From a very young age, I hated how I looked in pictures. My nose always seemed too large. My eyebrows were too thick. My awkward stage was painfully awkward and then drawn out through years of braces, glasses and acne. Even in my 20s, I hadn’t found my groove yet—any groove, really—and it hurts even now to look back at snapshots of myself wearing clothes and an identity that didn’t fit when I should have been in my physical prime.
If the TV show What Not to Wear had existed circa 1994, I would have been a shoe-in candidate for a makeover. I was the “invisible girl” type, hiding in plain sight, wearing dull, frumpy clothes. It was easier not to be seen than to be viewed as nerdy, odd or ugly. That’s truly how I saw myself. I can’t imagine what the teen or 20-something me would have done if she’d had the added pressure of preening for social media. It was hard enough facing kids in school each day.
I was reflecting on this (and, naturally, shuddering) this week as the Oxford Dictionaries chose “selfie” as Word of the Year. Unless you’re an Ayoreo Indian living in the Paraguayan bush, you probably know by now that a selfie is a photo you take of yourself, generally with some mobile electronic device, which you then post to a social media website like Instagram, Facebook or Flickr. If you’re female, these self-portraits almost invariably emphasize your, shall we say, feminine qualities. But even men these days are under pressure—either self-imposed or from others—to showcase their sex appeal. That, of course, has had varying success.
Even when I did eventually come into my own, sometime in my 30s, I still was fairly modest. The selfie, to me, always seemed the opposite of modest—not necessarily immodest, though it certainly can be, but rather, self-aggrandizing and vain. It took a while to realize my opinion might have been fueled by the slightest tinge of jealousy, the painful reality that I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable with myself.
I’m not sure what made me take my first selfie. I suppose you could blame it on owning a smartphone with a reverse camera. I remember accidentally hitting the switch button one day and having to face my own face on the screen. It was disconcerting, to say the least, and that fish-eye lens made my nose look even larger than normal. After a while, I began to use the camera as a mirror to check my lipstick or to make sure there were no strands of pulled pork stuck in my teeth after dinner. At least it was good for something.
Then, a little more than a year ago on a family trip to Maine, it happened: I was out on a hike and snapped my first selfie along the trail. It was hideous. My chin was pointed up at a strange angle, and I had a completely unnatural, self-satisfied grin. I deleted it almost immediately, ashamed for even trying. A few months later, while checking my makeup in my overpriced mirror, I thought I looked kind of OK and pressed the shutter button, again. This time, it wasn’t so bad. I was at the beach down the Jersey shore waiting to have dinner with some friends. The sun was near the horizon, gleaming with golden light. The sky and water behind me were a clear blue. After the first one came out all right, I kept snapping. In one shot, the wind blew my hair across my face. It wasn’t good in terms of what we think of as a selfie, but I liked that photo best of all. It was far more interesting to me than the others, and that was the key. It was for me. I kept it for myself.
Since then, I’ve become a pretty regular selfie taker. In fact, I can be a bit of a camera whore. (Yeah, I said it.) I share some of these photos, but not all. Mostly I take them as a way to tell myself a story about where I am in that particular moment. In some ways, it serves the same purpose as journaling for me. It’s nice when they turn out pretty, which they do more frequently than I ever thought possible, but maybe that’s because I believe now, as I never did before, that I’m beautiful just as I am. I also try—like never before—to enjoy every day more than the last, to be open to all of life’s loveliness. The proof is in the pictures.