self-ease

Summer 1980, age 21 — I was certain, then, that no one could be more monstrous than I was. I look at myself then, so fresh and young and pretty, and can’t imagine how I saw what I saw. I still can remember what I saw, and it makes me shudder.

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.

Here I am with Nancy, my boon companion. Isn’t she lovely?

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. 

January 1, 2017, in my 58 years of glory

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.

selfies

Yesterday afternoon I had coffee with one of my most beautiful girlfriends. I was watching her think and I was just struck by her beauty. That led to a conversation about what we see, what we look at, how we view ourselves. And it’s such a damn cliche, but for both of us our gaze falls on the wobbly throat, the sagging jawline, the eyelids that hang down almost to the eyelashes, the crepey skin. We despaired over this fact, that our eyes fail to see in ourselves what others see in us.

So I told her of my effort to change this. That when I look back at the rare photos of me taken 10 years ago, I think dang, I actually looked pretty good! At the time, though, I’m sure I was very critical. I never wanted pictures taken of me and would throw away the ones that had me in them because I saw such ugliness when I looked at them. WELL….I assume that in 5 or 10 years I’m going to look back at myself today and think dang, I actually looked pretty good! So my effort is to go ahead and see it now. Try to see it now, anyway.

on the way to Marfa when I still had my long hair.
on the way to Marfa when I still had my long hair.

One way I am pushing myself is by taking pictures of myself. I never allowed them, so I have to go waaaay out of my comfort zone to do it. It’s hard. It forces me to confront my face, my appearance, the me that others see.

I think doing this — hard as it is — is having a good effect, actually. I look at that photo I took just over a year ago when I was driving to Marfa and yes, I see the changes in my face and throat. I do. But they’re not really the first thing I see when I look at that picture and they’re definitely not the things I take away. I look at that picture and see an open-faced woman with a big smile, living her life. Those things shine out of the face in that picture — my face.

I’ve taken pictures of myself at times of big emotion—the day I received the separation papers in the mail, the night I told Marc we should let each other go, the night Oliver was born and I was reborn as Pete, seeing Borobodur—and looking at them fills me with the emotion of those times. I’m glad I have them, visual records of sorrow and joy.

There are often stories in the news linking narcissism with the taking of lots of selfies. I have no idea what people think of the selfies I take — on vacation, in front of places I love, on a walk in my neighborhood, just in ordinary settings. I don’t know if they think I’m self-centered or narcissistic (and I don’t care). Probably no one imagines for a second that it’s a hard-fought exercise, that it’s a way to try to change 55 years of habit. That it’s a way to learn how to pull out old lenses and find new ones. It’s hard. I force myself to look, even though I often don’t want to. It’s getting easier, and that makes me so happy. Now and then I smile at an image and think I’m pretty OK. Ironically, when I stop taking selfies is when I’ll be proudest of myself and feel the best about my appearance.

And this is just another reminder that you never know what is going on for people. Be kind.