Me (left), and my grandmother (right), both in photographs taken by our husbands.
I’m ten. I’m in my great-grandmother’s kitchen in south Georgia. My parents have left me with my grandparents for a few days, and we’ve just finished dinner: my grandmother, grandfather, great-grandmother, and me. We’re all standing in the center of the green linoleum floor, staring at my legs.
“You sure have some skinny legs,” my grandpa says.
“Your knees poke out, too,” chimes in my great-grandmother. “That’s just disgusting.”
“Hmph,” my grandma makes that noise in her throat.
At my first opportunity, I escape to the bathroom and cry. Such is the life of a (silly, sensitive) skinny girl.
Of course, not-so-skinny girls have their own stories. And girls with uncooperative hair, and girls with irreverent teeth, and girls with determined noses. If you’ve ever, even one time, felt awkward, or ugly, or not-good-enough, you know exactly what I mean.
But this story isn’t about all the ways in which we feel inadequate.
This story is about beauty.
For my eighth birthday, I got my first camera. I figured out pretty quickly that, more than anything, I liked taking pictures of people. Landscapes: fine. Inanimate objects: whatever. It was PEOPLE who made me love photography. I loved their faces, the way their hands moved, the strange way they smiled when they weren’t sure if I was taking their picture or just playing. I liked that they trusted me to be there in that moment with them, to document it and keep it forever. I liked to see how alive they all were. I like to see how alike they all were.
Now I’m a Photographer-with-a-capital-P, with an expensive camera and a website and clients. (That’s real trust, right? To give someone access to your face, and then also hand over your credit card?) And still I love photographing people.
I’ve gotten better at it over the years. I’ve learned to pose, to engage. I’ve also learned to pay closer attention to the details that will bug my clients. I know all the tricks you ladies have practiced — tricks to make your waist look thinner, your arms slimmer, your double-chin not so double-chinny. And I pay attention to those things for you. That’s my job, to see the best of you and capture THAT.
But years of making pictures has convinced me of this: the best of you isn’t your perfectly symmetrical face and 95% fat-free hips. The best of you isn’t your straight teeth or pushed-up boobs. The best of you is… you. Who you are under your carefully-applied makeup, under your painstakingly chosen ensemble. Under your skin.
Our cultural experience is that pictures are meant to SELL. Photographs are for convincing others of a thing’s value — handbags, shoes, dresses, toasters. So we take that experience and apply it to our own photographs. And suddenly pictures of me are meant to sell ME, to sell others on the idea of me. Me stylish, me successful, me happy, me doing all the things. Me beautiful.
Two decades after that pivotal day in the kitchen, both my great-grandmother and my grandfather had passed away, and my mom and I sat in my grandmother’s kitchen and sorted through hundreds of photographs. And buried in the pile, among thousands of memories, I found photographs of my grandmother: Shirley in her Air Force uniform, Shirley cooking in the kitchen, Shirley working a crossword puzzle with her grandchildren, Shirley in a dress… Shirley with knobby knees. And with that discovery, my memory of The Kitchen Incident shifted. Maybe my grandmother wasn’t making fun of me at all. Maybe, in her own way, her “Hmph” was a sound of recognition. Grandma Shirley stood WITH me in the middle of that kitchen, not against me. She knew: I got my knobby knees from her.
Photographs connect us. They are vivid proof of where we came from, who we loved, how we grew. And it is in the imperfection of those photographs — in the true, unretouched moments — that we find beauty.
Pictures are for memories.
Pictures are for holding on as well as we can to the people we love, and loved.
And pictures are for beauty — not magazine beauty, but REAL beauty. The beauty experienced in laughter and tears. The beauty found in vulnerability and connection. The beauty you only see when ten, twenty, thirty years have passed, and for the first time you can appreciate how bright your eyes were, how strong your body was, how very much you were loved.
Pictures are for your granddaughter, who will one day see herself in you, and embrace her image for the first time.
On your wedding day, stand with your shoulders back and your arms held slightly away from your sides. Keep your chin up and your neck long. Check your teeth for lipstick and powder your nose. But remember: I’m not photographing you for Vogue or Marie Claire. I’m not making your picture for a CoverGirl campaign or the Miss America Pageant. I’m photographing you for the people who love you: for your husband or your wife, for your family and friends. I want your most joyful smile, your warmest embrace, your strongest gaze. And I’d stake everything on the certainty that that’s what your loved ones want to see when they see your photograph.
So let it go. We all have chubby arms when we’re hugging someone tightly. We all have a double-chin when we laugh really, really hard. We all have knobby knees when we’re ten.