A friend who attended my recent high school reunion sent me a message last night: “Have you looked at my montage? Why no comment?” If I were a sane and reasonable person I would immediately look at the pictures and send a message telling him what a great job he did of capturing the evening. Instead, I have to wait until Rob can watch it for me, tell me if it’s “safe,” and stay around while I watch it, to help me deal with my escalating panic.
“Oh my God,” I will say, looking away, “do I really look like that?!”
“What do you mean? What’s bothering you about it?”
“The chins, the jowls, that thinning hair in the profile where it’s pulled back in combs. My chest looks like some kind of continental shelf, and I think I see hair in my nose. Oh my God. How did I leave the house looking like that?” Because he is a good man, a kind, patient man who has been dealing with this for years, he will help me. He will tell me that I don’t really look like the person I see in the photographs, that when people are animated, moving, vibrant with real life, no one is seeing the things that upset me. I will challenge him. “So you aren’t saying that stuff isn’t real, you’re just saying it’s less noticeable in real life. That’s just great. That’s much better.”
I will feel a welling up of wrongness, shame and a stifling sense that even if I spent every day of the next six months eating lettuce and running 5ks, I would still be hideous. Just skinnier. I should never leave the house. I should know that when a man is looking at me it isn’t because he’s a “boob man,” or because he thinks I have pretty eyes; he is astonished by my jowliness, the frizz at the ends of my hair, my apparent inability to pull myself together into something a man would want to look at.
Rob will tell me (and I think he really believes this) that I am beautiful. I will dismiss this in the same way I dismiss compliments from my parents, who also have to love me and find me acceptable.
It is such a complicated, ancient knot of issues that brings me to this place, a knot so old and so corrupted by dirt, moisture and erosion that it is not easily identified, let alone undone. I looked, the other day, at a picture of myself in about 7th grade. I was with my family, and we were all in our groovy 70s finery – I wore a maxi dress with a sort of pinafore apron thing over it. I see, in that picture, my parents almost 40 years younger, my little brother in his snazzy plaid polyester bell bottoms, my beloved dog Katie, and…my gigantic eyebrows and frizzy hair in a poorly ironed bob. I am distracted, tormented, unable to stop thinking about the disconnect between moments when I think I look okay, and the photographic evidence that tells me it isn’t true. How often does this happen? Do I ever look good when I think I do?
Some of it is my own neurosis, and some is attributable to being teased about my looks, and the influence of the magazines I have read and loved all my life. I can say, “no one really looks like that,” and watch the videos that demonstrate the heavy makeup, the wind machines and the airbrushing, but somewhere in my mind it’s all real. It is unattractive in and of itself, this inability to embrace what I see, or at least dismiss it as just a tiny thing in a big life. I can do this for long periods of time, but this has been a summer of old friends with cameras, pictures posted on Facebook, and the necessity of trying to explain in the most lighthearted way that “I don’t get photographed” so that the camera will be pointed away from me with no ill will or recognition of pathology. How do you say to a sane person that you are literally sickened by seeing your fleshy, frizzy self popping up in your Facebook feed like an emissary from Hell?
When I look in the mirror, I see a not unattractive middle aged woman with a long, sad face that is simultaneously round – maybe it’s best classified as a pear shape. I see clear, fair skin, no wrinkles (the benefit of excess weight), almond shaped eyes a little too small and too close, but not terrible, and long, reddish-brown hair with a few pieces falling forward. I see softness, no one would mistake this for the face of a thin person, but I do not see chins reminiscent of Cass Elliott. I think that’s what everyone else sees until I am presented with photographic evidence of my real appearance, and the blatant, patent arrows pointing to all of the things I apparently gloss over during private assessments.
I don’t really understand how I got this way, or why I can’t just move on and raise money for relief in Pakistan without worrying about what’s on Facebook. I’m not sure why I don’t just buck the hell up and do whatever I need to do to make it stop – diet, exercise, get a better haircut, start therapy, whatever it takes. In the meantime, until Rob gets home from Indiana and I have him here to buffer for me, I can’t look at the photomontage. I’m too busy looking at my navel.