So, I’ve set out on a journey I didn’t really intend to take, and it all started with a picture. I was lucky enough to be selected as part of a group of real-women journalists to write for The Village Magazine, and the first assignment was to be an exploration of what makes us unique. I was confident about what I would focus on in the essay, but I also needed to include images to accompany the writing. This was a challenge. I felt, in the very heels of my soul, that the images needed to be self-portraits. And there was a surprising amount of weight in the responsibility. So, naturally, I dragged my feet around the task. I made endless lists of preparations. I’d need a haircut, maybe highlights to cover those new greys. I’d curl, contour, blush, rouge, smudge, and conceal this face. I’d wear black, ‘cause, well, duh, it’s who I am and it’s the most flattering shade of all the shades. All black everything, all the time. The whole outfit would have to be new so the blacks were not faded and they all match. And, thus, the list of tasks grew and grew and grew. And the deadline crept closer and closer. Instead of actually doing any of the items on my list, I took a cue from my toddler and peacefully resisted by throwing myself face-down on the ground. I really was dreading every bit of this self-portraiting.
When faced with a looming deadline, I’d normally buckle down and procrastinate until the night before and then sheer adrenaline and fear of failure would take me through a productive night into a sleepy-eyed, draggy morning. Since I’m not a photographer, I knew this normal level of super procrastination wouldn’t work because I just didn’t know what in the heck I was doing; surely the process of editing (learning Photoshop was on the list of tasks to accomplish) would take longer than a night. So I set up a test run three days before the deadline. I wanted to make sure I could use the camera, that the light was decent, that I could run from the camera to my place in front of the lens before the shutter clicked at me, and that I had some idea of flattering poses. After rigging up my Canon camera on a mini tripod balanced on a laundry basket stacked on top of a toy box, I pushed the shutter button and started the timer. I ran to the bed, where I had determined we had the best natural light, and jumped up there with the baby. The camera ticked down and click, click, clicked my first ever portrait. It was a test portrait, so my bare face, my leggings, mom bun, and flannel shirt didn’t matter.
I dragged my feet back to the camera and hit the review button. I was sure everything about the picture would be awful. The ten images that came up were a little blurry, but I didn’t hate them. I like them, a lot. They were life; they were easy and real and a fair representation of the authentic me. So, I re-balanced the camera on its wobbly perch, hit the button again and sprinted to the bed. My 21 month old squealed at my antics and we tickled each other. The laughter was real, the smiles were real, our wild hair and stupid outfits were real. This was healing and revealing and addicting.
I took over two hundred pictures. Each burst of images was a new experiment in expressing who I am through action, not posing. It was liberating and explorative and the most glorious unconscious act of feminism. The images are precious in their imperfection. And I was surprised that I didn’t disdain my body like I do when I look in the mirror or try to button fresh-out-of-the-drier jeans. I wasn’t critical, AT ALL, of my crooked face and uneven eyes. I didn’t see the extra bumps and valleys of my midsection or my overly-full thighs. I saw ME and, for the first time, I saw me as mama. I saw the way my daughter looks at me when I don’t see and the way I look at her when she’s talking. I saw how my hands, so strong, clutch her little bottom while she’s on my hip. I saw strength and pride, too, in the corners of my eyes. I saw contentment and happiness in my lips and the crease at the sides of my nose. I saw what my baby’s fingers look like when they’re tracing my jawline so I will turn and look at her. I saw her eyes light up as I read to her. I saw all the hard nights and fun days we’ve spent together and the energy, energy, energy and focus and attention we’ve lavished onto each other. I saw the miracle of my body and its ability to create this little morsel of sparky life and fire and love. Finally. I saw a verification of my position as a mother that I didn’t know I needed. This is the mama that others see. This is the mama that my daughter sees. She’s real and she’s living it. It’s a strange relief to finally meet her, to meet me. I feel powerful and righteous and so much more self-assured. How did I not know that this was me? What else am I missing? I’ve taken several more self-portraits since then and each is as revealing as the first.
I’d like to advocate, gently but insistently, that you find a moment to take your own self-portrait. Go beyond the selfie. Separate yourself from the camera, use a timer so you can become the subject. Don’t worry about the quality. Capture yourself in the midst of life. I’m certainly not a photographer, but I managed. You can, too. Sure, you could have someone take it for you, but I think we can’t help but act in front of others, even our partners and friends. Take your own portrait and then look at it with a liberated heart. Who do you see that you didn’t know was there? You owe it to yourself to savor your being and appreciate all the nuances that make you spectacular.