One day a while ago, my husband asked me, “Why do you have three-thousand pictures of yourself on your hard drive?”
This was not an easy question to answer. A little background:
From the time I was about nine, I was told almost daily by my peers that I was unforgivably ugly.
During childhood, for a long time, I appreciated the way I looked. I liked my face, my shoulders, even my wispy baby-hair. I knew that no one else could see what I saw, I knew that I was not “pretty” in the tightly-defined way girls are supposed to be, but I liked myself. I looked in the mirror with some amount of pleasure, a recognition that what I saw there was human, that it was me, and that I liked being me.
This liking was slowly eroded by two things: 1) being told, over and over again, that I was ugly, would always be ugly, and 2) being told that if I betrayed any sign of liking myself, I was vain.
I wanted to be pretty, and I was supposed to be pretty, and if I wasn’t naturally pretty I was supposed to work at it, but I wasn’t supposed to let anyone know I was working at it. It was a confusing way to grow up.
By the time I was 12, I started to suspect that the whole idea of “pretty” was bullshit — that year, I kicked a dentist who yanked my tooth without any warning/consent/anaesthesia, and who then tried to sell me braces with, “Don’t you want to be pretty?” I ran out of the room with crooked teeth and blood on my chin.
There were several confusing years after that, culminating in a moment, at 16, when people suddenly decided to find me pretty, and to loudly and aggressively tell me to my face that I was pretty, and to treat me as though I were now a more valuable and sought-after person because of it. I messed around with people’s perceptions whenever I could, dressing down at first, then suddenly showing up in my Pretty Lady Costume, and watching the same people who’d ignored me the day before become deferential.
I decided the entire thing, top to bottom, front to back, was a steaming pyramid of bullshit. My value as a human being could not possibly fluctuate as readily as people wanted me to believe, based on whether or not I wore certain clothes or put on makeup or didn’t bother with my hair that day or gained or lost weight. I was a person, not a fucking junk bond.
A few years later, I got fat, which meant that I was persona non grata again.
I didn’t look in the mirror for a long time, still believing in the misogynist fever-dream of “vanity.” For a long time, after I gained weight, I felt I didn’t have the right to leave the house or exist in public, that maybe I was too ugly to even deserve to live — even though I knew that, intellectually, to be bullshit. I took steps to fight against it, but it was a long, slow battle.
I started to come out of it around age 27, and took the first photos of myself in a long time. A couple years later, I got my first webcam and began taking more self portraits. When I was surprised by the way I looked in the pictures, I realized that I wasn’t actually familiar with how I looked, because I avoided looking at myself so much. This disturbed me; I deserved to carry a self-image in my head instead of a vague, dread-inducing void.
Later, as I took more pictures, this thought changed slightly: I also deserved to show other people what my image of myself looked like, how I saw myself. Whether or not this matched up with how they saw me was almost irrelevant — their image of me was no more objective or true than my image of myself. I deserved to be able to say, with my photos, to other people, “Hey, I know you see a crude barometer of my social status when you look at me, but this is what I, a human, actually look like.”
Here’s the thing about pictures: they help to determine what image of yourself, and of human beings in general, you carry in your head. In a way, they help you to define what “human” is, and, if you are represented in the images, to include yourself in that definition.
I have weighed a lot of weights in my life, and looked a lot of different ways, and I have been human the whole time.
For reasons I shouldn’t have to spell out, this is really, really important for people’s health and well-being. We need to be allowed to see ourselves as human, at any size, and to see ourselves represented alongside other humans. We need to be able to share our images in public, if we want, and push the recognition of our humanity. Mostly, we need to be allowed to have images of ourselves imbedded in our brains, alongside everyone else. When we see nothing but images of people who don’t look like us celebrated and represented by our own culture, little by little, it degrades our sense of being human. It is a form of systemic emotional abuse.
When someone takes the images of stigmatized people and digitally alters them to fit the mainstream ideal of beauty, they have effectively turned those people’s images against them, and further degraded those people’s sense of their own humanity.
In places where fat people post their selfies, trolls needle them for posting “deceptive angles” that make them appear thinner, or “hiding their bodies” with headshots, or “using filters” (that is, the wide-angle lens standard on most smartphones) to elongate themselves, but — somehow without imploding from cognitive dissonance — consider themselves to be performing charity by poorly and aggressively Photoshopping fat people’s photos to make them look thin.
It’s just a joke, okay. It’s just trolling, okay. Trolling is subversive comedy, you know, okay. Man the harpoons, okay. It’s “promoting health,” okay. If I react with outrage, lel. Okay.
It’s just funny how it aligns with the status quo.
It’s just funny how it perpetuates health disparities.
It’s just funny how it always upholds the existing hierarchy.
It’s just funny how it’s never actually subversive.
They do it because they enjoy pushing people’s faces in the dirt. That’s all. They’re not rebels; they’re lackeys in service of the most pedestrian cultural norms, and boring enough that those norms are indistinguishable from their personalities.
I feel for them. Let’s hope they make a full recovery. Until then.