Why Looking At A Pretty Photo Of Myself Makes Me Angry
I used to weight more than 300 pounds. Now I’m a healthy, happy size 6, and a personal trainer. After I wrote a post about what I missed about my larger body, My friend Sandra Costello asked to take photos of me. On the phone she said “People know you’re fit, but I want to make you look pretty.”
“The hell with pretty,” said the part of me that still loves Nine Inch Nails; the part that still wants to shoot the whiskey and smoke the Camels I dropped years ago. That she thought I gave a crap about looking pretty felt insulting.
“The hell with her,” said the part of me that checks herself in mirrors all day, the part that still sucks in her stomach even though she has a six-pack, the part that’s sometimes just as proud of her shapely shoulders as she is of her two daughters. That she didn’t already think I was pretty made me feel defensive.
“The hell with me,” said the part of me that’s still being held hostage on the playground, getting pushed and punched to the tune of “Sme-lly Ke-lly Big Fat Be-lly.” Today I’m completely safe and can’t walk across a room without bumping into one of my blessings. That I am wasting even one brain cell worrying about how pretty I am or am not makes me want to clone myself so I can throw a drink in my face.
“Great!” I said, and we scheduled a photo shoot.
My relationship to "thin and pretty" is complicated. I was morbidly obese from early childhood into my 20s. As a girl, I nurtured distaste for thin and pretty women. I let myself imagine I was funnier, smarter, and deeper than they were. That idea lifted me up just enough to keep me from drowning in the waves of criticism that were always crashing on my complicated little head.
I fancied myself Superior In All Other Ways, but that didn’t stop me from fantasizing that my life would be more Steven-Spielberg-meets-Sex-in-the-City and less David-Lynch-meets-Animal-House ... if I could only manage to get thin and pretty.
Eleven years ago, my cheap pleasures and active addictions brought me to a messy physical, emotional, and spiritual bottom. Rather than address how I was hurting myself, I had gastric bypass surgery. Surely this would turn things around, bring me peace, bring me joy, and make me happy.
Wouldn’t you know it, a year later I was thin and pretty and … hold for it … still unhappy, still living from binge to binge, and still going nowhere — fast.
The photo shoot was at Sandra’s sunlit studio in an old industrial park in Holyoke, Mass. We spent hours playing with angles and light and poses and clothes. Her enthusiasm and attention made me feel like I was a joy to look at. I even forgot about the camera a few times. In short, I had a blast.
She emailed me a photo the next day. It was of this delightfully demure-looking blonde with a fresh smile and bright eyes and hair all tousled in a whimsical breeze. She was super pretty. And she was me.
What with the whole mirror-checking, shoulder-pride thing, you might expect I’d be thrilled. But, no — looking at that photo made me angry.
I was angry that as a little girl I was taught that thin and pretty is the most important thing a woman can be. I was angry that I may never feel like I’ve completely freed myself from the shackles of that idea. I was angry that the world had to bear the burden of yet another photo of yet another shiny, smiley white girl. I was angry that you couldn’t see one trace of the pain and the humor and the demons and the gratitude that fight for the microphone in my head. I was angry that suddenly there was a photo of me that might suggest that thin and pretty equal healthy and happy, an idea I’m working diligently to squash like a bug on a windshield.
I’m on something of a blissed-out joy ride today (my own dark, edgy version, naturally). I am, for the most part, happy and peaceful. But being pretty didn’t get me here. Sliding into the “normal” BMI range didn’t get me here, either. What got me here was changing how I treated myself every day.
Once upon a time I ran with every craving and compulsion I had — even more so after I lost half my body weight, because I wanted to make up for lost time. But today, I’m committed to treating myself well. When the urge hits to turn a blind eye to that commitment, and it does, I use that as a prompt to treat myself better. When driven to do things I know don’t serve me, I do a little mental exercise that helps me do something caring instead. It’s a great system, and it’s why I have the incredible life I have today. Thin and pretty got me free drinks, it got me laid, and it got me out of a parking ticket, but it never got me what this practice has given me: genuine, sustainable health and happiness.
I teach folks how to treat themselves better over a lifetime. I help them recognize and dethrone shame (the idea that there's something fundamentally wrong with us). I show them how to use the drive to harm themselves as a prompt to treat themselves well. I teach these things because they don’t come naturally to me, and talking about them helps me keep living them, day after day.
How we choose to treat ourselves in this moment is what matters most. Making lots of small, caring choices helps us feel good about ourselves. Over time, those choices bring us to more health and happiness.
Of course, what we value also has a lot to do with how we feel about ourselves. We’re hard-wired to value beauty, but I try to remember that surface beauty is fleeting and, for the most part, randomly assigned. I’m way more attracted to hot personalities and strong identities, boldness and honesty, creative vision and mastery (the skill mastered doesn’t much matter). I’m teaching my two daughters to value strength and exploration and playfulness, so that their strong, smart, and funny adult selves can feel intrinsically, unselfconsciously good no matter how they look or what they weigh.
We can all share a good laugh that I’m doing this in a body and with a face that satisfies most of the requirements of white, American prettiness.
Needless to say, like every other mother, I have my work cut out for me.
Oh, hey, Sandra — Thank you for being a woman with drive and clarity and passion. You are a shockingly talented photographer. You’re also funny as hell, and that, my friend, is beautiful.