMG SIT UP STRAIGHT LESLEY.
Sincerely, in spite of my matter-of-fact acknowledgement of folds and flab, none of my reactions were to be all I AM A HORRID BEEEEAAAAST WHO SHOULD NEVER BE LOOKED AT EVER because I know that’s not true. And given that a picture is a flat, split-second frozen reproduction of a three-dimensional, moving object, I have trouble putting too much stock into what a particular image -- or even a BUNCH of images -- say about me and my appearance, whether they are positive or negative.
Because hey, I look like this sometimes. I do! I have more than one chin. I have a fat middle that often makes me look pregnant when I am not paying meticulous attention to my posture. All of these photos are true, in their way -- they are true as a fractional instant of my life and my engagement with the world. They can be true, in this way, but are not necessarily representative of what everyone sees.
I would not presume to tell any of you how to react to a bad photo. If seeing a certain picture of yourself motivates you to exercise more then I am not going to say that's bad or wrong. You get to decide what you do with your body. Photo shock happens when a picture doesn't line up with our self image -- or worse, when it confirms our worst fears. One perfectly valid response is to try to change that exterior to match your perception.
I, however, wanted an alternative. Trying to convince myself that a day might conceivably come in which I will always look good in photos is a losing battle. I'm not particularly pretty in any conventional sense. I don't feel badly about that -- not everyone gets to be pretty, probably because if they did, "pretty" would cease to have any social currency.
Instead, my efforts are to look like myself in photos I like -- photos where my anxiety at having a camera pointed at me isn't written all over my face and body language -- and to flat-out DGAF about all the rest. The pictures that are awkward, "unflattering," unmakeupped, slouching, many-chinned? Eh, that happens, in photos and real life.
I can't control the way people see me, and I don't want to spend my life feeling afraid of how my face and body look when I'm not vigilantly on my guard against unseemly laughing faces and whether the shape of my belly can be intuited under my dress. I've lived that way, and it's exhausting. Laughter in particular doesn’t care about how it makes you look, but it sure does feel good.
Instead I'm trying not to care. I DON’T care, really. This is aspirational as anything else, just in a different direction. I aspire to not even have a fleeting worry about BIG FACE or floppy arms when I see them photographed. Because as large as I might be, that’s such a small part of who I am.
A bunch of you reading this will probably be all, “Dude, those pictures aren’t even that bad.” Maybe not. It’s a matter of perception. You’ve probably seen photos of yourself that left you trembling and miserable while everyone else is saying you look fine. The harsh judgments we levy against ourselves in "bad photos" are subjective, just like how ANY photo/body is read is ultimately subjective.
Knowing this, I decided that instead of allowing these pictures to sucker-punch me in the self-esteem, and seeing my self-esteem get all sad and bruised and threadbare, my self-esteem would become a fighter. My self-esteem and self-acceptance will PUNCH BACK against toxic feelings of self-loathing.
And so I look at bad pictures of myself. I don’t delete them, I don’t just skim them, I REALLY LOOK. It’s like a workout for my self-compassion muscles. And in time, I find myself less and less bothered by unflattering images. Because if I’m not kind to myself, it’s difficult to expect that anyone else will be.
I mean, except for the slouching. (Seriously Lesley, SIT UP STRAIGHT.)