I hate having my picture taken. I can’t remember when I started hating it, but the impulse to cringe every time I see a lens is muscle memory now. And in a sort of delicious circular irony, my self-loathing is evident on film and makes each picture worse than the last. There’s a feedback loop that follows – feeling bad, looking bad. And someone always makes the comment: “Aren’t actors supposed to love the camera?”
I think we all know now what young women (and people of all kinds, but I can only speak about what I know) are up against when it comes to self image. Women are given a million things to be, and only allowed a tiny space to do it in. And sometimes I feel like being an actor means jumping straight into the fire – until we add to and change the canon of Western theatre and drama, we’re often expected to embody the tropes that are part of this damaging system we grew up in. The more I look for it, the more I see it – women in plays whose beauty (or lack thereof) is as crucial a demonstration of their character as their words and actions. It strikes me that even in the medium that I love and trust, being beautiful is still an utterly essential thing to be.
And if you set yourself on the outside of that thing – for whatever reason – you wonder where your place is. I think about every time I ignored someone who said I was smart because all I wanted to be was beautiful. It’s hard to admit that, because beauty is political and frivolous and important all at the same time. It’s everything and it’s nothing, and it’s tied to history and privilege and capitalism and a million things that are hard to understand all at once. It’s also hard to talk about, because comparison is a weapon that is used to scare us all into silence. When someone speaks their personal shame, I may swallow it along with them because in my eyes they’re closer to some unattainable standard – if she’s not beautiful, then what am I?
We live in a shallow culture that deplores vanity. It’s this contradiction that makes me fascinated with the rise of the selfie. Egotistical, perhaps, but also a celebration of one’s own (personally vetted) beauty? Or is it the feedback loop again – seek approval to feel approved of? I want to participate somehow, but it doesn’t work for me. Every time – snap, cringe, delete. The only selfies I’ve kept were a hilarious series of ‘exhaustion selfies’ I took this summer when I was working too hard and looked like hell. The series culminated in a hospital selfie following a surgery resulting from a ridiculous (but minor) bike accident. I don’t know why I took them. I guess it’s because they were not beautiful at all, but they were the real thing.
I hate having my picture taken, but I love taking pictures. I decided to challenge myself to take a self portrait (I suppose it’s a selfie if it’s on an iPhone and a ‘self portrait’ on a DSLR, no? That’s what I’ll go with). I think, maybe with complete agency, I can do this – I set the lights, I pick the lens, I make my mirror face until I realize how dumb it really looks. I will set up the shot and then set the timer and snap away at myself until I find my perfect face. A beautiful face.
I only liked three photos, which were taken before I was ready. They are a portrait of myself in a moment where I am not concerned if I am beautiful or not. In these photos I see myself starting to slowly unclench, finger by finger, letting go of the bullshit I’ve held onto for so long. I see myself not giving a fuck if I’ll ever be a leading lady or not. I see myself existing just for myself. And for once, I see myself as beautiful.