Between the time I was old enough to toddle and, well, pretty recently, I basically lived in the Land the Camera Forgot.
There are extant images of me, but many of them are blurry, and most of them show me in stiff, awkward poses, eyebrows raised in shock, a sort of “Who, me?” expression on my face. There’s me with the geography bee team in middle school, me sulking at a corner of the table at a high school party, me trying to look dramatic in college and failing miserably.
This morning, I happened to accidentally sort my email in reverse when I was looking for an attachment and I found the very first attachment someone had sent to one of my email addresses: an assortment of images from college. There were 15 pictures, and I was only in one of them (typical). I am seated at the table next to a group of friends, looking utterly awkward and self-conscious, fully aware that the camera is right there and the photographer might be using it to take a picture of me.
Something happened, though.
I started working for Jane Pratt.
When I started working at xoJane, the rules were made very clear to me; I needed to try to include pictures of myself when they were at least vaguely topically appropriate or could be used to illustrate an article. I found the whole thing deeply embarrassing at first, but then I had to write a post about how much I loved sweaters, and there I was taking pictures of myself wearing sweaters on an absurdly warm day.
I took scores of pictures and then I looked at them on my laptop, sifting through them for the best illustration. I ended up settling on one I didn’t hate. I’m looking off into the distance, sort of, all frozen and stiff, obviously feeling awkward and nervous about putting a picture of myself out there on the Internet for all to see. I felt so vain and ridiculous.
Looking at it now, I can see that I was slightly thinner then, and I was also way less self-confident. I was nervous, shy, afraid, terrified of the camera, even when I was the photographer. I lived my long-repeated statement that I preferred to be on the other side of the lens to the hilt. The self-timer was something to be deeply feared, a menacingly beeping enemy out to get me.
It’s part of my controlling nature. I like being able to take pictures of things, I do not like having my picture taken. I like being able to drive, I do not like being driven. I like being able to cook, I do not like being cooked for.
My need to control my environment extends to everything around me, from my neatly ordered bookshelves to the overwhelming tide of nervous fear I experience every time I invite people over.
As I posted more and more pictures, I inevitably realized that people were going to respond to them. Some people were mean, making nasty comments about my body, my sense of fashion, my hair, my glasses, my sometimes uncertain and nervous poses, and any number of other things. Some people were nice, complimenting me on an outfit or the general tone of a photo.
At first, the mean comments really hurt, and I took them to heart.
“Should I get new glasses?” I asked my friend Hilary one day.
“Do you need a new prescription?” she asked.
“No, I just, do you think my glasses look bad?”
“They look fine,” she said, glancing over at me. She could tell I wasn’t reassured. “Really. They look great.”
It didn’t help when my optometrist pressured me to get a more feminine-looking pair when I finally did need a new prescription.
Time went by. The mean comments mattered less. I got a lot more confident about taking pictures of myself and about having fun with them. I showed more of myself -- not just my body, but my sense of humor, the strange situations I sometimes find myself in, the fact that I am usually found wearing nothing more than a white undershirt around the house.
Being forced to take pictures of myself constantly started to breed more self-confidence, and, in looking at those pictures, I stopped seeing the things I used to see that I hated. I didn’t dwell on the bulges at my waistline or the acne on my face or the weird pudge at my thighs. I thought about light, color, composition. I thought about whether I liked the clothes I was wearing.
Taking pictures of myself at random started to become fun, and I started doing it not just when I needed to, but when I wanted to. Self-portraits became interesting projects to play around with the elements around me, or document adventures, or just show how peeved I was that my aircraft was broken and I was stuck on the ground in Denver (Oakland, Los Angeles, Chicago).
Intriguingly, people who take a lot of pictures of themselves are often told that they’re self-absorbed, and they’re criticized for posting so many, especially if they don’t meet very specific rubrics of attractiveness. Pictures from people who are “gorgeous” are okay, but average-, or ugly-, or peculiar-looking people need not apply, because images of us aren’t desirable.
For me, taking selfies has become fun, and it’s become a ritual of owning more of my body and my image. And it’s become a way for me to show that I am something other than words -- I am also a human being, with a body that shifts and changes over time, with a sense of humor about myself and my body, with an identity that isn’t bound up solely in my words, or in my body. I am a person who bakes things and reads books and hides in bed on cold days and chases cats around the house.
There is a tendency on the Internet especially for people to become divorced from their humanity, and selfies change that, confronting you with the reality behind a byline or a username. There’s a reason so many newspapers historically printed headshots of columnists so you could know there was a person behind them, and there’s a reason Jane asked us to regularly include pictures of ourselves in our work.
It’s not just a reminder to readers that we’re people, though. It’s also a reminder to ourselves that we’re human beings, not word-spewing automatons. And it’s a reminder that life can be deeply, ridiculously, amazingly fun sometimes, like when the light is just right and everything comes up roses, every shot on your camera perfect.