Last fall, Justin and I took an infant first aid course with the other parents from our prenatal group. It was the first time we’d all gotten together in months; between jobs, family commitments and the not-so-small detail that we all had newborns, life had inevitably gotten in the way. As it does. At any rate, we were all excited to see one another and marvel at how our babies had grown.
At the end of the class, someone suggested we take a group picture.
Here’s something you need to know about me: I hate having my picture taken. Like, HATE hate. I actively hide from the camera, unless it’s a selfie because then I know I can take a thousand different versions and delete every single one if I don’t like them. Pictures taken by other people? Not so much. Group pictures? Oh hell no. You can’t ask someone to retake a group picture over and over again just because you don’t like the way you look.
When people who know me well insist on taking my picture despite the fact that I’ve made my anxiety abundantly clear, or when they try to catch me unaware, I’ve been known to find creative ways to teach them a lesson. Just ask my dad about the pictures from our family vacation to Italy (… let’s just say a certain finger managed to make an appearance in each one. Not my proudest moment.)
I’m much less likely to protest if the picture-taker is someone I don’t know as well, mainly because I don’t want to look like a jerk. So on this particular day at the first aid course, I hopped in with the group and smiled for the shot. I was actually feeling pretty good that day.
Until later, that is.
Later was when the photo was posted in our Facebook group. There she was, smiling out from the middle of the crowd: a woman I barely recognized. Haggard; frumpy; greasy-haired and surprisingly stocky.
Why is this woman smiling? What makes her think she has the right to exist in public and feel good about it? Look at her: she’s ridiculous. She looks like crap.
How did she manage to get someone to marry her and have a baby with her? And why is that baby looking at her with such adoration?
Someone in the group asked for permission to share the photo on our prenatal program’s Facebook fan page.
What I wanted to say was:
What I said was:
The strain of my effort to be non-committal still tightens my chest when I look at that today.
I felt so good about my body while I was pregnant, and even in the weeks after I gave birth. In my mind, I’d become a better version of myself: my hair was thick and lustrous; my mysterious allergy to my wedding band had disappeared; and on top of it all, I was pleased to discover that only days after giving birth I was a few pounds lighter than before I got pregnant. Hallelujah! For once in my life, I was that woman everyone resents for making it look easy … and it felt fantastic.
A few months later, though, my body went through what I’ve come to refer to as the Three Month Reset:
My hair started falling out.
I was allergic to my ring again.
And I started to gain weight.
The extra pounds were easy enough to ignore as long as I was cocooned inside them and not looking at them. But then … the picture happened.
The woman in the picture was fine just going about her day and enjoying life. The woman looking at the picture was not. The woman looking at the picture slipped into a rotten mood and subsequently took it out on her husband. She may also have punished a few glasses of wine after the baby went to bed, just for good measure.
The woman looking at the picture knew she was the only person looking critically (or even closely) at the woman in it. That didn’t make her feel any better.
There’s this voice in my head that I sometimes have trouble silencing. It tells me that no matter how happy I am — no matter how comfortable in my skin — none of it’s real. None of it’s valid when I look at the vehicle I’ve been navigating this world in, and see it’s not as sleek and shiny as I’d like it to be.
Taking my picture drags me out of those moments when I’m enjoying myself, and into anxiety and self-doubt as I start worrying about how I look. So in an attempt to stay present and also not feel terrible about myself later, I hide from the camera.
Then I look at the small one, peering at herself in our full-length mirror. The slow smile sprouting across her face. The joy of recognition, like a long-missed old friend: her own self, in all her imperfect perfection.
The way she looks at me sitting behind her in that same mirror; standing next to her in that same picture. Not at the dull hair, not at the dark circles, not at the extra pounds. At me. Like I’m everything.
She may have a lot to learn from this life, but I have some things to learn from her too.
I wish this was a story about how I came to accept myself, love my body, give zero fucks, and just pose for the damn photos already. But it isn’t. This story is a work in progress — like so many of our stories are. I have a long way to go, and maybe one day I’ll get there. But until I do, I need a little more time here … just outside the frame.