Tuesday, September 22, 2015

ESSAY: What Do People See, When They See Me?

The Mirror, the Photo, or Me?

By Judith Cullen
© 2015

It has taken me a long while to get to this point. I have never had a very good self-image.  I never considered myself attractive, and some days I still do not.  The reality is far more disturbing than that. It was not just what I thought I wasn’t, it was what I thought I was: massively imperfect, grossly flawed, highly unappealing.  I’d like to say that I have matured to the point that I realize how wrong that view point was and is.  I would like to say that I fully recognize how popular culture and the media feed the kind of beast that destroys women’s perceptions of themselves as lovely.  I’d really like to acknowledge that I deny the impossible standards of beauty that we are fed from infancy.  I would really like to say that, and some days I can.  Other days I would kill to loose 100 lbs because I just see “me the lump.”

I’ve noticed that there are several different "me" images that I perceive.  There is the me that I see in the mirror.  Thanks to some of the consciousness-raising mentioned above, that image is one that I increasingly love.  Honestly, it is more beautiful now than ever. The years, the miles, the joys, the heart aches – they are all reflected back to me. No matter the frustrations of the moment, the doubts or uncertainty, the sum of these happenstances equals something lovely.  This me has terrific friends, had some great luck, had some challenges that were worth over-coming, and stands to expect more of the same in a future that still holds a lot of possibilities.  This me is very pretty.  I like her.

I had never really credited what the camera does to images until I was messing about with my phone one day.  I was looking at one of my feet. I consider them interesting and one of my better aesthetic features, though rarely seen by anyone other than myself and the cat.  As transportation aids, they are a little limited: generous arches mean that less than half the sole of my foot is in contact with the ground beneath.  As sculpture, however, they are interesting; all curves and slopes.  I have come to appreciate them, unless I have to stand on them for a long period of time.  Because I have not worn a lot of traditional women’s dress shoes in my life, they have not gone through the sorts of crushing and misshaping that many women’s feet endure in the pursuit of style.

So, I was looking at my foot and thinking that it might make an interesting photo.  I took a snap, and then looked at it.  It wasn't interesting at all.  It showed none of the form or contour that the live view does.  I tried different lighting, a different angle.  The results were the same.  To my eye, the foot is beautiful.  Through the camera, the foot is unremarkable.  That made me wonder.

A really nice recent shot of me by Elena Miller
who has a history of capturing "me"
I hate having my picture taken. Over the years there have been a very few people who have photographed me whose images I actually liked.  I appreciate the art and skill of a photographer who can do more than just take a picture, much as I just took a snapshot of my foot. There is a magic to capturing the real someone without self-consciousness or posing, or in spite of it. 

When I am having a portrait taken, I know what I am thinking “Is my hair okay? Is my dress straight? Is my collar sticking up?” I have had a crooked front tooth since first grade (thank you heavy metal door in my face!) which we have never had the funds to straighten.  It makes me self conscious of my smile, so you can add to that litany “are my teeth showing?”  I still remember one excellent photographer working very hard to casually chat me up during a portrait shoot in order to get me to stop thinking all those thoughts and just be natural. That the end product still had me looking a bit rigid, was not his fault.

The best shots are me at my imperfect, rumpled best.  Those shots reflect my soul, my “realness” if you will.  They come the closest to the self I see when I look in the mirror. 

This makes me ponder the thought, “which image do other people see?  Is it the mirror, the photo, or simply my self?” I know which opinion really is important – my own.  Yet I cannot help wondering how I am visually perceived, compared to how I perceive myself.

Now, I know what those closest to me will say when they read this, so let me just say “thank you, so much” right here and now to one and all.  That reality leads me to another thought: what we say to people about what we see of them is really important. 

Best photo of "me" ever - askew, and
charmingly so at age 3.
Because I have a talent for being rumpled (it’s a reality I have come to accept) I have been straightened and tucked by others most of my life.  It is not an intentional sloppiness.  I just do not have a talent for being “put together.”  But somehow it always seemed that I should.  I have always been plus-sized, though not nearly as profoundly when I was young.  Yet the judgments of popular culture have had me perpetually feeling like “Judy the Tub."  I often wonder if, perhaps, I had cultivated a stronger self image when I was younger, I would be struggling as much physically in my median years. “If you were just… you’d be pretty,” has been something I have heard ever since I started school. 

In recent years, on two separate occasions, I went to lunch with two different colleagues just to catch up and chat.  These are people I have worked with and respected for decades. They know me pretty well – we are good friends.  On both occasions each said, “Wow!  I have never seen you look so lovely.”  Remarkably, I did not take this as a cut or search for any sexist implications.  It was so nice to not hear “If you were just… you’d be pretty," that all I felt was relief and the welcome change.  I was in a place at the time where I was really excited about many things, and I am sure that the enthusiasm made me glow. 

The virtual me,who is much taller than the corporeal me 
(Judy's Law ofAvatar Compensation), among other things
I met a friend from my work in virtual worlds a few years ago: one of a very few that I have ever met in person.  I made the passing comment that I didn’t look anything like my avatar.  I have crafted my avatars to reflect how I feel about the me inside.  Ironically, she commented afterward that she thought the virtual me very much looked like the real me – perhaps not in details, but in essence.  It is an interesting thought. How would we all look in the corporeal world if we more clearly wore our insides on the outside?

This is an idea that transcends gender or the precedents of tradition.  I know many gentlemen who have been such dear friends, that the sight of them is always going to be a pleasure for me.  It has nothing to do with how they look, but everything to do with who they are. And that, dear readers, is how it should be for everyone.  I don’t want people to stop telling me I look good.  I don’t want them to tell me that just because I am a woman. I want them to tell me that because they are glad to see me, glad to share my company, and glad I am alive. I will continue to tell anyone I know that they are a wonderful sight, as an expression of my joy of their company.  They are beautiful.

I will also never again qualify receipt of any sincere compliment that I look good.  I will smile with not a thought for my teeth, stand up straighter and say "thank you," - returning the compliment with authentic, heartfelt honesty.

What is it to be?  Are we the mirror, the photo, or something much more?

What do you think?


Stay Tuned later this week 
for another installment of 
"Patrick's Path
from my upcoming release 


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