(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)
On a lazy Saturday in September, I intentionally posted 11 of my most unflattering selfies on Facebook — just because. Well, not precisely “just because.” Here’s the what, the why, the how and the what happened of that frivolous undertaking.
“Ugly selfies” are nothing new. Nearly five years ago, Bay Area poet Sonya Renee Taylor helped popularized the trend with “Ugly Picture Monday” on her Facebook page. She encouraged other women to join the pictorial exercise, which became a way to laugh at oneself and/or boldly pronounce one’s self-acceptance. For reasons that had little to do with being funny or displaying courage or promoting confidence, I too wanted to join the unprepossessing parade with my own “ugly” photos of my face and my body.
I use the word “ugly” loosely, because I, like you, know that I’m not the worst-looking creature to ever walk the earth. And I, like you, have enough sense to know that not looking like Kerry Washington or Kim Kardashian or Karlie Kloss is not what makes one the worst-looking creature on the planet. But I, like you, have deleted countless picture outtakes on my iPhone.
Identifying the objectionable is never difficult. “Ugh. My arms look fat!” “Wait, take it again. Let me suck in my stomach this time.” “Hell naw! I gotta fix my weave! You can see my edges of my real hair!” “Lord, have mercy. Bless my heart. Look at how bad my skin looks! I’m not taking any pictures today because I didn’t wear makeup!”
Since college, I’ve been fighting the impulse to discard the undesirable. At 19 or 20 years old, I declared that I wanted to be the next Toni Morrison, a writer whose work always seemed, to me, to reclaim that which would be otherwise thrown away. As I scribbled countless pages of (bad) poetry in my journal, I imagined that I was a uniformed worker picking up trash along the roadside. With every word, I saw myself as the young writer, walking for miles, bending down repeatedly to retrieve rumpled paper, cigarette butts and torn plastic bags. Twenty years later, I reckoned that taking ugly selfies, like writing bad poetry, was my new trash-collecting frontier.
Selfies are like Post-its, and each sticky, yellow page has “I’m fantastic!” written all over it. With our pictorial presence online, many of us are campaigning for office. The refrain at the end of our 30-second spiel: My name is ____, and I approve this picture of myself because I look awesome/cute/kinda cute/good to kinda good-ish/not terrible, so I suspect that you will approve it, too.
To eschew politics, my “ugly” photos needed to be “ugly,” like unquestionably and artlessly “ugly” — the kind of “ugly” that’s neither concerned with making “ugly” look pretty nor making “ugly” look cool, interesting, shocking or in any way appealing.
Exhibition without exposition — that was the challenge. There would be no overselling my selfies with sly boastfulness. To employ the beautifully lit elegance of a Dove commercial or to pronounce #UnfilteredUnflatteringUnbothered as a badge of honor would defeat the point. But there would also be no underselling my selfies by with obvious self-deprecation. To publicly spurn my own selfies or to roast my selfies with disclaimers would portray a great social-media sin: looking like a “compliments, please” panhandler.
No. These photos would in no way be a ploy for ego-boosting reinforcement. (And, yes. Yes, I know I was taking this selfie game way too seriously.)
When it comes to body confidence, it’s not that women need to build more self-esteem — it’s that we need to perform less self-editing. If I were I to evaluate every selfie that I’ve ever deleted, I could quickly point out the recurring flaws: My double chin; the rolls and bulges of my stomach; my chunky arms (which, two years ago, were downright lanky); my thinning hairline; and the pimply, acne-scarred skin on my face. So, without trashing a single frame in my iPhone, I visually documented those physical aberrations, which, time and again, I had surreptitiously cast out from my pictorial identity.
First, I took headshots without contorting my neck so that my face looked thinner. Next, I captured an image of myself sitting up in bed, back slumped and far from straight (you know, the way I actually sit in the bed when I’m watching Frasier reruns and not posing for Internet posterity). Then, I sat on the edge of the bed to photograph my stomach, pulling up my shirt to reveal the substantial belly bulges that I use all manner of flouncy, flowy and well-placed apparel to conceal. Next, I snapped a picture of my arms resting comfortably at my side, showing their full expanse rather than hiking my hand up on hip to make them look skinnier. In another shot, I deliberately pulled back my weave to show my own receding hairline as well as where my fake hair begins. Finally, there was a close-up of the pimples and scars on my forehead.
I felt a knot in my stomach when it came time to post to Facebook. It took every ounce of self-restraint not to write witty or funny or self-deprecating photo captions, uploading my photo shoot as one album that I simply titled “That Selfie Saturday in September.” Then, resisting the urge to explain myself, I waited to see what, if anything, people would say.
Virginia Logan — or “Sister Logan” as a call her, because I know her from church and she’s the wife of a pastor, not mention one of my spiritual mentors — wrote the first comment, saying, “Girl…you’re having a ball,” thereby offering her characteristically positive affirmation without sounding patronizing. After reading what she had written, I might have breathed a small sigh of relief, except the pictures had only been posted for a few minutes. Slowly but steadily, more comments appeared along with quite a few likes — 38 altogether, which is 37 more than I expected, accounting, of course, for at least one pity-like. I received many pats on the back, the most emphatic from a high school friend who applauded me saying, “REAL. Respect these photos.”
But then there was an outright declaration of disapproval from Whitney, one of my closest friends. She offered this vigilant reprisal: “don’t let these ppl trick you into thinking this shit is ok to post!! you’re going to make come down there and retrieve you!” My college friend had already expressed his head-scratching bewilderment with a meme of an astonished looking Oprah Winfrey and the phrase “Ooopp…” which, I supposed meant that he couldn’t ascertain if my selfies were #Farce or #Fail. So I’d at least succeeded at my own “exhibition without exposition” game. My mother wasn’t shy about disguising her own confusion, writing, “And the purpose of these…??”
My mother, like most mothers, has the reasonable expectation that women should look attractive in their photos. I grew up listening to her occasionally bash her own appearance in pictures. Typically, she rendered her disapproval with a comment about looking “like a fat cow,” an appraisal that always made me wince a little even when she tried to make the bovine comparison sound like a cheerful wisecrack. But I’ll never forget the time she and I rummaged through old family photographs during a visit to my grandmother’s house when I was in high school. For each picture of my mother that we discovered, she had an increasingly incredulous reaction. When she surveyed the dozenth or so photo, she joyously shrieked, “Girl, look at me! Look at how cute I was! Why didn’t anybody tell me I was cute?! I didn’t even know I was cute back then!” Had there been selfies back in my mom’s “look at me” heyday, she surely wouldn’t have missed hearing any affirmation.
Decades from now, when I rediscover all my selfies of yore, who knows how I’ll assess my appearance. Hopefully I’ll calculate neither the sum nor the subtraction of my body’s flaws. Hopefully I won’t get too caught up in the Look at how cute I am! or the Look at how ugly I am! hype.. Hopefully, when my future self appraises my “ugly” selfies, I will only say, “Here I am.” Nothing more, nothing less. And I’ll intone those words, Here I am, as the one true hymn that salutes visibility — all visibility, whether vain or vulnerable.