I've never been a fan of cameras.
For as long as I can remember, when someone tried to take my picture, I complained. I was never ready. On Christmas morning, I looked sleepy. For pre-dance photos, my make-up wasn't perfect. Every spring, for the entire season, my hair was "flat." (In the 80's, that was tragic.) Even worse, when I was growing up, we had to wait for the film to be developed, so when a photo came back and my eyes were half open and I looked like somebody's drunk uncle, I yearned for retakes.
Looks were a big deal to me. In high school, I belonged to a large group of girlfriends who were all stunningly beautiful, and I always felt that I was the token funny friend with the good personality. My nose was pointy. My eyes were boring and brown. I looked fat. I was a bean pole back then, but it didn't matter. I saw myself in pictures, and I didn't like what I saw.
After I fell in love and got married, cameras helped point out the obvious fact that I had put on plenty of happy weight. By the time Facebook arrived, I lived in constant fear that somebody who knew me when I was thin would see a photo of me and learn the truth. If someone posted a bad picture of me on Facebook, I would frantically reach them and beg them to take it down. It didn't matter that the people closest to me knew that I wasn't thin; I figured that I could work hard, lose weight, stop aging, and by the time I saw the people who only knew me as thin, I would magically look just like I did in 1988! It was a foolproof plan!
This lifelong hatred of cameras is strange because I consider myself to be an extremely happy person. I love being around other people. I laugh hard. I hug big. But if you take my photo in the wrong light (and for people like me, that is every photo), after the party's over, I'll agonize over the unflattering photos. This is just how it's been for as long as I can remember.
Recently, something changed.
Two things happened. First, I watched the much-talked short film, "Selfie," which was released in conjunction with the tenth anniversary of Dove's Real Beauty campaign. In the film, photographer Michael Crook invites high school girls to participate in a project where they take selfies, and asks them to help redefine beauty in the process. Crook also asks the girls to consider exploring the things about themselves that they don't like. Then, she invites their mothers to join the project, and reveals that how mothers feel about themselves impacts how daughters feel about themselves as well.
"Mothers pass on their insecurities to their children," Crook says.
As the mother of a 10-year old girl and the stepmother of an 18-year old young woman, I've worked very hard not to pass along my negative feelings about my body image down to the girls. We discuss making healthy choices and focusing on loving ourselves for who we are. I remind them that they are beautiful inside, and that is why they are beautiful on the outside. Yet, if every time I see a picture of myself I criticize, then delete, what does that teach my daughters about how I feel about myself? And, worse, how am I teaching them how to feel about themselves?
Then the second thing happened.
Last Friday at work, I was using some new technology we recently implemented that allows our employees in two different cities to communicate in real-time on iPads (or, in this case, an iPad and a huge monitor). We're still figuring it out, so often I find myself yelling at the screen because I can't get the volume controls to work properly. On Friday, I had just finished yelling into the screen at a colleague, and returned to my desk when my coworker said,
"Amy! Check your email! You're probably not gonna like this..."
Evidently, as I was furrowing my brow and talking to my coworker, another coworker snapped a picture, attached it to an email encouraging use of the new technology, and emailed it to my entire company. Voila.
My worst nightmare, magnified. There, for everyone to see: my sagging chin, messy ponytail, the Friday-afternoon bags under my eyes from a long work week (or, more realistically, 20 years of long work weeks). Immediately, I went into disaster recovery mode, and sent a company-wide reply begging everyone to delete it. While my email had a humorous twist , mentioning that I was "unfriending" the man who sent it, anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I was completely mortified.
A few minutes later, I received an email reply from the man who took and emailed the picture. He's person that I truly like and respect. He has a fantastically positive outlook on life, and this radiates in his work and his personal life. He began the reply with these four simple words:
"You look beautiful, Amy!"
I had to read that a few times to be sure I wasn't seeing things. How could he think that? Didn't he see how terrible I looked? Didn't he know how neurotic I am, and that a huge picture of my flawed face was terribly hard for me to see?
And then it hit me. He sees me in a better light than I see myself.
This was a powerful moment. At that moment, I felt a sudden, overpowering feeling that I had permission to see myself as beautiful. My coworker didn't see all of the flaws because they don't matter. The only person who really cares about a bad angle or an unflattering shot is me. Everyone else sees me at all angles, every day, and they don't duck away in horror. Why should I?
If we are truly our own worst critics, why can't we see ourselves through the lens of those who care about us? When someone takes my photo and I ask them to contort in all sorts of uncomfortable positions to get the right shot, or when I'm raising my arm several feet above my head to get a selfie that makes me look thinner, what am I telling myself? What am I telling my daughters?
Just as the message in the film "Selfie" suggests, it's not too late for us to redefine beauty. A simple photograph doesn't define us. The people who care about us see us in all angles, in all light, with all expressions, all day long, and yet they still care about us, and they think we are beautiful. This doesn't mean I'm dumping my photo editing applications, or that I'll stop cringing at unflattering images overnight. I'll always need work there. But now, if I'm posing with my daughters and I don't look picture perfect, I'll have the confidence to know that the experience is what is beautiful, and that's all that matters.