I am distracted, tormented, unable to stop thinking about the disconnect between moments when I think I look okay, and the photographic evidence that tells me it isn’t true.
How often does this happen? Do I ever look good when I think I do?
Last night I had dinner with my family, at my brother’s house. I thought I looked pretty good, going in─my graying hair was full and shiny, and losing weight over the past year has given me the confidence to wear jeans instead of a long, flowing skirt. In my mirror, in my house, I looked okay…maybe even good.
Then, pictures were taken. I have had a baby and several root canals, and I would rather have one of each than be photographed. Later, my brother put the pictures on Facebook and tagged me. I tried not to look, but things in the feed bounce around these days and suddenly, there I was: looking not okay, not pretty, but like Ben Franklin in drag.
“Oh my God,” I said to my husband, looking away from the computer, “do I really look like that?!”
(He is used to this). “What do you mean? What’s bothering you about it?”
“The chins, the jowls, that thinning hair. The tiny head on the huge body, My chest looks like some kind of continental shelf. Oh my God. How did I leave the house looking like that?”
This is not hyperbole, and I am not joking. I am panicking, absolutely wretched that this hideous image is now available to hundreds, if not thousands of friends and strangers in the inter-world.
Because he is a good man, a kind, patient man who has been dealing with this for years, my husband tried to help me. He told that I don’t really look like the person I see in the photographs, that when people are animated, moving, vibrant with real life, no one is seeing the things that upset me.
I challenged him: “so you aren’t saying that stuff isn’t real, you’re just saying it’s less noticeable in real life. That’s just great. That’s much better.”
I felt a welling up of wrongness, shame and a stifling sense that even if I spent every day of the next six months eating lettuce and running 5Ks, I would still be hideous. Just skinnier.
I should never leave the house.
I should know that when a man is looking at me it isn’t because he’s a “boob man,” or because he thinks I have pretty eyes; he is astonished by my jowliness, the frizz at the ends of my hair, my apparent inability to pull myself together into something a man would want to look at.
My husband tells me (and I think he really believes this) that I am beautiful. I dismiss this in the same way I dismissed compliments from my parents, who also had to love me and find me acceptable.
It is such a complicated, ancient knot of issues that brings me to this place, a knot so old and so corrupted by dirt, moisture and erosion that it is not easily identified, let alone undone.
I looked, the other day, at a picture of myself in about seventh grade. I was with my family, and we were all in our groovy 70s finery—I wore a maxi dress with a sort of pinafore apron thing over it. I see, in that picture, my parents almost 40 years younger, my little brother in his snazzy plaid polyester bell bottoms, my beloved dog Katie, and…my gigantic eyebrows and frizzy hair in a poorly ironed bob.
I am distracted, tormented, unable to stop thinking about the disconnect between moments when I think I look okay, and the photographic evidence that tells me it isn’t true. How often does this happen? Do I ever look good when I think I do? Because last night, I really felt pretty until I saw the picture.
Some of it is my own neurosis, and some is attributable to being teased about my looks, and the influence of magazines. I can say, “no one really looks like that,” and watch the videos that demonstrate the heavy makeup, the wind machines and the airbrushing, but somewhere in my mind it’s all real.
It is unattractive in and of itself, this inability to embrace what I see, or at least dismiss it as just a tiny thing in a big life. I can do this for long periods of time, but then there are cameras, pictures posted on Facebook, and the necessity of trying to explain in the most lighthearted way that “I don’t get photographed” so that the camera will be pointed away from me with no ill will or recognition of pathology.
How do you say to a sane person that you are literally sickened by seeing your fleshy, frizzy self popping up in your Facebook feed like an emissary from Hell?
When I look in the mirror, I see a not unattractive middle aged woman with a long, sad face that is best classified as a pear shape. I see clear, fair skin, no wrinkles, almond shaped eyes a little too small and too close, but not terrible, and long, graying hair with a few pieces falling forward. I see softness, no one would mistake this for the face of a thin person, but I do not see chins reminiscent of Cass Elliott.
I think that’s what everyone else sees until I am presented with photographic evidence of my real appearance, evidence of all the things I apparently gloss over during private assessments.
I don’t really understand how I got this way, or why I can’t just move on without worrying about what’s on Facebook. I’m not sure why I don’t just buck the hell up and do whatever I need to do to make it stop—lose more weight, exercise, get a better haircut, start therapy…whatever it takes.
In the meantime, I can’t look at Facebook until the pictures stop popping up. I’m too busy looking at my navel.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum