We deserve to look like ourselves.

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.

Bullshit: confirmed.

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.”

I took a lot of pictures.

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.

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23 Comments

  1. Lisa
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Love this. Love it love it love it love it. I’ll shout it to the world. All your posts are great, every single one. And every one reverberates with me in some way, and this one is, like all the others, spot on, but in some way makes me want to shout and point at it and make everyone read it.

    • Posted August 26, 2015 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Thank you Lisa, I so appreciate that.

  2. Virago
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Oh, Michelle, I am nearly crying. This is so very, very good. And while I’m not even much of a selfie-taker, oh, I struggle with the misogynist notion that taking selfies, or sharing selfies, is vain and shallow and inherently associated with femininity and thus devalued.
    Thank you.

  3. Michellers
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    So happy to read so many new posts from you again! They are such a tonic when I’m feeling uninspired.

    This posts reminded me of Janelle Monae’s comment when someone on twitter suggested that she should dress differently (not wear masculine suits): “sit down. I’m not for male consumption.”

    I love her almost as much as I love you :-)

  4. Posted August 26, 2015 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    I so needed to read this because though I am so much happier with an IE/HAES focused approach than I was an obsessive dieter trapped in an endless struggle of lose, stop losing, get frustrating, get consumed by my eating disorder I still struggle with full acceptance. It’s very challenging when so many messages from every direction (and unfortunately sometimes my own head) tell me I am somehow less than by being more than.

    More than the desired weight? You’re less than human.

    Like you, I know rationally, intellectually, logically it’s bullshit… I KNOW it. And that makes it even more frustrating when I catch myself even slightly buying into the feelings.

    I have long avoided cameras, and in the past few years I’ve made it a point to post pictures of myself on vacation that others might find “unflattering,” and even pictures that *I* struggle with myself. I’ve felt it an important part of my personal missions… my inner mission to true acceptance (or as close to it as I can possibly get) and my outer mission to help others who are struggling by sharing my journey, my struggles, my triumphs.

    So I think I am going to work on that. I think I’m going to try to take some pics of myself on a more regular basis, so I can really see myself through my own eyes.

    • Posted August 27, 2015 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      I have decided to take a photo of myself every day for 4 weeks. Nothing fancy, no poses, no special dress or make-up, just me. I do not even look at the photos, I just take them and save them on my computer. I will look at them maybe after two more weeks, and perhaps post a few, perhaps I won’t. Why? I have been called fat, gorgeous, a plain jane, beautiful and ugly within a few days. No idea what will come out of this little project, but at the moment it seems necessary.

  5. mickey
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    This is brilliant. That is all.

  6. TropicalChrome
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Yes, yes, ten thousand times yes.

    My own experience: we get used to things we see all the time. They become the norm. This is how the superthin, supertall model has become the standard – it’s all we are shown. So if I wanted to get used to the way I look, and see myself as normal, I had to see myself more often, not just in the mirror first thing in the morning (when most people are not, shall we say, at their best. At least I’m not. Not a morning person doesn’t even begin to cover it.). So I had pictures of me (and my friends and my husband) printed, bought some cheap frames, and have them scattered around the house. It wasn’t easy at first, but it worked. Now when I see the pictures, I don’t think “I don’t look like a model”, I remember the good time we were having when they were taken.

    I don’t know if it works for anyone else, but I was indeed able to retrain my eye/brain, and I’m a lot happier for it.

    Screw unflattering. It’s REAL.

  7. Auntie Thetical
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    (stands up and cheers)

    This! So much this!

  8. LisaM
    Posted August 26, 2015 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    When I was around 14, I was fixing my hair in the mirror in the hallway at my grandmother’s house, and I overheard my grandmother say to my father in just the next room, “I’m worried that she’s getting vain. She’s checking herself out in the mirror again.”

    To this day I am uncomfortable wearing makeup, nail polish, anything girly and primpy, because it feels vain and fake. That’s how badly one comment from my grandmother affected me.

    • Sylv
      Posted August 27, 2015 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      Is being vain so bad, though? Liking the person you are is good.

  9. Posted August 26, 2015 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    I avoided photos for ages but then I read an article about somebody whose mother had died (I think?) and because the mother had felt “too fat to be photographed” there were virtually no photos of her. The daughter wrote very eloquently about how she didn’t want pics of her Mom only being stunningly beautiful, she wanted to remember her Mom being herself. It really had a big effect on me …

    I still find photos pretty hard, but I do share them with friends and family now. Another thing that helped in that area was that when I post pictures on Facebook to my friendly I freely tell them I’m feeling shy/nervous/exposed/whatever about posting this and ask them to say nice things about me. It sounds silly but it’s REALLY helpful! Of course when *other* people look at my photos they don’t see all the negative things that I see, and it’s good to be reminded of that.

  10. Tiffany
    Posted August 27, 2015 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    You have been on FIRE lately with these blog posts and I have to take a second to thank you! You’re words are just the encouragement that I need to continue on my own self-acceptance journey, I am so very happy I found your blogs few years ago, but when the going gets rough , rereading and reading new posts helps to give me the push I DESERVE to live the person I am

    • Posted August 27, 2015 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      I want to say YES YES YES to what Tiffany wrote here :) I’m adoring your blog posts lately and incredibly grateful for them.

      We all need reminding that we deserve to be treated well – by ourselves and others. Thank you for doing that.

  11. Posted August 27, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    That line is when I burst into tears. The whole post is brilliant; I hope it goes viral.

    • Mich
      Posted August 27, 2015 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

      I picked up on that too.

  12. Posted August 27, 2015 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting how people have been so worried about what happens when we regularly see fat people (the ‘obesity is contagious’ meme) but not worried at all about what happens when we don’t (not seeing a fat person’s body as a normal human body=profound othering).

  13. Jen
    Posted August 28, 2015 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I would like fat people to flip me off all day!

    I was very thin, and then I gained a lot of weight and panicked a lot. I thought there was a weight cut-off somewhere where if I got below it, I would be somehow “acceptable” again.

    But then there was a moment I realized that I’m not supposed to win that game. Like, even if I lost 100 pounds and was “average,” it wouldn’t be enough. And even if I were really thin (like I was in high school), I would be meant to be uneasy constantly, like, “omg what if I get fat it’s the worst thing ever”? Because I think this is more about control than it is about aesthetics (or health).

    Being fat and deciding you’re gorgeous is radical. Now I try to soak in “unacceptability” a little every day, because being unacceptable is both delicious and bound to happen. My body doesn’t really want to be controlled.

    Just some random thoughts!

  14. Posted August 29, 2015 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Michelle, this is beautiful and wonderous and perfect and amazing. I love what you do.

  15. Kaci
    Posted August 30, 2015 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    I switched myself over to intuitive eating about a month and a half ago and am doing so much better for it! It’s great to not be at war with my body. Along the lines of looking like oneself – I visited my parents last week and hadn’t seen them in a couple months. When I got to their house, my mom immediately exclaimed “You’ve lost weight!” Nope, I gained the 3 lbs I’d been fighting my body over for the past several years – but I was happy with my body and felt confident living in it, and I think that’s what made me look good. (And please don’t be too hard on my mom – we had a good talk in which we acknowledged the fact that our society automatically uses “You’ve lost weight” for “You look really good and I can’t put my finger on what’s different,” which isn’t a great system but an easy one to fall into if you’re not familiar with fat-acceptance/HAES/intuitive eating stuff.

  16. JD
    Posted August 30, 2015 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    That link…what is wrong with these people? That’s (literal!) erasure of fat people…I’d heard “skinny-shaming” in what I thought was an authentic “but isn’t it ok to be skinny too?” sense, but in this context it just looks like bullying.

    Anyways, thank you for the insightful post.

  17. Carrie
    Posted August 30, 2015 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. This is the first time I have come across your blog and I will be checking it often. Thank you for reminding me that I am human as well and just as worthwhile as everyone else. This has come at a time I needed it most of all.

  18. Andrea
    Posted November 4, 2015 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this! I am just starting my journey of unconditional self-love and this was exactly the boost I needed.

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