There is always a disconnect between the image one sees in a mirror and the image one has of one's self in one's head. This chasm grows wider when it involves recordings of one's self; just as a tape recording of one's voice always sounds off, a picture often feels like it presents a far shallower and less attractive shadow of one than the one we see in our mind's eye or even one's reflection. Of course, just as some days are better than others and some mirrors are kinder, just as we grow to know ourselves and how to manipulate our appearance to downplay what we consider to be our flaws, some pictures do not do us an injustice and we learn, over time, how to reduce the number of photos which do.
But sometimes, a bad one slips through the cracks.
In the old days (i.e. before digital photography and social media) you just and to live with the ugly picture and or destroy it before anyone saw it. Now, though, we have the power to take five hundred pictures of ourselves and only keep the one good one, which makes us feel like we should never have a bad picture of ourselves out in the universe. Except, of course, other people take pictures of us and distribute them, so instead of it being in a frame at one's parent's house which one can stand next to and prove that that is not really what one looks like, it is a picture on the internet seen by many people whose primary knowledge of one's appearance are photographs. That photo is up and seen and liked by so many people before one has even seen it one's self, at which point, it is too late to do anything about it. One has to live with it.
So this happened to me over the weekend.
I am totally aware that it is a first world problem and a fairly recent one at that when one considers all of human history. Sure, aristocrats and royals may well have gnashed their teeth when viewing bad paintings of themselves or felt betrayed by portraits which presented a potential wife in a way that was more flattering than real (at least, from their perspective). But, really, this is a ridiculous problem to have and it demonstrates the parameters of one's vanity in a way which is also less than flattering, not to mention generating a number of unanswerable questions.
What do I mean by an unflattering photograph? Is it a photograph which does not look like me or is it a photograph which does look like me, but seems to highlight all my flaws and does not depict any of my strengths? Did the person who posted this think this was a good picture of me? Is that what I look like to them? Or, maybe, they know it is a terrible picture of me and posted it to hurt me? Or maybe, which is the most likely, it was the best picture of the other people in the photo and they posted it because they never even looked at me in the photo--so, would I do the same to them if the tables were turned? Is it insulting to other people that I think this is a bad picture of me?
In the case of the photo (or photos, I should say, because the problem extended beyond just one) the problem is a convergence of the wrong bra with the wrong dress. In person, I think, the dress is quite nice, but in photos, it caught the light in such a way that all the extra fabric looked like it belonged to my body and my breasts looked enormous, so, as my mom pointed out, I look pregnant. Or like I weigh a good deal more than I do. Isn't immature of me to be complaining about my weight, or looking like I am overweight? Shouldn't I have moved on to worrying about wrinkles? Because, if I am completely honest about those pictures, even though my body looks pregnant my face looks great and at the age of 41 and 11 months I should be taking comfort in that. As Catherine Deneuve observed (well, this quote is credited to her and, also, Meryl Streep), "When you get older, you have to be ready to trade your ass for your face." So, yeah, at my age, shouldn't I accept I can't have everything?
Yes, but that isn't what I look like. I have a flat stomach. I do pilates three times a week and five days of cardio. I want documentary evidence of all my hard work. Except freaking out because I look like I weigh more than I do is kind of insulting to people who do weigh more than I do, isn't it? Why am I so vain? Why do I care if everyone on the internet thinks I have a large belly, whether I have one or not, is there something wrong with having a belly? Am I fat shaming others by being unhappy with my body's appearance in these pictures?
However, there is that desire we all have that a photograph of ourselves, while it may not depict the person we see in our mind's eye when we imagine ourselves, is true. When we see a picture of ourselves which causes the people one knows best to say "that doesn't look like you" it feels like a lie. And while we should feel that way about all the pictures that lie, the ones which are photoshopped to make us look prettier as well as the ones which make us look uglier* the reality is we tend to only focus on the bad and overlook the good (*even when we understand that what we consider pretty and ugly are a result of our cultural conditioning). Or we tell ourselves the alterations which make us look better are merely shifting reality to conform with our inner version of ourselves, so it isn't a lie, it is showing what is really real, whereas the unfortunate accidents of lighting and timing are false visions, a bad dream. Because we are all vain creatures and we are all products of our culture.
A photo which makes us look taller than we are is a good thing because our society deems height to be a positive thing, a photograph which makes us look drunk is not so good because losing control is considered a bad thing. Isn't that is what this is really about, a loss of control? There are images of me out there which do not belong to me, which I cannot alter or eliminate. The only recourse I have is to untag myself, which doesn't make those pictures go away, it just makes it slightly harder for others to see and connect to me. But they still exist and they still are records of a period of my life. Whether they are accurate or not, to deny them is to deny a part of me, perhaps a part I would like to ignore. If I am going to do that, I may as well refuse to allow people to take pictures of me, ever, which is hardly an acceptable alternative. A friend of mine once told her mother-in-law, a woman who refused to have her photo taken because she hated how she looked in photos, "Someday, you will be dead and your grandchildren will want to know what you looked like. Sit down and smile for the camera." I don't want to be the person who never lets anyone take her picture and I don't want Julian to be telling everyone that he has so few pictures of me because I was paralyzed by my own vanity.
So I will leave the picture up and accept it for what it is, a moment in time. Of course it doesn't look like me because I am no insect trapped in amber, I live in four dimensions, how can any photograph truly do me justice? Yeah, it may be worth a thousand words, but you know me, a thousand is not nearly enough.