Through the Lens of Love

Tiny Allison

Do you know what’s actually probably the single most detrimental thing to my self-esteem?

The fact that I think I’m actually pretty awesome.

Tiny Allison

It’s a classic case of opposing forces: my occasionally crushing self-doubt and self-loathing set off against the narcissistic self-regard that fancies I’m not only rather brilliant but dead sexy to boot. My self-consciousness about my self-regard then turns in on itself as I attempt to tone down its intensity, adjusting it too far in the other direction, finding myself suddenly dialed back to the point of utter lack of self-worth.

Nowhere does this conflict get played out more clearly than with my simultaneous attraction to and avoidance of selfies. (Not that the internet needs any more think pieces about selfies, but.)

My mom was a fairly talented amateur photographer, so, as the oldest child in the family, I’m lucky to have scores of beautiful photographs of myself as a baby and young child. My father was always obsessed with documentation, so he was hardly ever without a video camera of some sort in his hand (silent 8mm back in the ’70s, camcorders thereafter). So, from a very young age, there was no shortage of ways for me to get used to seeing my own image. As a natural born ham comfortable being the center of attention seemingly from birth, it’s not like I exactly shied away from the spotlight either.

Easter (1980?)
“Bitch, I am wearing a yellow coat!! I want some REEEESPECK.”

As I grew out of the adorable-for-the-sake-of-being-adorable phase, I grew into the awareness that achievement would get me attention. So, there came more photos of me at school plays, concerts, awards ceremonies, and the like. And on the heels of all that, there was the teenage exhilaration of just being alive, man, which garnered more photos taken by friends at odd hours, or in odd situations, all of us hugging and grinning and pulling faces full of equal parts glory and stupidity.

Allison, Mary, & Ruth
“Ice cream! No one has ever eaten ice cream like this before! We are young and we are eating ice cream!!”

In my early twenties, before a summer spent studying abroad in London, I made sure to buy a nice enough point-and-shoot camera to record my adventures there. Though totally untrained, I had a good enough eye for framing and detail (perhaps hereditary, perhaps due to many long hours watching movies as a film studies major) that my photos came out pretty well, and it wasn’t long before I found myself, even back in the States, incapable of leaving the house without a camera in my purse. After finally getting a digital camera some years later, I twice committed myself to photo-a-day projects (you can see the first year here, and the second year here).

Though my affection for the tableaux and the people that I captured in these many years of taking pictures was completely genuine, there was the sneaky, shadowy part of me that always wished I was in the frame too. Not because I needed to be reminded that I had participated in any specific event; I have a good enough memory not to need photographic evidence like that and was a dedicated journaler for many years besides. No, I reasoned that if I wanted to show people how much I loved them by photographing them looking beautiful, then, if someone loved me and thought I was beautiful, they would naturally want to return the favor.

Self-regard has never been a problem for me, but self-love is a different beast altogether, and it very rarely occurred to me to turn the camera on myself. It was inconceivable that I could photograph myself through the same kind of lens of love that I turned on my friends; it felt necessary, in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate even just a few years ago, that someone should want to turn the camera in my direction and shoot me from his or her perspective. That would be the only way to get a valid photo of myself looking wonderful.

I have plenty of these kinds of photos, of course. I’m not exactly lacking for lovely photos taken of me by other people.

New Year's Eve, 2003.
Photo taken by my coworker David.

It’s the voraciousness, the desire for parity simmering not so quietly under the surface, that stands out for me now. In my loneliness, I wanted to see myself through someone else’s eyes so that I could have some sort of assurance that someone was looking at me with something like love, or perhaps even seeing something in me that I hadn’t previously been able to see myself.

Birthday, 2005
I definitely would not have been able to take this photo of myself. What an idiot.

I would quietly take photos of myself sometimes, in my bedroom or in the bathroom at a restaurant, but in the pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook days, these photos mostly quietly lived on Flickr, without my necessarily drawing much attention to them. They just felt like part of the fabric of the world that I enjoyed documenting, and I felt like I was getting away with something if I happened to come away with a photo that felt like an accurate representation of how I wanted other people to see me. As quirky or cute, or, more likely, cuter than I thought people gave me credit for being on a regular basis. (“Take that! I am cute! See!!”)

Trapper hat
“Soooo cute in mah fuzzy trapper hat!!”

As technology started to make it easier to both take self-portraits and to show them off online, I caught myself feeling judgmental of the people I knew who seemed to take a little too much advantage of this capability. Like, who gave them permission to just blast their faces all over the place? And, isn’t it somehow unseemly to basically admit that you want people to look at you? I mean, it’s an obvious bid for attention when you’re splashing photos of yourself into everybody’s line of sight.

I was afraid of betraying what felt like my own bottomless capacity for vacuuming up any little gift of affection or validation offered up to me, and ashamed that I felt that way in the first place—like, shouldn’t I have grown out of it by now? Shouldn’t I have left that in the past with the pink sunglasses and the yellow windbreaker? So, by way of self-protection, and something approaching self-denial, I think I must have decided that anyone brazen enough to just flaunt themselves like that must have been, in some way, taking something away from me.

So, I don’t often post photos of myself online, except for when they’re taken by someone else. There’s the reasonable part of me that fears the repercussions of simply being a woman visible on the internet with all its possibilities for vitriol and even abuse. But, more than that, I’m far too wary of seemingly like I’m begging for attention. (It’s like Louis CK says in his stand-up show Chewed Up: “Forty’s a weird age. . . . You’re not young enough for anybody to ever be proud of you or impressed. They’re just like, ‘yeah, do your job, asshole. Nobody cares.’”) Because, I think that fear of looking like I’m begging for attention is actually more a fear that, even if someone is looking, I’ll be dismissed as nothing worth paying attention to. I don’t think my own lens of love is clear enough yet for me to be OK with that.