Somewhere close to the middle of December last year, I started on a little project – or, I suppose more accurately, I began a little challenge – to post a fresh selfie on social media every day. It’s not a new idea, by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, a few people in my own networks have done it. Now, the selfie might be much maligned in this day and age, but it’s a form of expression for which I have nothing but the utmost respect. For decades, the camera has been a weapon – especially for trans folk. It’s something that’s been pointed at us like a gun, used to capture distorted representations of our essence that are packaged for “mainstream” audiences, often to be leered at or laughed at. Now, I’m not suggesting that there haven’t been any empowering representations of trans folk in photographic media; just that there is the potential for such media to be exploitative, and all too often it is.
One of the primary manifestations of stigma against us is the stripping of our agency over our bodies. Whether it’s in a medical exam room, or on the pages of a magazine, or wherever it happens, the fundamental concept is the same – our bodies don’t really belong to us. They’re curiosities at best – or abominations at worse – and that’s a judgment that cisciety makes. Our bodies don’t fit the standards, so unless they have some use for the purposes of entertainment or shock value. they’re utterly lacking in merit. These are the ideas that we all internalise about ourselves, and they can be pretty difficult ones to dismantle.
And that’s why the selfie is so important. Because when I’m my own photographer, I get to make the decisions about the kind of images I produce, and what happens with them. And the same goes, of course, for all of us. Each time we post a picture of ourselves – and it doesn’t matter who we are, this is true for everyone regardless of identity or orientation – it’s a radical statement. It’s an assertion that in a world that wants to convince us we’re not good enough, we refuse to buy into the rhetoric.
That assertion isn’t always true though, is it? How many days do you look in the mirror, and feel dissatisfied with what you see staring back at you? How often do you compare yourself to some set of arbitrary and unrealistic standards? Very few of us wake up in the morning and consciously say, “today I plan to feel bad because society’s definition of beauty and acceptability doesn’t align with my own body” – but it’s so ingrained in us that invariably it happens anyway.
And for those who have learned to overcome this pressure… I’ll wager that it was a process. A process that took a whole lot of time and a whole lot of hard work. And probably one that is an ongoing battle, trying to keep oneself from buckling.
I’m not there. Not yet. I mean, some day I hope to be. But right now, I’m still in the trenches, fighting it out tooth and nail, on a moment-to-moment basis. And there’s seldom any respite. If I do have that moment where I feel good about myself, where I recognise that I’m beautiful and strong and attractive… well, of course I savour it. But I also wonder, “when is this going to end?” It never lasts too long.
There’s a disconnect, for many of us, between the way we see ourselves, and the objective truth. It’s difficult to gauge, of course, because “the objective truth” isn’t really defined anywhere. But there’s a surrogate for it, I suppose, and that’s the perception of others. Admittedly, many of the people around us have been exposed to the same harmful conditioning that we have, but most of that tends to be directed inwards – we frequently judge others more fairly than we judge ourselves. In any event, the point isn’t really whether the judgment of others is accurate or not; rather, the argument is just to prove that our own self-perceptions are terribly flawed.
So why the selfies, then? And why “every day” instead of just “more often”? So the first part seems pretty straightforward (as an exceedingly queer woman, I always giggle a little when I say “straightforward”). I’m trying to retrain my brain to see what other people see. To be less… unfair… on myself. To recognise that I’ll have better days and worse ones, but that the worse ones are when I need to be especially gentle with myself, even though that’s when it becomes most difficult to. I want to try to learn to focus on what’s good, instead of making a point of seeking out what I’m dissatisfied with.
It’s so difficult to articulate this concept, but it’s like there’s some sort of distortive filter over my eyes that’s just inescapable. And I know it’s there, but I can’t delineate it. If I could, maybe I could shut it down, or work around it, but that’s just not possible. It’s insidious. So when I see myself, I know it’s the brain poison talking, but that doesn’t help me to see the truth. It’s a surreal thing, to look at an image and to know that what you’re seeing is something other than what’s actually there, but not knowing how to dispel the illusion.
(Is any of this even coherent?)
So the idea is to just go through the motions, and to keep on doing so with the hope that something will shift or change. If I do it enough. That the habit will become learned, and I’ll stop having to remind myself to block out the negativity. That it will just become second nature to seek out the good rather than the bad. I suppose, in essence, I want it to be Pavlovian. Yeah, in that particular analogy, I am the dog.
And then every day. Because even though I trust myself, I think sometimes there is merit to structure and accountability. If I say that I’m posting a selfie every day, then it’s no longer a matter of letting only myself down if I slip up. Because I’ve allowed other people to become involved, or maybe even invested. And maybe – hopefully – it reminds some of them, if they need to be reminded, that we can all find those qualities that we like within ourselves, even if sometimes it takes a bit of effort to do so.
So, every day, there’s a new selfie. By now, it’s part of my routine. I won’t say that I do it without thinking, but it’s a sort of a staple. I don’t spend ages on it, either – just a quick snap here or there and it’s done. Because it’s not about taking the perfect photo – on the contrary, it’s about finding the beauty in an imperfect photo. Some of them I take at 4am, before I head out for a race. Or after the race, when I’m sweaty and gross and far-from-my-prettiest. I don’t always have makeup on. My hair isn’t always neat. My eyebrows aren’t always perfect (ok, that last one was a lie. My brows are always perfect. But still, you get the point). The whole point is to try grow more comfortable with these candid, authentic glimpses of me – the ones that reflect me in all my complexity, raw and honest. Because that is where I need to find the positivity – in the every day moments, whether they’re nondescript, or challenging-as-f—, or whatever they are. Those are the moments where it really counts.
And if I keep on doing this, and I plan to… well then maybe one day I’ll wake up and just believe it.