This is a story about two things:
- The power of everything that comes out of your mouth as a parent.
- Family photos
Kevin has been campaigning for us to take a family picture for months now. His argument makes all the logical sense in the world: he wants to preserve this period in family history, before Sophie grows and changes. And though I generally dislike all posed pictures (the tight forced smiles, the artificial arrangements, the staged environment), I am glad that we have several envelopes full of pictures that have frozen Sophia at various points in time. These images capture her in ways that I cannot conjure on my own. They provide me with the illusion of memory, something I can attach my narrative to.
And because these pictures are taken of a child who is genuinely happy to be placed in front of a camera, who is easily coaxed into joy with a series of funny faces and sounds, Sophia beams a big beautiful smile each one.
But taking a picture of me in this way is an entirely different story. A camera pointed in my direction makes me tense. I forget how to smile. Every muscle in my face says I’m trying. I look strained and miserable. My left eye closes more than my right. The effect is wholly unattractive. This is not merely some poor self-image rant. In real life, I think I look fine. In posed pictures, I look like a hostage.
Needless to say, I was dreading our trip to the Picture Place. After several months of weekly reminders from Kevin, I had finally made an appointment. The day snuck up on me. Though I had an outfit in mind for Sophie, and had strategically napped and bathed her so she’d be her freshest for the photo, I hadn’t put the same amount of time or thought into me. A half-hour before we were due at the studio, I still hadn’t picked out something to wear.
I suppose the main reason I wasn’t dressed yet was because, though I had carefully scheduled out the afternoon, I had not built in a cushion for meltdowns. Apparently Sophie was not pleased with my choice of outfits for the photo shoot. It had something to do with the fact that the fluffy pink confection I selected was monochromatic and “boring.” She had jumped into bed pulled her covers tightly around her, and was refusing to get dressed.
I left the scene to throw some clothes on my body and to allow her some time to cool off, but when I opened my closet I felt completely overwhelmed. Pants or dress? Pattern or solid? Color or black? I called for backup, and Kevin was completely unhelpful:
“Wear whatever. You look good in anything.” In another mood, the vote of confidence might have been touching. In this instance, the general nature of his feedback was hysteria-inducing.
“No, I don’t!” I insisted, throwing on a pair of black palazzo pants and a blue shirt with lots of gathered stitching that I like. “How about this?”
He studied me for a second, “Well, I don’t know how that shirt will look in the picture….” Couldn’t he have lied? I’m sure, in the next moment, he wondered the same thing.
I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my wild eyes surrounded by short spiky hair.
“I LOOK LIKE A BOY!” I lamented.
“You do not look like a boy,” Kevin refuted.
“I do. I DO!” I wailed
Kevin was about to beat a hasty retreat. “Where’s Sophie?” He asked.
“She’s in her room, refusing to get dressed. Can you do something about it?”
Kevin took off for what he thought might be the lesser of two evils. Two minutes later I hear Kevin trying to coax Sophie out of the covers to put her dress on.
There was a scuffle. Then I hear Sophie cry out, “I can’t wear this, Daddy. I LOOK LIKE A BOY!”
I do not think this is what Kevin had in mind when he suggested preserving this moment forever.
A few more minutes pass and Kevin emerges carrying a struggling, but dressed, Sophia in his arms. “I’m taking her out to the car.” He tells me. This is my cue to hurry my ass up.
I decide to wear the blue shirt. “I’m wearing this shirt.” I tell him.
“Fine.” Kevin, at this point, would not care if I had wrapped myself in a sheet. As long as I put something on and followed him out of the house.
At the Picture Place, we were a miserable bunch. Sophia, with her face pinched and red from crying, her hair still wet from the bath, and her pink cardigan unbuttoned, displaying the ratty white t-shirt underneath. Me, my sense of discomfort growing as each minute brought us closer to the photo shoot. And Kevin, who despite feeling exasperated and had a few raindrops flecking his deep blue oxford, looked ridiculously handsome as usual. It is not possible for Kevin to look bad in pictures. He’s just got that kind of a face.
I bore the experience. Allowing the teenage photographer to wrangle us into a number of poses we hadn’t asked for. Sophie basked in the limelight, obliging and obedient as the photographer had her sit, kneel, lean, and climb. Each time the bulb went off, I felt my left eye squeeze half-shut.
Afterwards, we reviewed the pictures on a widescreen monitor. I wished they had something smaller, so my lack of photogenicness wouldn’t be broadcast across the entire store. Each photo was more disappointing than the last. The photographer, with apparently days and days of experience under her belt, seemed to catch us just before or right after each photo opportunity, as we were slipping in or out of smiles.
Still, we managed to let ourselves be persuaded into buying several sheets of several different family configurations.
Sometime after the shoot, I told Kevin I regretted my comment about looking like a boy. Mostly I regretted that I had made a negative comment about my appearance, which Sophie immediately adopted as her own. After the care I’ve taken never to make a denigrating remark about my body [in her presence]—why, I even went so far as to ask Sophie’s babysitters when she was an INFANT not to say things like, “I feel so fat,” in front of her—I call my femininity into question.
“Yeah, that kind of took me off guard,” Kevin says. He didn’t know I felt this way.
I do and I don’t. I mean, in some ways, I think my short hair is a perfect expression of who I feel like I am on the inside. A little tomboyish. A little tough. A little quirky. But there are moments when I miss my fluffy curls and coquettishly peeking out from behind my veil of hair, distinctively feminine.
Do we ever measure up on the outside to the image of ourselves on the inside? Can a picture ever accurately capture who we think we are? What does this family photo say about who we are, right now, in this phase of our familial development?
With a little time and distance from that day, I gaze at the photos we were roped into buying. I am surprised to find they don’t look all that bad. Outside of the heat of that moment, the insecurity fades. What is this thing that grips me in these moments? My own mother’s voice? Messages from the media? I only know that I never, never want Sophie to experience it. And so, I tell her what I now know to be true:
The only one who looks like a boy is Kevin.