The Selfie Project: Staying in the Picture

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Images by Jessica Roberts

By Jessica Roberts (Intern 2015)

When I was still pregnant with my daughter, I made three goals for myself as a new parent. First, I would tell my girl that I loved her, out loud and unprompted, every single day. Second, I wanted to make play a priority — something that didn’t come naturally to me but I was willing to practice. And third, I was ready to confront my aversion to having my picture taken and snap a photo of us together daily.

Once Olivia Grace arrived and I loved being a mother more than I ever could have imagined, it was easy to keep my first two resolutions. Telling her I love her is practically a reflex to every one of her smiles, cries, giggles, and baby pterodactyl noises. It turns out I’ve had a playful side all along, untapped until I realized I would dance, sing, jump, and throw my baby around like a kettlebell if it makes and keeps her happy.

But the pictures.

Maybe you identify with being self-conscious about how you look in photos. Or perhaps you’re like me, someone who has struggled with an eating disorder for years. And even after beating down that voice in your head insisting you are a foul, hideous, weak individual, certain things still cause it to whimper and hiss, “You’re ugly. You’re disgusting. You’re not good enough.” Certain things like a less-than-perfect picture.

So possibly you did what made the most sense to me for a good ten years — stay out of pictures! One bad photo could have me regretting eating a perfectly reasonable amount, or worse, resolving to restrict my intake once more for another ride down the Starvation Slide — exhilarating on the way down until you tumble out the other end, plunk onto the ground, and realize, oh, that’s it. There’s nothing here for me at the bottom.

It became a joke to family and friends, who didn’t know my avoidance of cameras bordered on a phobia. Some were sensitive, asking if I would be OK with jumping into the shot. And others chased me around, delighting in how a lens in my face could agitate me into a red-faced mess.

Guess what the collective result of avoiding cameras for years is? Very few pictures of myself, even at meaningful events. I have the memories, but they remain undocumented.

Like getting engaged, for example. My husband proposed to me on top of Camelback Mountain in Arizona after we completed a sunrise climb to the summit. It was gorgeous, but he didn’t even try to take a picture of us, anticipating my probable discomfort.

Which was lovely of him, but a bit selfish of me.

By refusing to be in pictures, I wasn’t just making a choice for myself. I was unilaterally determining how our future family could make and preserve memories.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that our future children needed to see a mother modeling a certain amount of comfort in her body. A mother enjoying the moment with them rather than removing herself from it. A mother using the photos as a means of reminiscing together, joyfully, do you remember when …? instead of sighing and vocalizing a desire for thinner arms or less chunky cheeks.

Which brings me back to the Selfie Project I initiated from Olivia’s first day. I gave myself a few parameters:

Selfie_2One, I had to take a picture with my little lady every day, for at least her first year. Initially this seemed daunting, but I knew I had to make it a long-term habit in order to achieve my ultimate goal of becoming comfortable with being in pictures.

Two, I took the picture when I remembered to, without worrying about how my hair looked or if she was dressed in a cute little outfit. These photos were for us; who cares if we had bedhead or she was just wearing a diaper?

Three, I had to look at them, and even if I didn’t like how I looked, no deleting. Save to my computer file and move on with my life.

Turns out Olivia is quite expressive and totally game for the Selfie Project. This has become one of my most cherished daily rituals with my girl. I now have hundreds of pictures of us together, and when I look through them, I’m not focused on how I look. I’m enjoying seeing us together, how we’re interacting with each other. I remember the context for every single shot. If every picture is worth a thousand words, Olivia and I have already written an encyclopedia together.

I used to criticize overzealous picture-takers for ruining the moment, taking something organic and turning us into posed props. But now I understand that integrating photographs into daily life can actually make us more in tune with moments worth remembering. Olivia’s first smile, my husband reading to her, and the cats running away from her “love” (yanking on their fur) are all transient moments that can be rendered immutable if I just remember to grab the camera and catch it.

You don’t have to love your body. I don’t. But I’m getting ever closer to a gentle acceptance of the aspects I don’t care for, while appreciating all it allows me to do as a mother, wife, pet mom, business owner, writer, daughter, sister, and friend.Selfie_3

I hope my daughter looks at pictures of us together and thinks she is beautiful. But I’m not going to insist she thinks her body is beautiful.

That’s her choice, albeit one likely informed by both self-imposed ideas and external cues about what constitutes beauty.

But I can teach her how to treat her body with love.

To believe that all bodies are good bodies, hers included.

To respect her body’s limitations, while pushing herself in both physical feats and intellectual endeavors.

And I can model self-acceptance, self-respect, and the precious intersection of these two qualities — self-confidence.Selfie_4

So no, I’m not going to tell my daughter that she has to love her body because it’s beautiful.

But I am going to demonstrate how our bodies are vehicles for contributing, acting, building, growing, nurturing, creating, and protecting. No matter what form we take, we are capable of doing beautiful things.

Selfies are often criticized as the ultimate expression of narcissism, but I approach them as self-portraits, unstudied and imperfect, that function for me as a path to accepting how I look, both in pictures and in real life.

For me this starts with making memories with my girl. I’ll take her swimming even when I’m not comfortable with how I look in a bathing suit. I can skip the make-up for running errands so we both know I’m not obligated to “put my face on” before leaving the house. We will bake cookies together, and I’ll eat one too.

And in the coming years, when someone asks, “Do you want me to get a photo of you two together?” I will say yes, over and over again.

I’m staying in the picture.