I take very few selfies. I actually take very few photos of anyone or anything. I live in a society where much of the population walks around with a camera in his or her pocket, ready to shoot at a moment’s notice, and I am no different. I have the camera. I have a nice camera. But I take very few pictures, and even less of myself.
In the new year I am feeling bad about myself. I tell myself a good idea would be to take more photos. Selfies. I need to see more often that I am beautiful, I suppose. I need photos.
I have a baby and tell myself I need to capture these moments, to hold on to them so that some day when my baby is a man and towers over me and disagrees with me and otherwise acts as though he does not need me, has little regard for me—I can look back to this time and see him when he is small and lovely and precious. I need photos.
Still, I take very few of either kind of photo.
Maybe my aversion to photos is linked to something in me that resists sentimentality, the status quo of sentimentality. Maybe I want to believe that my memories are enough, that the writing I do is enough. My partner shows me a photo, one of dozens, on his phone of our child still a small pink creature who only giggles when we put our mouths to his belly (now he pushes us away) and I cry. Maybe I am sentimental.
Maybe something in me relishes the fact that, generally speaking, I have no idea what my face or body looks like at any given moment. This isn’t to say I reject vanity—I comb my hair, I put on makeup, I own several lipsticks and mirrors. Maybe I just prefer not to study myself, instead, holding on to what is a comfortable fantasy that paints my skin a little more plush and smooth, my nose a little more aquiline and less like my father’s—a face that is beautiful because I only catch it in passing. If I study myself for too long, that is to say, if I see myself—I lose this. Maybe I wish I was brave enough to know what I actually look like.
When I do take a photo—of myself, or of any other—I must take several. I will take many photos that are mistakes. The angles, which exist, which reflect only reality—the camera isn’t lying, let’s be fair—the angles are wrong. I am bulbous, my pores visible, the lines in my face, I can see them. My body is slumped, rounded, flabby, dimpled. I take 20, 30, 40 of the same photo to find one that is more honest, or less honest, or whatever—it’s right. I feel correct when I see it because it matches the fantasy I carry in my head every day. But it takes time and energy and patience to take this photo, and so the fantasy that exists in not seeing is much easier, much better. Just don’t take the photo.
Is this anti-sentimentality, healthy avoidance? On days I feel lovely, sexy, strong, I take a photo and often lose the feeling. Other days, even more rare, I catch sight of myself in a mirror and am surprised to find that I am beautiful. I should take the photo then, but I don’t, for fear of losing my own beauty.
The few photos I have, selfies and otherwise, where I am beautiful, I cherish. I look through them when I need to. I hold the image, store it somewhere mentally, digitally, sometimes even physically, so that when I spend the rest of my time, the time that is not foolishly attempting to take a selfie, the time that I am merely existing and believing that I am fine to look at, that my face is the face that’s in this beautiful image which may or may not be the truth, I remember that at least, at some point, once, I was lovely. I was sexy. I was beautiful. These photos are proof of that, evidence of something intangible, like a ghost. I am hard pressed to take these photos, but when I do, they are precious gems, jewels, more prized to me than gold. Take them out for special occasions, or when you’re just feeling a little down.
I believe this is the way it has always been with photos, with selfies, with beauty. I am no new phenomenon.
My son has learned to take the top off of a footstool that is also a box. Inside the box is my mother. This is maybe a bit confusing, so I’ll explain. Last year I was planning on visiting the part of Alabama that touches Florida to see my grandmother. In the weeks before the trip, I received a phone call from a number in Florida. It was Wade. “I still have some of your mother’s things—things I couldn’t bear to throw away. Should I send them to you?” I said no, I’d come and get them because I was coming anyway. He said, “I just got a chill.”
So I went and collected her things—some things detritus, the sort I’d gotten rid of in the first place ten years ago when she died: stuffed animals, notebooks with nothing written in them, decks of playing cards and half-filled address books. Maybe I’m not very sentimental. I remember my mother. She was there. That’s enough.
But there were also photographs. I did want to keep the photographs. In all the things a memory can do, mine isn’t the best with a face. I can hear her voice, see her hands, but her face—a woman at work starts to look like her. I see her in the bathroom and want to cry. When I see a photo, I know that woman at work doesn’t really look like her.
After I collected her things, I drove out of Florida and back up into Alabama and sat on my grandmother’s floor and sorted through them. I asked my family about the photos, pictures from high school yearbooks, pictures of my father—still young and sweet-faced and red-headed, the way she loved him—pictures of my father she’d kept long after she told him she was gay and they divorced. Maybe my mom was sentimental. “Look at this,” I’d laugh, “Look at dad.”
The collection of photographs was a mess, but this kind of mess was once very usual back in the time before ours where you took photos and then kept them—they existed, they were real. You held them. You owned them. My mother kept photos in little plastic books and proper albums and tabletop photo boxes and paper envelopes from WinnDixie and Eckerd Drugs with her name and a date printed on them. Some envelopes still contained receipts, coupons for the next order of prints, other slips of paper. Oddly, some of the envelopes were empty except for strips of negatives—remember negatives? Brown cellophane strips like beetle’s wings—archaic technology I barely recognized as I sat on the floor sorting. I thought little of them, the way one sits on a beach and barely notices the ancient and withered mountains around them that have disintegrated down into sand. I looked at the photos and packed away the negatives and then took the whole lot home and put it all in the footstool that is also a box. I haven’t opened it since.
My son is taking the top off of the footstool, jostling the things inside. I watch as he opens the envelopes and removes the negative strips one at a time, placing them in a small pile in the middle of the room. I don’t mind this. He is a baby, and playing, and this is probably the only time in his life he will come into contact with these things—drug store envelopes full of plastic image strips—and I will probably never make or do anything with them. They will linger in the box until I pass away, and then maybe someone will throw them away. Or maybe someone will feel sentimental and keep them.
Later, as I am cleaning up, I take one of the photo strips and hold it up to the light. I don’t know why I make this decision. There is, perhaps, no logic behind it—just the muscle memory, the old way, the way we used to do things. I hold it up to the light and in the photo is my mother, her body bluish green, her eyes and mouth and hair glowing white. She is wearing lingerie—a bra and panties, neon yellow—and thigh high stockings with high heels. She is in her home, maybe the kitchen, looking demonic and brazen in the inverse of what she really was.
I look at a few of the other negatives. There is one of her ex-girlfriend’s face, a clownish alcoholic who wanted to teach me to golf but only ever brought me to the range one time. I loved her and never saw or heard from her again after she and my mother broke up—not even at my mother’s funeral. This is fine. It is fine for me to look at this inverted image of my mother’s ex-girlfriend now, her face very up close. It looks like an accidental selfie—her mouth agape, the camera angle an unflattering upshot focused primarily on her chin, and I laugh thinking that this is exactly the type of photo she would take.
There are also many shots of nothing—a room spinning, something lying on the floor. I imagine she must have been using the self-timer, befuddled, clicking too soon, placing it too high up, it falling. Remember this? Remember taking photos of nothing, on accident, and then paying for the opportunity to see your mistake?
I hold one last brown strip to the light and see another photo of my mother, her face up close, looking happy if not a little seductive, and decide that is enough. I spent only a minute viewing these photos, and just another minute more comprehending their private narrative. I have not even returned to them to write this now.
Now—thinking back on that first day with these things, finding that some of the photos in the envelopes were missing—I get it. I know Wade, the man who took care of her as she died, knows more about my mother than I do, and I know he went through these pictures before giving them to me. When I met with him to take her things, we sat and visited for a bit and he told me about some of her girlfriends, her choices. We’ve all always known my mother was what she was, who she was: a little sexy, a little brazen, a little dangerous. Or, at least, she thought she was. She wanted to be. I was never quite old enough to really know, but the hints were there. There were things I’d found snooping under beds and through jewelry boxes, things I overheard in conversations I wasn’t supposed to be a part of.
I put the negatives back in their envelope, put the envelope back in the footstool. What else am I going to do with them? I’m not a prude. I’ve taken these photos: lingerie, maybe less, in the kitchen, maybe in another room of the house.
I think about taking sexy photos and the many mistakes that must pile up—photos that are supposed to be, but are not sexy. The unflattering photo of my mother’s girlfriend’s face. I think about the act of taking a photo like this—a photo intended to be sexy. It is brazen and sexy and dangerous in and of itself. Moms aren’t supposed to have them, politicians can’t take them, you know? Every time a news story about sexy photos comes out, a scandal or a crime, the response is always, “Don’t take them and this won’t happen.” It’s easy to feel like this logic is correct, just don’t, but it forgets what’s powerful about beauty. It forgets what’s powerful about this sort of self-indulgence: that you hold your own gaze. That you are a gift you are giving to someone else.
To take a photo like this—it is lovely. The act is lovely. You see something in yourself that you don’t often see, don’t often believe and so try to capture it for posterity, for pleasure, for yourself. This is the same reason we grow flowering gardens to attract butterflies to our yards, the reason we build houses on beaches knowing the beach is eroding—the beach itself an act of erosion. It is ownership as power. Beautiful power.
And beauty is so fleeting. My mother is dead, as you know. We have always tried to keep beauty in spite of its nature, its always flitting away, like a butterfly exiting a garden. That old dress you no longer fit. Grandmother’s broach long out of style. A withering property, a rusting vehicle. Books you won’t read. Cufflinks you don’t even own a shirt to wear with. But with a photo, particularly a photo you take yourself, a chance to own beauty, and beauty that is yours and yours alone.
Isn’t there so much here to say about waste, capitalism, selfishness, beauty standards, society? Of course. This isn’t a study, though. It’s more simple than that. Listen. You take a photo. One photo or 67. Tits out or more, or less, maybe just a smile in the sun, maybe the sun in your hair. You take the photo because you felt good and the photo holds that feeling. A selfie. And that’s for you. You can share it, but it’s yours. It can be stolen, but you still own it. The moment hasn’t left you, the feeling still exists, it is yours despite the object, despite your ability to hold in your hands a photo. Maybe I am sentimental. Oh, fine, I am absolutely. I believe that these moments of beauty can’t leave you.
You can and you will die. But there it is, this moment and that one and all of these, somewhere out there, in a box in a footstool, or in your phone, in the cloud, in the ether, in a memory. And maybe one day your daughter will find them, or a man will, and maybe someone will share them or maybe someone won’t, or maybe no one will see them ever, never again. Regardless, it still happened. It was there. It is there. You felt beautiful. You were beautiful. You are beautiful. That’s enough.
And knowing that, really, there’s nothing else I should or could do with my mother’s sexy selfies but keep them.
Later in the week my son hands me a photo from the footstool that is a box. It is an actual photo, a photo of me, and looking at it, I feel beautiful. I am a little girl, maybe ten, wearing an oversized t-shirt and walking out into the water on a sunset beach. My mother’s dog, Tuesday, races behind me. I am looking back at the camera, at my mother who must have called out—who must have thought, “This is so beautiful. Look at this moment, look at my daughter—she is beautiful.” And she took the photo.