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Pictures…

My octo-sushi-face with a side-dish of subtle cleavage

PHOTO? OH NO!!

Sel-ka, Memories, and why you should take a million of yourself.

[Trigger Warning for body image issues and mild discussion of body policing]

So when I was a teenager, I hated people who took photos of me. I didn’t just hate the photos, oh no. I hated the people who would try to capture me on film. Why?! Why would they document for posterity to total fashionless fat worthless trainwreck that was my body and face and clothing and makeup and jewelry?! Basically, I thought there were two things a human could do when looking at a photo of me:

  1. Have fond memories of the good times during the phototaking, while utterly managing to overlook the ball of disgusting slime that was me (this is what I believed my parents and relatives did when looking at photos of me)
  2. Notice what a big ball of disgusting slime I am.

    Picking cherry tomatoes from very short plants

So I did all the traditional whining and bitching and sticking my hand in front of camera lenses. If someone did managed to snap a candid, I looked at it, saw my every flaw, and took this as Proof That Good Photos of Me Cannot Exist.

Look! Look at my sagging boobies, my frizzy hair, my fat, my belly button dip, the weird face, the weird lines ON my face

Don’t do that to yourself. Unless you have some kind of camera phobia, which is legit, don’t do that. That there is just a photo of me doing farm work on a hot day with a not-so-great haircut. My hair likes to puff out when I get sweaty. I was picking tomatoes from plants that only came up to my knees! Of course I look dirty and tired and sweaty and am wearing a sports bra!

In Korea, taking photos of yourself is called “sel-ka” (self-camera). It’s pretty much the national pastime. I don’t want to wholeheartedly endorse this, because most of my friends, at least, run their photos through automatic programs to lighten their skin, widen their eyes, and otherwise “improve” their appearances, and things get a little weird when you’re in a coffeeshop with two friends and instead of talking to you, they’re taking pictures of themselves on their smartphones and oh don’t you feel awkward?!  But if we are less body-shamey than Koreans about it, taking a bieberillion photos of yourself can be an amazingly wonderful project.

Look, there are two positive things about taking (or allowing others to take) a bajillion photos of you.

  1. My experience is that about 5/100 photos will actually be really nice ones you will want to keep. Don’t like the photos of you? Keep taking more. You’ll figure it out and snap some keepers.
  2. Your body and face start to look normal to you.

I can’t stress number 2 enough. See, we look at other people all day long. In person, on TV, on the internet, in ads…faces and bodies are all around us. We find patterns in these images, and are socialized to find some bodies and faces attractive and some not. This affects us profoundly, in many cases more than innate preference. So when we are suddenly confronted with our faces and our bodies, we get weirded out, because we don’t look like other people.We look like us. And we are invested in us looking “attractive” by standards that are formed from patterns that are also not us. We also only see ourselves from certain angles. When I took photos from above, I almost didn’t recognize myself! Some of my best angles aren’t achievable in a mirror.

So I thought I was a horrible ball of slime until an internet friend challenged me to take 500 photos of myself. I squirreled away my mother’s digital camera for a few days, and got up to 250. I posted them on photobucket and zie looked at them with me. Zie had completely different standards for awesome photos than I did! Mainly, zie liked the ones with my face! Zie didn’t like all of them, of course. But through hir eyes, I learned to see myself how people who love me see me. I learned to overlook the subtle flaws that we pick at, to look at photos of me more artistically, sentimentally. Was this an interesting expression? Did it bring up good memories? Is the roll at my abdomen ruining the picture, or just there?

My Super-Excited Face, at Seattle Folklife

The more you accustom yourself to images of yourself, the more you will start to recognize yourself. There will be less “HOLY CRAP THAT PICTURE OF ME WITH THE CHIN WRINKLES (see right)!” and more “oh, another picture of me.” Your face will not look strange or scary or terrible, it will look like your face. You can build standards of personal attractiveness, not built on models that don’t resemble you at all. You will no longer be surprised that the expression that looks like ego-crushing disgust on your best friend’s face looks like constipation on yours (or am I the only one who experiences this?). You will know not only what you look like, but what you look like to other people. Which is, generally, fine.

You will also learn to recognize your own expressions – you might think that, on the right, I am just being weird for a camera. I’m not. When I look at the photo, I know exactly how I was feeling, which was equal parts happy, impatient, and excited.

We are our own harshest beauty critics, except for a few pathetic assholes who really should have better things to do with their time. And so, I issue this challenge: take 100+ photos of yourself, in whatever setting and clothes you like. Over however long a span of time you like. In whatever mood you like. Don’t look at them until you’ve taken more than a hundred. Then look at them. Look at them all. Then, delete the ones you don’t like. I’d wager there are at least a few you’d consider keeping. I’d love it if you’d share them! My senior year of college, I took at least one photo of me every day on my photobooth. Most days I took more than one. At the end of the year, I uploaded 122 of them. You can find them here. They’re not all great. A lot of them have whacky hair and less-than-magazine-ideal skin. But that’s what I look like, over the course of a year. It was immensely healing and affirming to do.

To make you feel less self-conscious, let’s do an exercise with genuine photos of me. Like the one above. That is genuinely what I look like when I get surprised by something, chin-wrinkles and all. When I first saw this photo, I was like “OH TO THE NOEZ!” And then my friends told me how much they loved this face, because they knew it meant I was SUPERDUPER excited. And took more photos of it at the best occasions. I got used to it. I prefer the versions without the chinwrinkles, which are few, but the chinwrinkles no longer shock me.

Pretending to eat a salmon in Yangyang

Here’s another: I had just caught a salmon with my bare hands. That’s pretty fucking cool. Yet when I saw this photo, all could think was “MY KNEES, OH GAWD” *pearlclutch* But what’s wrong with my knees? They don’t look like model knees, ok, but you know…who gives a shit about my knees? Don’t you have better things to do? Like slice me some sashimi from that salmon?

Honestly, your hair isn’t going to be perfect and your “flaws” are going to show. That’s normal and everyone has it, as you can see from paparazzi photos. Your clothes haven’t been perfectly tailored to fit you and you don’t have a team of makeup artists and personal lighting assistants to follow you around and make sure you’re always presenting an image worthy of a magazine cover. You’re great, and those who love you have it right: no one gives a shit about that flaw you obsess over. Really! No one cares! You know why? Because it’s not important. And if you could just let yourself get used to it, you would stop noticing it too.

One thing that always shocked me in photos was, in fact, my knees. I see them from a very different angle. My calves and ankles and knees don’t look anywhere near as fat and short and squat to me, from up here, as they do in frontal photos. But what bothered me was not inherently my calves and knees and ankles, but the difference from both my template (what they look like from my vantage point) and society’s “sexy legs” template. But now? They are MY DAMN LEGS, and that’s about all I notice.

Let’s have some more, shall we?

Drunk and Happy at a Braai

I was fairly drunk when the left one was taken – at a friend’s birthday party. Too drunk to be self-conscious, not drunk enough to be making lewd faces. I know what feeling I was having when I was making that face. It. Was. Great. And I am so happy my friend took this photo to remind me.

Singing my lungs out at the noraebang

This is what I look like when I pay attention to singing the song properly at the noraebang (Korean for karaoke), and don’t pay attention to posing for a camera. Oh what a terrible photo! But all the same, it’s a terrible photo on my personal spectrum, a terrible photo in terms of artistic merit, not a terrible photo because I am in it.

Drinking milk and playing Hwatu

When I look at the leftwards picture, I think a number of things, primary among them being “why did zie take a photo of me while I was DRINKING MY MILK?” But also “Wow, I have nice posture sometimes. I should do that in photos more often.”

Planking in a river near Wonju

Lastly, to the right you can see my favorite recent photo of me. While my friend was taking it, I was worried about the cellulite on my butt, and the flakey calluses on my feet…any of a hundred flaws. When I saw the picture, though, I was just overwhelmed by how much my body just…looked like my body. Curvy and strong and pale, just as I know it.

So be brave! Take those 100 photos of you, or let someone else take them. I’ll bet you’ll be amazed by just how normal your face looks after 100 viewings, and pleased with the variety of expressions, shapes, and features you can bring out.

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Discussion

7 thoughts on “Pictures…

  1. Took #1 today! (And then accidentally set it as my desktop wallpaper, because I’m just that brilliant.)

    Posted by Tori | August 9, 2011, 12:34
    • I had a self-affirmation photo as my desktop for a few weeks when I was going through a rough patch, a photo of me doing something brave and next to my head “Be this girl all the time!”…wouldn’t you know that a group of friends descended on my house one evening and took turns using my computer!! *blush blush blush*

      Posted by startledoctopus | August 9, 2011, 16:00
  2. I’ve never liked cameras much either. I might try that 100 pictures thing….I’ll just have to buy a camera (I don’t have one myself because I’d never use it).

    Posted by alexthesane | August 14, 2011, 13:26
  3. I read this and it is wonderful. THAT IS ALL.

    Posted by Jackie Robotson | September 25, 2014, 21:13

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