Dorothy, my maternal grandmother, knew what to do when someone was taking her picture. This was not due to the Gladwellian 10,000 hours of practice put in by modern girls, but because her uncle was a professional photographer. There are lovely portraits of her from the time she could stand where she’s popping out some version of this: face the camera, line your left heel up with the instep of your right foot, tip your head just a hair towards the outstretched toe, then find an arm position and facial expression that suit the occasion. Here, that being some boy about to give her a corsage. The bob! The shoes! The gorgeous dresses they got to wear in the 1920s!
This mirror selfie approximation of the pose took about 30 tries and I’m not even kidding. It’s the best I could do. Grandmother’s foot trick is subtle, brilliant and surprisingly hard to not over play. Turns out the rest of it requires standing up very straight and then relaxing your shoulders and neck so that your head just sits there. Who knew. Today’s fashion statement involves second hand, black Old Navy jeans, the same brown belt I wear every day, a scoop-neck Patagonia t shirt and a DIY cardigan. If you have a tightly knit sweater you are tired of, or that makes you sweat too much, you can find a pair of scissors, slice it up the front and voila; a cardigan. No, it does not unravel into a big mess. I’ve committed this wanton act of creativity many times and your should too.
In the photo above, taken in the late 1960’s perhaps by my father, we have the adorable baby yrmama surrounded by her grandma, mother, brother and grandpa. Grandma was a figure larger than life – affectionate, bossy, and very hardworking. No one in this photo is very comfortable in front of a camera except, it appears, Grandpa. Baby yrmama doesn’t care much either way about the camera but hates the way her mother and brother are holding on to her lest she bust out in unruliness. Ha. Little did they know about who they were dealing with, literally.
In the photo to the right we have full-grown yrmama. Today’s hairstyle was achieved with a big old handful of mousse and a nice long wall squat under the hand drier in the pool locker room. yrmama was blessed with teflon hair that rarely needs combing and I’m not even kidding. A secondhand magenta madras shirt is layered under a rust sweater that yrmama actually bought off the rack at Target when she went to a genealogy conference and found she had not packed warm enough clothes for scouring the nearby graveyards for familiar names. That strategic clashing creates a nice glow, don’t you think?
I’m now more or less the same age Grandma was in the first photo and I think I look something like her. My life is very different than Grandma’s but like her I am very hard-working and very bossy. I’d like to say I’m as affectionate as she was but I’m not sure it’s true.
I have three daughters who always look terrific in photos whereas I usually look apologetic. I remember a time when I could not stand to look in a mirror with someone. I just didn’t have the confidence to see what I looked like while someone else was looking at me too. My daughters all spent a good portion of their adolesences practicing what to do when a camera shows up. They can effortlessly “find their light,” strike the pose, flip the hair, tilt the head, jut the hip, tip the chin and exude confidence.
I don’t really know what I look like. I’m always surprised by mirrors and photos and unpredictable reflections. Photos confuse me because I look like I’m trapped inside an unfamiliar voluptuous mound of flesh. That effect is especially highlighted if I’m caught sitting in a chair, trying desperately to look tall, thin and blond and perhaps not even there. My son, who was born looking like a super model and never even had to practice, recently took a brilliant photo of himself on the beach with me in my bikini, sitting in one of those painful cloth folding chairs. Good God. In some photos my face sags, like a gravity burst is sucking the joy out of me. I look like one of those droopy-eyed dogs. Sometimes I look like my mother. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the photo is of me or my oldest daughter.
In the past few years illness has messed dramatically with my size, from normal (the way I’ve always been, the size and shape I was from high school through my late 40’s) to way too skinny, to normal again and then shooting past that to mildly plump. Every time my clothes don’t fit I give them away and restock in my new size at Crowded Closet and Goodwill. Resultingly, there’s hardly anything I’ve worn for years like I think most people have, clothes in which I might feel nostalgia, or like my same old self. I pull a hanger from the stuffed rack at Goodwill and think, “omg, that’s huge,” when it’s actually my size. When I was too skinny the shorts my size seemed impossible so I tried to make slightly larger, reasonable sizes, work and they literally fell off my narrow butt.
So, I’m practicing. Maybe I’ll watch some instructional videos on how to look like myself in a photo. Meanwhile, I’m becoming very clear on the fact that this corporeal form of energy pressed into matter that is my vehicle through this lifetime is just that. It’s doing a fine job of helping me hurtle through space and time. I like it! Now, if I can just learn to seemyself in it as the molecules get switched out for new ones and the pattern continues to break down (aka aging) I will have won.