People, mostly women, say the camera adds 10 pounds. For me it’s always been 10 zits or 10 bad fashion choices. Personally, pictures have largely been sources of shame, even those in which I am as young as seven years old.
But pictures document life in a way nothing else can, both by taking you back and by invoking the future. Pictures highlight the passage of time, which is good when you are waiting for history to change and extremely painful when the thing you are waiting to change is yourself.
Pictures of me are seemingly sorted into less-than-flattering categories in the family albums; pre- and post-glasses, pre and post my sister’s death, pre- and post-puberty, pre- and post-queer.
I got glasses in Grade 2. I was only seven. Unfortunately that meant it was 1986, so there are years of giant plastic frames distorting my little face, sometimes held on by a fluorescent orange chord, coordinated (kind of) with the bright plastic headbands that were also sadly characteristic of the ’80s. It was a cruel time to be a gangly little kid in homemade dresses, stockings and brown leather shoes. I seldom felt pretty, but in pictures nothing distinguishes me yet from “normal” girls. I even had crushes on boys. They are there in the pictures sitting beside me at birthday parties, looking like they thought I was at least somewhat pretty. I look like I enjoyed wearing dresses.
The dresses disappear after my sister’s death in ’88. If any of us looked like a lesbian growing up it was her with that “Ontario #1” sweatshirt and my dad’s football jersey, constant smirk and short shaggy do. After she left I looked much more like your average tomboy (as much of one as my mother would allow) and I have always secretly wondered if I went after women to get her back.
Puberty was not kind to this girl, nor was the typical racist and homophobic standard of beauty. Acne ran rampant on my face. I was skinny and flat-chested. My hair, which used to be manageable, became hopelessly frizzy as I forced it into bangs, high ponytails and Sun-In. I lived in a blue and black windbreaker. I gradually started to give up trying to find the girl in me. Why bother when there were so many out there, so much easier to find?
There are literally just a small handful of pictures of me between the ages of 14 and 22 years old. Some high-school sports team shots, work IDs, poor quality candids of my first Prides on Church St. It’s no surprise. My big coming-out years. Whose camera wanted to witness those?
I am immensely grateful not to have come out during this heyday of the digital camera. My 19-year-old cousin, for example, takes dozens of pictures of herself a day. She poses constantly, judges her own smile again and again. She has mastered the art of looking good in pictures and consequently she is more apt to see herself through the eyes of men and consumers, through the eyes of a surface world in which she is only as quick as her fluttering eyelids. She has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up but she sure as hell knows what she wants to look like. I am not proud of what I looked like but I am proud of who I was, what I pursued and resisted, the values I ended up with at the end of those tumultuous years.
Unfortunately personality isn’t everything. I still feel ugly so much of the time, just like I did when I was seven and 13 and 27. The only difference is I think I look okay in pictures now. They generally serve to remind me of how skewed my perception of my own appearance can be, and probably has been my whole life. I am not the monster I see in my head in recent pictures. Not coincidentally I have reached the point of being able to understand, if only intellectually, that my lack of pleasure in what I look like is a direct result of external (and internal) standards of femininity, sprinkled with racism, homophobia, transphobia. All of which doesn’t actually make me feel better most days but I am almost sure that, in say 10 years, it will. As my first good therapist likes to quote, “Youth is wasted on the young.”
In the very first picture of my life I am frowning a little, wrapped up in a blue hospital blanket, widow’s peak already apparent. I love that they laid me on blue, not a customary colour for little girls in ’79. I love that on that fateful day which marked the start of my entire life on earth I was neither boy nor girl and I looked fine, better than fine. I looked perfect.