I need an author photo for my book. It’s a request I knew was coming. I had one photo I thought could work, the one I use for this email, the one Jay, my husband, took last year with his new professional camera and because it was in our apartment with its white walls, I thought it would do. But when I sent it to the publisher, they sent it back a few hours later. It wasn’t the right size, they said. Can you send another one?
Another one? I don’t have another one. I thought this part of the book was done. This was the one part I didn’t have to worry about. Two days went by with the request unanswered and the assistant to the editor who asked me for it sent a follow up email. We really need this photo, she said. Sorry! I replied. Sending this afternoon!
That night, spaghetti and meatballs with my parents, sister and Jay, I was agitated, nervous, on edge. I still hadn’t sent the photo and was now debating not sending one at all. Maybe I should just tell them I don’t want a photo. Maybe I should just wait to see if I can get a professional one done in time. But the idea of posing in front of a photographer, of opening a dropbox full of awkward, stiff, inelegant photos of myself on some couch or chair or by some window started sending panic through my veins. I looked down at my chewed up nails, thinking how at least they wouldn’t have to get my hands in the photo.
Jay, I blurted. I need a new author photo. Can you go through your photos to find me one? Of course, he said. I have tons.
I knew he would. He loved this kind of stuff. But I also knew the photos he thought were good of me were ones I would hate. Ones where I’d look like Claire Danes or my lips would look extra thin or my hair greasy. He looked for other things. He looked at how professional it seemed, how the backdrop looked or a myriad of other things that never mattered because I could never get past the hideous monster staring back at me.
Though he sent the email with the attached ‘suitable’ photos that night (Jay is the kind of person who does things right away) I couldn’t open it until the next day. I needed time to work up the courage.
But the next morning, I began to panic again. I can’t do this, I thought. This felt dangerous. Reckless. This could push me right over the edge. Who knows how far down into a pit of despair I’d go. It had been months since I’d really looked at myself. Since I’d bothered to put on makeup. To see myself was to pop this bubble. This bubble where I didn’t have to think about how I looked. To think about how others saw me.
Instead of opening it, I thought, maybe I can just forward the email to the assistant and ask her to choose. No, I told myself. I can’t do that. It’s unprofessional. Then I thought about asking my family. But my mom would just make that face she makes when I ask her if she likes my new shoes or highlights. The one that looks like she’s just sucked on a lemon. Or she’ll say unaffectedly, I guess this one, without any excitement or approval in her voice. Like she’s choosing the best of the worst options. So then whatever one I choose I’ll know my mother doesn’t like.
I decided I wasn’t going to ask any of their opinions and opened the email. Alone in the basement, on my leather chair surrounded by books and spiderwebs, I clicked on the attached photos, one at a time, and faced my face. And as I passed from the first to the second to the third a feeling washed through me. A maternal, loving feeling that embraced me like a hug. There you are, I seemed to be saying.
There she is. Me. Sometimes with greasy hair. Sometimes with red skin and zits. Sometimes too skinny or with arms too big or lips too thin. Sometimes imperfect but there. Alive. Radiating. That’s me, I kept thinking. That’s beautiful me.
For the first time since I can remember I looked at a photo and didn’t think about how I didn’t look like Penelope Cruz or wish I was thinner or rounder or didn’t have that bump in my nose. I didn’t want to cry, didn’t get into a funk for hours, and didn’t wish I was someone else. For the first time, I was in awe of myself. This young, vibrant girl who I know so well is me and while she isn’t perfect, she is beautiful.
Something must have happened in quarantine, I thought. I wonder if it’s because I haven’t worn makeup in three months or if because I’ve been forced into spending even more time alone, with myself, I’ve gotten more comfortable with who I am. Not on the outside, but on the inside. And when I became more comfortable with who I am inside, I saw the outside differently. This is me. This is what I look like.
I also noticed this liberating feeling that happened when I decided that I wasn’t going to ask anyone to decide for me. I wasn’t going to ask Jay or my mom or my sister or the editor to validate when I looked good. I wasn’t going to have someone else decide what constitutes my best self. I’m going to decide. This is my photo, the one I decide to give to the world, and the only opinion I want anymore is my own.