I almost never felt pretty as a teenager. Then -- in high school -- I discovered Photoshop.
Even though I've never had a physical addiction, I can say that when I was in the grips of my obsession it was all about power and escape and wanting more, more, better, more.
The first time I discovered this magical tool of perfection-creation, I found myself falling into an endless loop of using. For an insecure, self-hating young woman, it was my drug of choice. Minutes would turn into hours. Basic pictures would turn into artistic enterprises to reach a level of billboard-image competitiveness that I never felt I could achieve otherwise.
Keep in mind, this wasn't just filters on Instagram or Hipstamatic or Lo-Mob. This was down and dirty nitpicking, strategizing, near storyboarding in my re-imagining of my alternate Photoshop-perfect self. It's embarrassing to even admit how badly I wanted to cover myself up, but now I'm beginning to realize, maybe I'm not the only one?
Do other people imagine their photo-optimized twins from another dimension? My Photoshop Twin wasn't afraid. She was bold. She was confident. She was playful and provocative and free.
Because, honestly, there are only two moments in high school -- out of my entire four years -- where I can recall feeling actually pretty. In real life. The first one was when I was the lead in the school musical, where my classmates helped me curl my hair and put on doll-like makeup and where a two-week stomach virus right before the show helped me drop at least five pounds. The second was my senior prom, which was mostly due to having a wonderful date and wearing a dress that could make anyone look and feel at least kind of good.
But, as for the rest of the time, my feelings towards myself could be summed up by this:
It’s strange, looking at photos of yourself from the past and having them not be you at all, but rather some edited version of what you wanted so desperately to be. In a way, it tells me more about myself than any of the casual snapshots my friends took, where I’d scrunch my face up goofily near a locker, or bulge my eyes out in sarcastic excitement -- all a pretense that I’m comfortable with myself, because confident girls can make funny faces and still feel gorgeous.
But when I’d get home and decide I need a new shower of compliments to get me through the day, I’d take a photo. I wouldn’t bother with putting on makeup or brushing my hair -- all could be fixed later. I would open the window in my room to get enough sunlight in (but not enough for anyone outside to see me existing in my room, God forbid), pose in some mildly new way ("bored-casual," "meditative," "carefree smiling," "flirtatious adorable," or the ever-reliable stand-by: "the knowing grin")…and then the “fun” part would start. With my basic knowledge of Adobe Photoshop, I could change everything.
With the dodge tool, I could whiten my teeth and eyes. The burn tool allowed me to practically draw on mascara and eyeliner and blush, as well as darken my lips to the vampy red too inappropriate for school. Blur and smudge tools could blend my blemishes and under eye circles into pure plastic smoothness, and, on rare occasions, the liquefy tool could enlarge my hair or breasts or shrink my nose or waist. Even more rarely, possibly only once, the lighting from outside the window looked good enough to neglect what had to be done.
I’d post these to Facebook and MySpace and wait for the comments to flood in. My Photoshop Twin was so popular. So accepted. So "liked." The numbers would astound me and act as a reminder that people did remember me. Girls who I barely talked to in real life would jealously obsess over my “perfect skin.” Closer friends would tell me that, “as always,” I was beautiful and should be a model. The “likes” would pile up, along with my self-esteem (until I felt down enough to take a new photo, of course.)
Perhaps you could call this a double life -- one full of the confusion of wanting to be two things that I perceived to be mutually exclusive: being intelligent and being attractive to everyone. On one hand, I didn’t want to be one of the “popular, fake” girls -- I only straightened my hair for special occasions and never wore bronzer or mascara or even nail polish, really. I equated everything ultra-feminine with stupidity. I never had a desire to date anyone at the time and only cared about practicing musical acts for the school’s bi-annual cabaret night and getting into college (especially the latter).
And yet…it was difficult going to school every day to be taunted and subtly mocked.
Guys would send me IMs pretending to be a secret admirer or touch my butt during gym class or follow me in semi-large groups and corner me by my locker my entire freshman year. They would never say anything except the occasional bizarre threat that "my locker was open" followed by menacing silence. I was a joke. The worst was when adults would tell me this happened because they liked me.
Years later, I came to New York City for school. I met incredible people of all shapes and sizes and learned that beauty was more arbitrary than I ever considered it to be. I deleted all my ‘shopped photos from Facebook (but not MySpace, where I dug up these treasures) and felt naturally embarrassed that I was ever that shallow or deeply self-conscious. I had almost forgotten about all of this because of not reworking myself for Facebook in so long, because the feeling of inadequacy has, like, a life-ruining blemish on a teenage chin, faded away, though not as quickly as I would have liked.
However, unearthing this bright-eyed, mermaid-haired monster of Photoshopped photos past has left me a little weak in the knees. I take body image seriously and think, like every other sensible woman, that this video is terrifying and extremely dangerous. I get catcalled enough now to be put down by it, and cannot begin to fathom why I would ever want anyone, guy or girl, thinking they have a right to try and validate my existence because of my looks. I was, four years ago, up against the same battle that all women face every day when they look in the dressing room mirror and break down because of cellulite or a crooked nose or thinning hair. No matter how intelligent, driven, creative, funny, wonderful we are -- the advertisements and images we’ve seen in a lifetime act as a manic flipbook in the back of our minds, animating for us the outline of the perfect body as it moves through life gracefully and happily.
Back then, my weapon of choice against fire, was, incidentally, fire.
If I was going to be bombarded with perfection constantly, well then, two could play at that game.
But where does it end?
The waists get tinier. The teeth are too white. And eventually, as what happened to me when I swore off obsessive Photoshopping forever at the age of 17, I remembered that reality could actually hold some weight.
I’m not proud of my high school preening and striving, but I accept who I was back then as a nervous uncomfortable miserable young girl. I didn't have an eating disorder. I didn't repeat the abuse cycle by bullying others. I'm at the point where I'm not so much saddened but vaguely amused at how sweet and misguided my young Photoshop-addicted self was only four short years ago.
There are times, when I have an awful day or when I'm uncertain about who I am and what I feel and where I'm going, when I look at a photographic image of myself -- un-Photoshopped and as I really am -- where I still feel at war with the image that I see as captured by the photo lens. But it's calmed down since, and I feel more than all right existing inside the space of where I am.
The lighting outside looks good enough.
Follow Julia at @jaypugz.