HARD TO LOOK AT
This is a hard picture for me to look at—and I am not exactly sure why, even though this same feeling has been around for a very long time. Not the kids, of course, but looking at myself is hard.
I remember the circumstances for this photo. The kids had selected their outfits for the annual Christmas card photo shoot and Elizabeth Galecke and I had decided on a studio shoot instead of home or outdoors. Online skating was a big thing that year and the kids were excited as usual to get their photos taken—although Grady– always was a bit more reluctant and resistant—needed gentle nudging and prodding from Jessie and Elizabeth’s monkey poop jokes to soften and relax.
Somehow, the idea came up for me to join in for a picture or two. We’d never done this before—the Christmas photos were always just the kids, or the kids and the dog, and didn’t include David and me. I was very comfortable with this arrangement—it just seemed easier and reflected my priorities, I reasoned—“I don’t care about documenting us, I just want photos of the kids”.
I remember thinking how I didn’t really want to have my photo taken. My hair was pulled back, probably greasy. I had a huge, boxy black sweatshirt on and loose gym shorts. Up popped that knee-jerk, automatic reaction of thinking that I won’t look good in the photo—the one present for years, decades, as long as I can remember—a quiet anxiety and then dismissal every time a camera was aimed in my direction.
My parents took very few family photos growing up—we just weren’t that kind of family. A few occasional snapshots on trips back to Ohio or at my paternal grandparents’ home. A few Easter photos decked out in what now strike me as ridiculous hats, gloves and shiny shoes. But no family milestones celebrated in pictures-no birthday, boyfriend or graduation photos.
So, there was no practicing this look or that look, this smile or that angle in the mirror as I grew up. My daughter taught me when she was in early high school (and I was well into my forties) that your arms look “better”, aka skinnier, if you put your hand on your hip. I had no idea.
My upbringing all seems so strange now. Jessie and Grady’s lives are so well documented from moments after birth, to graduations and marriages and every birthday, celebration, relationship, vacation and school year in between– in polaroids, VCR microcassette tapes, annual photo shoots with Elizabeth, discs from then-Eckerd’s Drug Store, and now of course digitally.
But then some impulse pulled me into the spirit of the moment with Elizabeth and the kids. I remember thinking “maybe it’ll come out good and I can surprise David with a photo for his office.” David had tons of kid photos in his office but none of me. An optimistic hope that perhaps this ONE photo of me will turn out well and feeling proud of myself for taking the risk.
Sorting through the proofs weeks later, I remember dismissing this photo out of hand, almost without conscious thought. Feeling that I looked big and blocky, my neck wide, my thighs exposed, my smile crooked–the photo wasn’t flattering at all. Poor David—no smiling wife photo on his desk.
I have pretty vivid memories of bathing suit shopping with Jess–steeling myself for the dressing rooms in Belk’s, the ridiculous florescent lights. Taking my daughter with me so I’d be forced to have a positive attitude. Knowing what I needed to do even though it remained hard. Faking “liking my body”, even in a bathing suit, so my little girl would grow up liking hers. Needing her to be with me to be my best self.
Oh and the tricks I played with myself! Looking only waist up in the mirror, not really looking at all in the shower. Not wearing jeans for a year or two—they were so “uncomfortable”. Staying out of photos, functioning instead as the family photographer, before the kids and cell phone cameras took over. Quickly shuffling through any photos that did include me, dismissing them without every really looking. Focusing on parenting, on kids, over myself. How normal and natural–the way of so many women.
Now, on the backside of 55 years old, the body concerns just seem so ridiculously silly. What a phenomenal waste of time and life energy. What missed opportunities for loving myself. Post-menopausal, I am free of new make-up products and fad work out routines. Deeper still, facing significant health challenges, I take care of my body in a totally different way. Appreciating its years of service to me and those I love, how strong and capable it’s been, how my children’s births are reflected in my body, how my wrinkles and scars, bumps and pains, reflect my life’s experience. My life—a wonderful life full of love and meaning.
And see in that photo how my kids love me. Both of them, leaning into me, resting on those broad thighs; my arms encircling us all.