When we were preparing for his funeral, my family sat around tables in my grandparents' house, sorting through decades' worth of family photos for the ones that would be included in the photo slide show that would play on the video monitors in the funeral home. This was no small task, as we were limited to about 60 photos, and it is probably not exaggerating much to put the number of photos we went through in the thousands.
During this process, I came across a photo that caught my eye. It wasn't a photo that would be used in the slideshow, because my grandfather wasn't in it, but I quietly asked my grandmother if I could keep it, and slipped it into my purse when she said yes. And in the months since then, I've pulled it out periodically to look at it and ponder a few things.
See, here's the thing. I was a really, really cute baby, even by the standards that every baby is cute. I know this is true. I've seen the pictures.
I will even give you that I was a cute toddler, and a cute preschooler, and I was told this, by both loved ones and strangers.
But even by preschool, this was not what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I can't really say whether it was that I'd already started to internalize all of those subtle, societal messages of what constitutes beauty (and a human female's worth), or if it's some kind of collective unconscious, genetic memory thing, but by the time I was four, I was disappointed when I looked in the mirror and saw freckles instead of a tan, and brown hair instead of blond. I had already decided - that young! - that blond hair was better; more desirable somehow. I don't think anyone taught me that. I don't think it was even a message I got from TV, unless Smurfette's yellow hair really had that strong of an influence on me. After all, Snow White was a brunette, but even by the age of 4, I knew I would rather be Aurora than Snow White.
For the entirety of my childhood, into my adolescence, and even pretty well into my adult life, I hated what I saw when I looked in the mirror. This was compounded by PCOS (which was not diagnosed until I was in my later years of college, but started causing me to gain weight before I was 10). And of course, even if the media messages of what beauty was supposed to look like didn't start influencing me in preschool, it was certainly a factor by the time I reached middle school. I knew what I was supposed to be, and I knew I wasn't it.
I hated most pictures of myself, too. (This hasn't really changed much.) I will never forget when my homeroom teacher handed out our school picture packets my junior year of high school. As she handed mine to me, she said, "That's a really good picture of you." And I looked at the picture through the plastic window in the envelope, and thought "Is she fucking with me? Is that what she thinks I really look like?!" As far as I was concerned, those photos needed to be burned.
Which was why the photo at my grandparents' house caught my eye. Because it was taken around that time - maybe a year or two earlier. I honestly don't know what I would have thought if I'd seen this picture at the time. It's possible that I would have grudgingly admitted it was a good picture of me, even when I was 15. It's also possible that I would have wanted to burn this one, too. And that would have been a shame.
I look at the photo now, some 20 years later, and I want to cry. Because I remember what that 15-year-old version of me thought when she looked in the mirror, or saw a photo of herself. I'm not that far removed from the self-loathing. I've gotten better about it, but it's still there, to an extent, and it still happens when I see pictures of myself. Back then, I looked in a mirror, or at a photo, and I saw Fat. I saw Double Chin. I saw Short, Stumpy Neck. I saw Limp, Mousy Hair. I saw Greasy, Oily Skin. I saw Fat. (That one is worth mentioning twice - and I wish 15-year-old me knew when she had it good, as far as that's concerned.)
In the photo I found, it's Christmas Eve, and I'm sitting on the floor in the back room at my grandparents' house in front of an electric keyboard to play Christmas carols. My little brother is sitting next to me, grinning at the camera, and I am in profile, laughing at something off camera.
And I look at myself in that photo now, and I see long, glossy rich brown hair that catches and reflects the light, tucked behind my ear on the side facing the camera, and hanging perfectly alongside the other side of my face, ready and waiting to be tossed dramatically. I see a figure flattered by a long, flowing, sophisticated dress in a shade of burgundy that makes my skin glow. I see a fair, creamy complexion, makeup (I was 15 - I was definitely wearing makeup) perfectly applied. I see long, dark eyelashes and a perfectly defined brow. I see a lovely, genuinely happy smile.
In other words, I see a perfectly beautiful teenage girl.
And I ache for the ability to allow that 15-year-old I used to be to see herself through my 35-year-old eyes.
And I feel a little hypocritical about that desire, because the reality is, I still often see myself with that critical, never-satisfied 15-year-old's eyes. Just a few years ago, I attended a friend's wedding reception, and a photo was taken with the bride and groom and our group of friends. And then the photo was put on facebook and I was tagged in it.
And all I saw, when I looked at myself in the picture, was Fat Double Chin standing next to Drop-Dead Gorgeous People Who Should Be Models.
(Never mind that said Drop-Dead Gorgeous People would vehemently insist that I'm beautiful, too, if I told them what I saw in that picture.)
And I looked at that picture again recently, because the bride and groom had their first baby this past year, and after looking at the facebook photos of the baby, I looked at their other pictures, too. And suddenly, with just 3 years' difference in perspective, what I saw in the photo was completely different. (Well, not the Drop-Dead Gorgeous People part. I stand by that description of my friends.) But I looked at myself in the picture, and thought, "I actually look pretty cute there." Yes, I can still see the double chin, and I'm sure others see it, too. The double chin is there. It exists. I'm pretty sure it will always be there, even if I magic my way into a size 6 someday.
The difference is that it's no longer the only thing I see when I look at that picture.
Another thing that struck me when we were going through the family photos for my grandpa's funeral was how few pictures there were of me with him. The most recent that I could find went all the way back to high school. Because I'm the person who always groans when the camera comes out, and begs to be left out of the photos. Because I look like crap today. I'm having a bad hair day. I'm too fat. No, no, don't take my picture. Seriously, delete that one!
I have plenty of good memories of my grandfather, and the time that I spent with him. I don't need photographic proof that those good times happened. But it still made me a little sad that I was so worried about something as silly as how I looked that I wasn't willing to allow those moments to be captured.
So I've been trying to let go of that, at least a little bit. I'm allowing people to take my picture (although I do still sometimes request that really unflattering ones get deleted). My weight is the highest it's ever been, thanks to a combination of PCOS, repeated courses of steroids, and a disease that limits my ability to exercise (and, somewhere in the midst of that, an occasional "why bother?" attitude). There are a lot of days that I don't feel attractive enough to have my picture taken.
But you know what? A lot of those photos have actually turned out pretty cute. And even in the ones that aren't as flattering, if I take the time to look past the double chin or the big butt or the bulging tummy, I can see how much fun I'm having with the people I care about most.
And isn't that, ultimately, the most beautiful thing in the world?