After some careful thought, I’ve decided to release my deepest body-related secret onto our class blog. By now I don’t mind that my anonymity is basically gone, unless you haven’t connected the dots between the girl who complains about her knee problems on the blog and the girl who complains about her knee problems in class. (There, I just did it for you.)
It’s something I’ve never discussed with anyone, and my hands feel weak and jittery as I write this.
Okay, here it is:
I can’t look at pictures of myself.
I haven’t looked at a picture of myself since high school.
I would do ANYTHING to get out of having to look at a picture of myself.
I know I’m not the only person with this struggle, though in this world of group pictures, selfies, social networking and relentless self-promotion it always feels that way.
Everyone with this struggle has their own individual reasons for it. As for me, I stopped looking at pictures of myself because I hated how my facial expressions always looked. They’re just always, I don’t know, fucked up. I just can’t conjure up a proper picture smile. Why not? *shrug* That would take years of psychoanalysis to find out.
In every picture, my smile was/is always very painfully forced looking. Like, as if I manually lifted up the corners of my mouth and glued them there, but they kept sliding down. My eyes always blow my cover – they just hang there, angrily and heavy, my Brezhnev-esque eyebrows tensed up. I look moody. And not in a stylized way, which would be employed for edgy, black-and-white advertisements for unisex perfume. Nah, just moody as in a sour, angry, bitter ol’ bitch. And that kind of moodiness comes off as very awkward and ugly in pictures. I just don’t want to look.
It would be inaccurate to call me a simply unhappy person. There are many things that make me blissfully happy in life. For example, Audrey Hepburn movies, Françoise Hardy records, and my Scottish Terrier, Fiona. But I’m really not a smile-y kind of girl, out of habit, natural disposition, and principle. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought it was stupid how people always have to put on a smile at social events. In my view, smiles for pictures are brittle, artificial pieces of arbitrary social courtesy. They are required regardless of one’s actual feelings, which makes them rather oppressive. Like I recently heard Fela Kuti say in an old interview, oppressed people always have to smile. Not that I’m calling myself oppressed, but you know what I mean.
Of course, beneath all that anti-smile blah blah reasoning lays regular ol’ insecurity and pain. Yesterday, I went to the ballet in Washington, D.C. and tons of people were posing for smiley pictures outside afterwards. I felt very bitter. I thought to myself, how narcissistic of them – don’t they realize what a stupid, inauthentic social practice this is? But perhaps that’s not really what I felt deep down. Maybe I just felt jealous of how comfortable they seemed, of how they’re not plagued by this internal struggle like I am.
Years of harboring an acute picture phobia has subtly warped my behavior, making me a rather sneaky person. I’m an expert at innocently weaseling my way out of pictures (“Oh gosh, if my hair didn’t look so flat today you could take my picture!”) and gracefully, very subtly averting my gaze when someone shows me a picture of myself. If I weren’t psychologically unable to take pictures, I would have a picture of me standing next to Wendy Davis, rather than just a memory of how I slyly avoided her because I knew a picture was inevitable. I would have pictures of me standing under the Eiffel Tower, in front of the Tower of London, and hiking in the woods around my Appalachian home. I guess I’ve convinced myself that my memories can suffice.
Whenever I think of my inability to smile in pictures, I think of my older brother, who despite being like me in nearly every way does NOT have a picture-smiling problem. Recently, he sent me some pictures taken of him hoeing a field near the school where he teaches. Living in a remote village in southwestern Benin has definitely “roughened up” his appearance. He’s emaciated, he’s sunburned, and he’s got dirt smeared on his face and caked on his boots. He looks exhausted. And yet, his million-dollar smile shines through. He has genuine joy in his smile and eyes. It makes the pictures so beautiful. These pictures alone make me want to try to overcome my picture phobia. Smiling isn’t always stupid and fake, it can be beautiful too.
I’m sorry if this post seemed kind of unfocused, or if I didn’t sufficiently answer why I can’t look at pictures of myself. It’s just too confusing to explain. Sometimes it’s impossible to untangle and make sense of our most deeply-embedded insecurities. It feels good to at least let it out, though.