The really terrible thing about being seen and described as a monster by your mother is the way that gets internalized, right from the start, before you even have words of your own. It’s like a slug of radiation, slow-leak-poisoning you for decades. She did her thing, and I finished the job for her long after I left her and never saw her again. I believed I was the monster she saw. I believed I was a fat cow, as she called me. Her words transformed into the very lenses in my eyes. The clinical term for it is body dysmorphia, but that seems so bloodless. It’s confusing to other people who look at you and see a perfectly ordinary human being. Maybe they see beauty, maybe they see plainness, but they just can’t see what you see yourself. They have normal lenses.
The changes that come with aging are twofold. First, if you’re lucky I suppose, you simply become more comfortable in your own skin, which at that point is softer and sagging. And second, also if you’re lucky, you dig out those old lenses, delete and replace those old stories, and find a new voice in your head that wishes you well.
Selfies are fascinating to me. Young people seem to take them to practice different ways of self-presentation, to be flirty, to show their youth. Selfies can show you in a special place — here I am, on Machu Picchu! At the Parthenon! In a little boat in the middle of the Mekong River Delta! Here I am with my daughter, my granddaughter, one of my grandsons, my friend.
And sometimes I think people take them for the same reason I do, which is to try to see themselves clearly. To snap a picture and then gaze at it, ah, that’s me. That is my nose, that is my smile. Taking selfies has helped me learn how to see myself. I look closely at all of them, the awkward ones, the ugly ones, the mid-grimace ones, the lovely ones, looking for myself. It’s a digital effort to build my own database of myself. I have a folder on my laptop full of them, and I keep trying to remember to delete them all in case I die unexpectedly and my kids find them and think I was surely narcissistically self-centered. For some reason it’s easier to see a photograph than to see in the mirror, where I move and live and my face morphs. I too easily get distracted by my thoughts in a way that I don’t, with a picture.
When I started sharing them a couple of years ago, people’s comments and responses were extremely difficult to take. They made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if people thought I was fishing for compliments. If they had been inside my head they would have known the truth of my humiliation, and the courage it took to share them. I’d thank them, and for a very long time I thought they were just lying out of kindness. And then, about a year later, I started to think it wasn’t that they were lying, but that their vision of me had everything to do with them and their generous hearts, and little to do with me. So I thanked them for seeing me with such grace and love.
When I share one now, and someone leaves a generous compliment, my gratitude is very different. I see a bit of what they see. And best of all, I can’t see what my mother saw, no matter how hard I try. I see an aging woman with a kind face (usually), with a nice smile and a generally attractive appearance. I usually like my hair (especially that glorious white streak that frames my face, how I love that!). I’ve come to like my nose well enough. I see echoes of my father and his mother, both of whom I was always told I resembled. Actually, I was told I looked JUST like them, and in fact I have their hands exactly, although my hands have never been violent.
OK. That’s me. I see.
I guess this post is just an alternative way for you to think about seeing people’s selfies — and especially if it’s a somewhat older woman sharing them. Maybe it’s not at all about showing off, or hoping for compliments, or about narcissism. Maybe she is just trying to see. Be kind. Help her.