Weekend Fiction: Self-Portrait

The trick is not to think about it too much, to click without thought, without self-consciousness, the right hand ignoring the left hand. But, of course, I’m always thinking.

The photos are saved in my deleted file. Before their 30 days are up, I recover them and give myself another 30 days to decide. The photos are badly lit; I don’t know how to find my light. My face is always in the shadows, my arms aren’t long enough to capture both my body and face. Sometimes it’s only my chin and lips that are showing, it’s hard to tell what the lips are doing without the eyes. They could be pouting, half-smiling, promising something, but the eyes are elsewhere, looking at the image onscreen, off-camera.

You’re not a model the left hand says, why should you have to know about light or your best side? When the photos are recovered, I experiment with filters, the magic wand on my phone that promises a veil of protection. But the filters feel like cheating. Somehow, after all I know, I still believe that beauty should be effortless. I revert to the unsatisfying originals and I scroll, scrutinising the photos of beautiful women, looking for clues. I can see that they have been photo shopped, taken with better cameras, filtered. By who? Lovers? Indulgent friends? The women who know how to find their light laugh at the cameras, they stretch across beds in lingerie, backs subtly arched, angles just right, creamy or tawny skin glowing, rippling across beds. Or, they look over their shoulders, lips parted, inviting. Sometimes they look directly at the camera, eyes wide open. I close my eyes in front of cameras, I freeze up.

Sometimes we send each other photos of beautiful curvy women. It is a language that I’m not sure I understand, the underlying structures and rules uncertain, but I think we are saying something about desire. Some of his motivation seems clear, pure. He looks at the photos, breasts spilling out, short skirts and long boots inviting his gaze. I’m less sure of my impulse to look at and send the photos. I want to look; I want to be looked at. I read the captions, all self-love and confidence. Is this how I am supposed to be?

Sexiness is an armour -- a defence against judgement, an invitation on your own terms. I can see this in the beautiful, curvy women, the defiance in their compliance. I also see that I can approximate this armour. In one of the deleted photos, my neck stretches gracefully away from my full breasts, which are cupped and lifted towards the camera in black lace. In another, my red kimono blazes against pale skin, the top of one loose breast visible, a golden dragon floats on my shoulder. My lips are pink, slightly pursed, this could be taken as a suggestion, but I know that I was only concentrating.

You are objectively beautiful. I believe that he means what he says, but I know that beauty is always subjective, always relative, a sliding scale. I can’t stop trying to pinpoint my exact location on the scale. How much love and power can I reasonably expect? I think I love him best because something in me believes he would love me without beauty. He might still love me when I’m ugly.

I gape stupidly at sunsets and have my breath taken away by the moon, bare trees against a winter sky, verdant grass in the spring, summer sun filtered through green leaves. I fall in love with faces on the street, in crowds, adorned and unadorned, small intimate gestures. The left hand slipped gently into the right hand for a moment, quiet. I’d like to stay in that quiet, stretch its expansive grace over me, but it never lasts.

When I was eight, I announced to my rail thin cousin, still scuffed elbows and knees, that I was on a diet. She shrugged whilst I mimicked the language of adult women always floating above me head. At 12, Nana gave me subscriptions to Seventeen and Teen for my birthday. I combed through those magazines carefully each month, studying every detail of the cheerful bright clothes, the exposed flat bellies, the carelessly written diet plans laid out in the back pages. Weeks of carrot sticks and apples for snacks, a half cup of grapes. Hold your stomach in, Nana said during annual holiday shopping trips, sizing me up.  My mother and I wore complicated undergarments, big bras to minimise, corsets that weren’t corsets and not yet Spanx. We smoothed and held our breath and hoped everyone was looking at our pretty faces. Because they were pretty -- everyone said so. You have such a beautiful face, that faint trace of disappointment that we couldn’t be perfectly beautiful. If only we were more disciplined.

Out for drinks. We all know so much about each other, but we are shy under the late afternoon light filtering through the windows, vulnerable without our work clothes and lanyards dangling around our necks. I am making small talk with the woman who has a desk next to mine. Half-listening to another woman talking about her trip to the states, how she loves Route 66 and New Mexico.  I think of red dust, the clean smell of juniper, a field that was a sea of rusted beer cans. I take my jacket off, but I feel too exposed and put it back on, even though there is a trickle of sweat running down my back. I am working hard to feign indifference, normalcy. He puts his hand on the small of my back, just for a moment, gently clearing a path for someone trying to pass by. I can still feel his hand there.

I went to my first concert shortly before my 13th birthday with a friend and her older sister. The older sister promptly abandoned us and we hesitated cautiously in a dark alcove for half the night. We stared at the seething sea of bodies and up into the domed ceiling painted to look like a night sky pinpricked with stars. Everything felt like a test, a game of brinksmanship with the noise of the band, the audience, the smell of beer, cigarettes, sweat, and a sweet something, like incense, that I couldn’t yet identify. The audience, mostly boys and men, were bouncing and careening off each other with terrific violence. Finally, I steeled myself and left my friend, moving towards the music. I threw my body into the crowd, letting it get pummelled, knocked over and picked up, the angular, shrill guitars in my head and the drums in my chest. Momentary freedom. But I soon realised that only the boys were allowed to be ugly. The girls in bands and the girlfriends of boys in bands looked like models in black lipstick and torn tights. The girls were like Debbie Harry; they were only performing ugliness.

My school friends could wear short, tight t-shirts, their flat stomachs exposed. My belly was soft, my breasts huge, indecent in tight t-shirts. Grown men followed me in cars, carelessly volleying words from their passing windows, leaving me panicked and uncertain. We lined up in the hallway, moving down the sides in orderly lines. As the teachers marched ahead, boys in the opposing lines grabbed at my breasts and my butt, grasping handfuls of my flesh, laughing. I started to dress in oversized t-shirts, men’s flannels. I wore massive paint-splattered overalls, my body safely contained in vast swathes of fabric.

I fell in love with movie stars who were strange or slightly more voluptuous. I read every interview, looking for the secret to their acceptability. When they became famous, they inevitably became more groomed, sleek, and firm, lost to me. They always become bigger stars when they were more perfectly beautiful, their weight loss and grooming celebrated in magazines as though they had climbed Mount Everest or wrestled a lion. I learned not to put any stock in the idea that the rules were relaxing.

Eventually, I graduated to Vogue, Bazaar, W, Style with Elsa Klensch on CNN on a Saturday morning, her glossy bob and clipped tone reassuring in their intellectual detachment. I learned to wear clothes, to put them together in a way that was interesting, my eye for detail and penchant for role-playing coming in handy.  If not perfect beauty, then style, at least.

Motherhood didn’t ruin my figure. My belly and breasts were already full and soft, a pale Madonna. I gained and lost the weight, left slightly battered, a fertility goddess to be dug out of the earth, primal and enduring, but much the same as I was before. Only my heart was broken open.

Big breaths everyone, inhale. Let your forehead rest and breathe into your lower back, breathe into your belly, just feel yourself coming into this moment. The left hand and right hand are occupied, holding me in plank pose, stretching into downward dog. My quiet hands rise above my head and my palms touch as I draw them down the centre of my body, stopping in front of my heart, exhaling.

The body positivity and Health at Every Size podcast I listen to bleeps out numbers. They know that women with disordered eating latch onto weights and measurements, use them to map out complicated star charts of hope. Are we fated for beauty? For love? For transcendence? I stop following women on Instagram who make me feel diminished; I follow stylish, joyful women or confident, curvy women instead. The curvy women have large unapologetic breasts, they reveal stretch marks, sometimes decorated in glitter, cellulite, the roundness of their bellies displayed in tight dresses and jeans. It helps a little. But the right hand is still anxious; it looks up the women, who are mostly models, on the Internet. The modelling agencies list their heights, measurements, and dress sizes. The left hand notes with disapproval that I am always slightly relieved when I am similarly proportioned, but smaller.

For someone who isn’t very confident about their looks, you sure get hit on a lot.

I demur. I message a joke punctuated with the laughing, crying face, wry, suitably embarrassed. The laughing is real -- the left hand is not without a sense of humour. But the truth is that I do get hit on regularly. There have been crushes and flirtations in every class, every job, every play, both men and women. At times, I’ve taken this as a confirmation of some desirability, but now I wonder if it’s something else. I stare into eyes and faces too long, rarely the first to blink. At times, it’s longing, frank desire, but more often it’s curiosity – where will this go? What do you see? What I like best is the fission of recognition, which is not the same as looking or being looked at.

My daughter and I are getting ready, side-by-side, in front of the mirror. She has started to borrow my clothes. The All Stars I bought and wore when she was born have already been appropriated and abandoned, too small for her now. The holes in the faded black canvas spread during her tenure, but I take them back and wear them again, pleased by their destruction. Seeing her in my clothes is somehow more disorienting than the sight of my son and his lanky, coltish grace. He has been taller than me for a long time now. We are quiet, making private mirror faces, absorbed in concealing and enhancing.  She speaks to my reflection; do you know that I basically like the way I look?

I look at the deleted album again, the photos that are me and not me. The phone is always giving me another chance to delete or recover, to disavow or claim this view of myself. I hover over the delete button and then I give myself another 30 days to decide.

  • Heidi is a teacher and writer living in Suffolk. She has a Creative Writing MA from the University of Essex.

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