A couple of months ago I posted a selfie on Facebook and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
The selfie was a photo I had taken when I was alone one afternoon and waiting for a phone call. After I saw it, I had a sudden desire to share it and a total terror about sharing it. You may wonder why. I wondered too. I am not wearing anything special in it. And you can’t see any skin. Why was I feeling strange about it? It took me a while to understand. It was as if too much self was showing in the selfie. Or at least a part of my self I keep carefully secret.
Here is my secret. I really fancy myself. I think I am hot. I like looking at myself in the mirror. And I think it shows in the selfie.
Are you still wondering why this is a secret? Are you mad? What upside down world do you live in, where women are allowed to say that they think they are hot? We can’t say it to each other. We can’t say it to ourselves. We can’t say it to men. It’s all right for us to struggle with low self-esteem and body image issues. We can say, “I look like shit. You look amazing. No really. You have lost so much weight.” I can say it for 30 minutes straight. I don’t. I have a lot of men friends nowadays, I suspect, because I am bored by being around nice-looking girls continuously complaining about the way they look and saying they just can’t wear shorts until they lose 5 more kilos. What? Do you think I can’t be around good-looking girls because I am jealous? No. I can pretend I am if you want me to, because that will make you feel better.
The truth is much more irritating. It irritates me too. If you knew me, I know you’d think I am pretty average. I look nice when I smile. If I cover up so that my wobbly bits don’t show I probably look thinner. Probably. If I wear makeup, my skin looks decent. I have medium height, weight, complexion. But all that’s what you see, and I can make myself see what you see.
But that’s not what I actually see. Sometimes, when I am alone and I catch my reflection in the mirror, I don’t look away, can’t look away immediately. I don’t look in the mirror and think: not bad, nice, quite decent. No chance. To me, my legs look golden and toothsome. The incline from my hip to my waist looks dramatic. My face looks irresistible. I feel like Jessica Rabbit, a kind of old-fashioned, cartoonish hot.
I have lots of practice in pretending to see myself as average looking. Because even Justin Bieber thinks, “Cause if you like the way you look that much, Oh, baby, you should go and love yourself.” Did I say that I am annoyed by being around good-looking girls who are nervous about their bodies? What can I say about my feelings about men who not only rate your bodies the moment they see you, but also decide what you should feel about it too? An older man told me about a woman he was crazy about in his twenties. She was crazy about someone else and married that someone. I hear from elsewhere that 20 years later, she still has a rocking, joint-creaking sex life with her husband. My older male friend, in the moment of describing his current relationship with her now said with disgust, “please she still thinks she is so hot.” Somewhere in my accounts book I made a little note under his name so that someday I may kill him. Arya Stark’s list is relatively short compared to mine. Mine begins with teenaged classmates who were talking about which female movie star was fat or ugly. When I objected to the crap they were talking they would be like, “Oops, hee hee, sorry you are sensitive on this subject.” Because I am fat and ugly, get it? So my list is long when I remember it. But these days I don’t.
Here is my real secret. For many years I struggled with feeling ugly. It’s easy in your teens and your early twenties, even if you are a baby feminist, to obsessively talk about your appearance. Everyone else is doing it too. But all the time it was happening, when I was sincerely in a twist about my face and body and terrible destiny-as-determined-by-anatomy, there was another thing going. Back then I didn’t quite get that my greater agony was from the difference between what I felt when I looked at my body and what I thought people saw when they looked at it. Every time I realised I felt good about my body, I killed the thought or attributed to some life event. A new boyfriend, a good dance class, well-fitting jeans. Only when I had sex, did boys ever realise with varying degrees of shock that I had no sense of modesty or embarrassment or wriggling shame about my body. One actually asked me, “Are you always like this?” I didn’t know what to say. Who knows what he wanted to hear?
These days I have a regular, responsible job. I have trained myself to wear normal clothes, to learn that some necklines are too low and some kurtas are too transparent. Years ago during a ferocious flirtation with someone I was working with, I sat on his desk and grinned at him. He said, “What is all this?” He was looking down, half-astonished, half-amused. My wrap skirt had fallen open and much of my thighs were on display. I have no idea whether this excited him. In my own defence, I was not attempting to excite him. I just didn’t have any impulse of shame propelling me to jump up and fix my skirt. So I grinned and continued my conversation and that was that. Our ferocious non-affair went nowhere. This is a cue, perhaps, for me to wonder whether it was my lack of shame that frightened him off. I have never worried about it. I did feel bad back then that he didn’t fancy me and seemed to fancy pretty girls instead. I no longer do. This change astonishes me like my thighs astonished that man.
Over the years, I am not quite sure why this dissonance has gone in the direction it went. I could have well reconciled the two versions of me by truly believing that the reflection in the mirror was not good-looking enough and settled into a place in the world reserved for the plain and well-behaved. I have in real terms, become fatter, slacker, more ordinary, all of those things I possibly wasn’t except in my imagination a decade ago. So it would have been the logical direction to go. But here I am most improbably cocksure and shocking myself with my gall. It does take a kind of lunatic gall to feel as smug as I do about my body. I take pleasure in touching my long hair, running my hands over my stomach and most of all, in looking at myself.
A few years ago my boyfriend took a photo of me in a bathtub. It’s really rather stunning, if I say so myself. I password-protected the only copy and hid it somewhere in my laptop then. But actually I have no idea where it is anymore. And I keep telling myself I should find it and delete it, or at least find it. What would happen if it leaked? I am not famous, would anyone care? I read all the time about women killing themselves because their boyfriends or ex-boyfriends are threatening them with sex photos or naked pictures. I keep wondering what would happen if the women said, go ahead, publish. If they told themselves they would survive everyone in their world perhaps seeing their bodies. Would the world come to an end?
I post a selfie about once in two years and it’s usually from holidays with friends. You know, where everyone is making funny faces or sexy-as-funny faces. I dislike them. I also dislike the careful curation of sexy photos on Facebook. The sexy girl as unaware, the sexy girl as bindaas, the sexy girl looking away from the camera, the sexy girl looking beyond the camera into the viewer who will see her one day on the timeline and comment “gorgeous as usual”, joining 357 other likes.
No one ever does that for my photo. Then I posted this picture and I got a couple of likes. But what I did get is a bunch of emails and strange texts from people all oddly pleased and unsure why they were pleased and unable quite to express themselves about what they felt. Do you think they know my secret? That I look unflinchingly with a great deal of pleasure at my reflection? That my secret is that I don’t have body image problems. For a second, my smug truth seems to have leaked out, more dangerous than my naked body in a bathtub.
Image credit: Mirror Kiss by Angrylambie1 via Flickr/CC by 2.0
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