This week, the Today Show kicked off a segment called “Love Your Selfie.” The point: Even though “selfies” are ubiquitous – even the president and the Pope have been caught snapping them in the last year – most of us dislike the way we look in photographs … to the point, even, of being extremely, even cruelly, critical of ourselves.
So the Today Show hosts kicked off the promotion yesterday by taking off their makeup –- a pretty brave thing, especially under stage lights –- and talking about what they like and dislike about their appearances. I know they’re famous and all, but their words were sort of poignant; Al Roker spoke of his well-known weight battles. Savannah Guthrie said she had spent most of her life hating being taller than everyone else. And Natalie Morales acknowledged the way giving birth had altered her body.
At the end of the segment, the hosts invited viewers to take makeup-less selfies of themselves, then tweet the photos using the hashtag #LoveYourSelfie. Thousands of people did, and I was one of them.
But not before I almost had a heart attack, figuratively speaking. You see, my selfie horrified me so much that I almost didn’t tweet it. But then I realized that my feelings were, in fact, the point of the segment, and I took a deep breath and sent the photo.
And all of a sudden, I was back in sixth grade with glasses, braces and bad skin. I felt embarrassed about foisting my naked, 51-year-old face on the unsuspecting masses, and I almost felt as if I were going to cry.
And then I felt very un-evolved, and almost ashamed. And I forced myself to think back to where and how those feelings took root.
In my family of origin, looks were downplayed. Of course we always looked appropriate and presentable, and at times -– usually during growth spurts and after visits to the dermatologist -– I actually looked sort of cute. But the message was always loud and clear: Don’t worry about being attractive. Just be smart.
That I could handle, little spelling champ that I was; I loved books and was at home in the solitude they provided. So I focused on being smart … but I also yearned so badly to be pretty and popular, to feather my hair like Olivia Newton John’s and to be noticed by a boy. Any boy, but preferably one taller than I was.
So while my head was in my books, my eyes were glancing sideways at my middle-school classmates … at Monica with her golden hair and Mary with her effortless athletic grace, at Julie with her blemish-free toffee-colored skin and knee socks that stayed up perfectly. None of them had muffin-tops or breasts that had appeared too early; none of them sported hips or angry patches of eczema on their elbows.
I continued to look around, then turned my critical gaze inward. As a result, despite the healthy messages I was receiving from the adults in my life, I told myself I was a freak, and I began to hate my looks, my body, and, to some degree, myself.
And as the years wore on, that self-hate manifested itself in a lot of ugly ways: After a breakup with a truly nice boy in high school, I set my sights on a series of inappropriate guys who initially made me feel good about myself, then eventually reaffirmed my self-loathing. With notable exceptions (my husbands somehow being two of them, thankfully), that pattern repeated until the years between my two marriages, when a truly damaging relationship finally awakened me to what I was doing to myself.
Things didn’t turn around immediately; I worked hard to focus on the good in my life, most notably my children, my extended family, and my work. And gradually, as I matured, I began to wonder why on Earth I had been so hard on myself, and why I had so often been willing to settle for so little. Without getting too philosophical, I have a perfectionistic, overachieving personality, and I had never felt my looks measured up to my expectations of them. I come from a long line of tiny, pretty women. I was the square peg, and that hurt.
It's all about self-esteem, for all of us. Always has been; always will be.
A year ago next month, I somehow found the time to be right for shaking off all those destructive feelings. I wish I could tie the moment to something big, but I can’t. It was a Friday morning in March, and I knew I was ready to make a change. It was that simple.
And here I am 11 months later and 65 pounds lighter, with legs strong from miles and miles of running and the beginnings of muscles in my upper arms. As I shed the layers, I shed the feelings that had kept me wrapped in those layers. And now, most days, I feel confident and capable. But at other times, that sixth-grade girl will reappear, as she did after I took the selfie you see at the top of this page.
“You look old and drawn and ugly,” that girl told me before I sent the photo. “People will see that and say, ‘Yeah, she’s lost weight, but she’s ruined her looks.’ You’re going to be ridiculed and embarrassed. Retract the photo.”
But I didn’t, and I won’t. I’ve lived for 51 years, nine more than my mother was allowed. And with a few notable exceptions, I’ve made the most of that time. My experiences have grayed my hair, loosened and sagged my skin, and left blemish marks on my forehead; I have a surgical scar on my neck and a gap in the back of my mouth that’s waiting for a bridge or implant. My natural complexion is rather sallow; I don’t have long eyelashes anymore, and I plucked my eyebrows too thin long ago and now they don’t match.
But that’s all OK. Here I am; take a good look. This is what a naked-faced 51 looks like. With any luck, I’ll be given nine more years, or even 19 or 29 or 39. And I like to think if I’m given that time, I’ll navigate it with aplomb, because being smart has, in fact, given me the tools to like myself, inside and outside.
Are you used to wearing makeup? Take it off and really look at yourself. Then tweet your beautiful, naked face to #LoveYourSelfie. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I did.