SELFIES AS SELF-HELPIE
I don’t know at what point in time I turned into a serial selfie taker, but at some point I did - those of you that follow me on Instagram will be well aware of this. Since Kim Kardashian & many others have actually shed some celeb light on the whole concept of taking pictures of yourself being an actual ~thing~, it’s become less and less weird for people to do so. Saying that, though, I’m almost certain that anyone scrolling through my Instagram feed would consider me a narcissistic arsehole. But hey, it was tough getting to this place. It’s not easy to accept yourself for the way you look, wholeheartedly.
I remember being a child and stealing my dad’s video camera and recording myself doing L’Oréal style ‘because you’re worth it’ adverts and then watching them back and being ashamed of what I’d done. I remember looking at the pictures that my parents took of me in the garden in my school dress when my mum had put my hair in plaits, hearing that I was the most beautiful girl in the world from my parents but still thinking that my face didn’t look like anyone else’s and that was maybe why the Step-Father of the girl I travelled home from Brownies with used ‘Ugly’ as my nickname – ‘Alright, Beth? Alright Ugly? How was it?’.
I remember when the older sisters of the girls I did dance shows with would do my white and blue eye shadow, commenting on how small my eyes were and how they couldn’t do my make-up because of it, so I remember copying how the others did it and learning to do my own. The same with putting my own hair in a bun. I guess this was the start of my Femme independence.
I remember when I went on holiday with my family and family friends, and assuming my regular role of ‘the weird one’ that hung out with the parents in the villa while my friend made friends with the other kids our age, calling me ‘Sea Urchin’ and laughing as though it wouldn’t affect me at all.
I remember being 10 or 11 and starting to get acne. I remember the comments, the remarks, the songs that girls at school would sing about me, the boys saying ‘Ugh, get some Clearasil’ in the queue for the school Canteen where I’d sit and not eat and sink into myself. I remember the decade of topical treatments, gels, Clearasil, Clarins, Clinique, antibiotics, Roaccutane, the burns, the tears, the self-harm, the hours spent praying to a god I never believed in - ‘If you’re really there, please let me be beautiful. Please, please make my spots go away. Please.’. This became my wish every 11:11, every dandelion clock, every eyelash, every birthday, every night. I was convinced that if my skin got better I’d be happy. Or at least stop hating myself, that’s all I wanted. I remember staring into a mirror on a daily basis and analysing everything about my face, counting the spots to see if I had one less today than yesterday. I remember noticing that my smile was wonky and weird and everybody else’s was symmetrical, so I stopped smiling. I was a bridesmaid for my Aunt and ruined all her wedding photos by not smiling, no because I wasn’t happy for her, but purely because I didn’t have the strength to.
For the longest time I’d avoid cameras at all costs, which is why I have no visual evidence of how I looked between the ages of 11-16, which is probably a good thing because I had some incredibly uncomfortable fashion phases in that time as well. My favourite was my aged 13 definitely gay repression obsession with Lady Sovereign in which I wore (bad) sportswear and wrist sweatbands in a half trying-to-be-cool way, half these-are-useful-for-concealing-things-I-don’t-want-people-to-see way.
My mental health was a mess for three main reasons – self-loathing about my appearance, denial about my sexuality and being on the receiving end of toxic, controlling friendships, but that’s a story for another day.
When I hit 16 and my year-long course of Roaccutane was taking effect, I started feeling better. I asked for a Camera for my birthday (a Canon 350D – I still have it!) and took Photography at A-Level. This is where my life really, truly began. I promised myself that I’d try and try and try to not let this pit swallow me up, to make an effort to help myself and with everything else.
I’m not sure what really helped the most, or if it was a combination of everything; changing schools, meeting a group of people whose beauty and friendship still brings me to tears when I think about it (Radosava, if you’re reading this, I’ll love you forever), finding what my passions are, spending all my time in the Media Edit-Suite cutting footage together and feeling creative, being guided by incredible tutors (Miss Stanhope, you’re amazing), learning about women like Lee Miller and Cindy Sherman and being so inspired by them that I couldn’t help but reference them in my work. I’d done a project on ‘The Female Form’, which, obviously, had led to some serious digging out of the ole’ supergay feels as well. This didn’t make matters much better regarding my appearance, but it helped me accept myself as who I am, which in turn, increased my confidence tenfold.
My parents found me a tripod in the attic of my house and I’d borrowed some barn-door lights from the college Media Technician, and so my journey into overuse of the self-timer button began. I also modeled for some of my friend’s projects too – I’m pretty sure this was a huge turning point for me. If I hadn’t taken Photography at A-Level it’s likely I wouldn’t have been able to drag myself out of the deep, dark water and surface again. I put some of the photos I took during this time on Flickr, and found publishing them online helped me more than anything else had before. I set up a blog, my first ever blog, in which I would upload photos I’d taken and then write one or two lines of poetry or prose underneath it. (faisonslamour.blogspot.com - deleted in a fit of rage one day. Yes I regret it). At one point in time, I’m sure that a huge part of the reason I did it was to feel good about something. To have something that I’d done involving my appearance be universally consumed and accepted by people. In my late teens I craved validity in the form of approval. Perhaps not even approval, just my presence sans negativity. My face without hate.
Rather than sit and stare at my reflection, scrutinising at all the ways I could look different, look better, I’ve used taking photos of myself and publishing them on some sort of online platform as a form of therapy. Of course this was subject to being called pretentious, self-absorbed, and narcissistic and I suppose in a way, it is. But I need it and it works. I now have no problem with people trying to break my confidence because I’ve become utterly unbreakable. I can now look back on all the ways that people treated me and the ways that I treated myself and understand how wrong they all were, how wrong I was. I've learnt to love my freaky face, my small eyes and big cheeks and acne scars and forehead scars and freckles. I've learnt that Freederm Gel actually works and Aveeno Cream is great for Urticaria and Lush Face Masks are great for calming down redness. And, importantly, that MAC Studio Finish Concealer is a gift from the gods and that I look great in dark coloured lipsticks. I've learnt that life isn't only about the way you look, but for me, it was the ball and chain holding me back. It was binding me to the ground when all I wanted was the ability to fly. Accepting yourself for who you are both inside and out is such a gift – this is all so cliché but I wish I’d understood this 10 years ago.
Though of course there are days that I feel hideous, I feel like a shadow of how I know I could feel, I woke up this morning feeling that way. The difference between now and then is that now I can register the monsters inside me telling me I’m nothng, telling me I’m ugly, telling me I’m not worthy of the life I have or the life I want as nothing but, well, nothing. They aren’t real. I am worthy. I am good enough. Understanding my mental health issues and the best way of dealing with them, as well as understanding my own privilege as an able-bodied, white, middle class person was also crucial to my understanding and self-awareness. When you're in the black hole of self-hate, it can be difficult to check yourself and see that actually, regardless, you're incredibly lucky. It can be difficult but honestly, it's important. At least, it was for me.
Living by the mantra ‘If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else’ revolutionised my life (Thank you, RuPaul) and it requires a lot of work to maintain a positive mental attitude. If that means taking a selfie on the days I feel great and taking a selfie on the days I don’t, then that’s what I’ll do. It’s a powerful thing.
So frankly you’re going to have to put up with my face again and again and again, because it was a tough journey to get to this point, I bled for it, I begged for it, and there’s no way I’m letting it go.