Over the last few weeks, as I’ve begun to disturb the layers of complacency that have settled into the furniture and cupboards of my house, I’ve run across some photos of myself from my teens and twenties. Usually when I look at old photographs someone has taken of me, I tend to look at everything except for the figure in the snapshot’s center. I’ll scan the background, and bring to my recollection. I’ll study the faces of the other people around me and remember them fondly. But when it has come to my own self, in the past my eyes have automatically glided over anything having to do with my body.
I suppose somewhere around the seventh grade, when boys are at about their least appealing to most—oily-faced, pimply, awkward, clumsy, slump-shouldered, self-conscious, and shy about their bodies—I stopped liking what I saw in the mirror. Though I’ve changed over the years—now, I’m dry-skinned, not-so-pimply, and just as clumsy, though my posture is infinitely better—a part of me has settled on that pimply seventh-grader as my self-image. For thirty years since, whenever I look in the mirror or see a photograph, that’s what I’ve tended to see.
Now, I can’t say that’s the way I feel about myself now. There came a point about four years ago when very suddenly I started to like very much the image in my reflection. I liked the way I looked in clothing. I grew a short beard and unexpectedly found myself liking my face. Instead of avoiding mirrors, I started to preen in them and to check myself out when walking past them in department stores. I liked posing for photographs, instead of hiding my face and trying to ease out of range of the lens.
Here’s the thing, though. Lately, as I’ve been finding old photos scattered around the place and have been collecting them to pack, I’ve realized how really cute I was in my youth. Some of them are embarrassing, admittedly. I’m not my proudest about the really old ones in which I’m sporting horn-rimmed glasses, braces, and a bowl cut. But those taken when I had more control over my appearance in my late teens and after? I’m fucking adorable. Everything I find I like about my face now, I find in those old pictures. I like my smile, my impossible leanness, the tautness of my skin. The things I don’t like . . . well, I know now how little it all matters, in the end. There’s much more to a person than his looks
What bothers me is that it took thirty years to reach peace with my appearance. Over the weekend I had two sexual encounters with men who very obviously were not aware of how very sexy they really were. (I’ll write about those this week.) It bothered me that both deflected the most sincere of my compliments almost without thinking. I know that, when they look into the mirror, they’re not really seeing themselves. They’re seeing some geeky boy, or some fat kid, or the picked-on youth who tried to blend in and become as invisible as possible. Like me, they settled on some vision of themselves formulated by thoughtless children and mean girls and maybe even the people closest to them, and that twisted vision is what they’ve seen ever since.
So much time we waste, with our eyes half-closed, don’t we?
So I’m curious. Readers, what do you see when you look at photographs of yourself, or when you pass the mirror? Is it your thirteen-year-old faults writ large? Is it the faulty and unattractive you from some other portion of your life, carried around as an unchanging burden for much of your life? Or are you blessed with clarity of sight, and appreciate yourself for what you are?
In other words, how different is your actual appearance from the mental image fashioned from your self-doubts and fears?
I’m curious to know, and would appreciate your comments on the matter.