Healing vanity and self-loathing through selfies

On Monday, I wrote about the pressure women feel to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s one thing to recognize it for what it is, and to reject it as unjust; it’s another to stop feeling that pressure. I can’t change what people expect of me, but I can change what I expect of myself.

I know this guy who used to be a gay porn star. Now he’s not, and he is trying very hard to lead a life that’s completely different from his old life. He constantly posts photos of himself on social media — so many that someone finally asked him why. He explained that there are countless photos of himself from his porn days, and that’s what people see if they search his name. He can’t get them taken down, but he can outnumber them out with these new photos that show him as he is now. He wants people to see him as he is now — which is more like who he wants to be, who he thinks he was made to be.

I realized I do something similar — not for the sake of other people, but for my own. It’s not vanity, exactly, and it’s definitely not confidence. Just the opposite: It’s because I’ve spent so many years terrified of looking bad, and I’m tired of it. 

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I see . . . nothing. I see nonsense, like a scrambled photo I can’t make heads or tails of. I literally can’t tell what I’m looking at, when I look at myself. Am I shapeless and obese? Am I shapely and strong? Do I look professional and tidy, or do I look like a rat that got into his mother’s makeup? I simply can’t tell. My self-image is too garbled. One time, I had been beating myself up for the ten pounds I had gained in the last few weeks because of my slovenly ways. Then I actually got on a scale, and it turned out I was actually down half a pound.

And immediately, the mirror obediently showed me someone who looked about half a pound prettier. 

This is how I know mirrors are garbage. There is no such thing as “half a pound prettier.” Yet that is what I saw. And I know this happens to other people, not just people who’ve been through the pregnancy olympics. 

In truth, mirrors can only tell you very specific, limited things, like, “Am I wearing pants right now?” or “Do I have jelly on my face or not?” They can’t tell you, “Do I look nice or terrible?” and they certainly can’t tell you, “Am I acceptable as a human being or not?” Just as it’s really your brain, and not your eyeballs, that see the world, it’s your idea of yourself, and not the mirror, that tells you what you look like.

Now, what we look like is not the most important thing about us. I protested mightily against the idea that a pleasing appearance should be the thing that earns us respect and a place of dignity in the world; and scripture is clear: The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.  

But unless we’re babies or very elderly or in some other unusual circumstances, it’s not possible or even admirable to give no thought whatsoever to how we look. It’s okay to want to look nice! You want to be able to present yourself appropriately, so you can feel reasonably confident and secure, and can then go on to focus your time and attention on other things. 

So how do you learn that sense of proportion? How do you learn to care for yourself without being overcome with anxiety about yourself?

I’m fairly skeptical about advice to simply bellow, “I AM BEAUTIFUL! ALL WOMEN ARE BEAUTIFUL!” Maybe it works for some people, but for me, it just fosters hypocrisy. I don’t need to feel that I am stunning and gazelle-like and desirable to all mankind. I just need to have my self-imaged healed so it stops howling like a wounded dog. I need to have it retreat to normal proportions, rather than swelling up and throbbing grossly at unexpected times. I need, in short, to know more or less how I look, and to be more or less okay with it, so I can forget it and think about something more interesting. 

That, by the way, is the aesthetic aspect of what Christians mean by humility. It doesn’t mean thinking you’re a useless, worthless worm. It means knowing who you are, accepting it, and getting on with what’s important. 

I don’t have gay porn photos of myself that need outnumbering, but I do have weird fears and fantasies about how I look and who I am; and it doesn’t help when internet trolls gleefully join in to point out my undeniable physical flaws.

That’s where the selfies come in. I show myself how I look. I plaster my Facebook wall with photos of myself that I will come across when I’m not expecting it, when I’m not preparing myself to see myself. I share flattering photos, but also less-flattering ones, with my stomach bulging or my teeth sticking out. Do you know what happens then?

I do not die.

The more photos I share, the easier it gets to see them, and the less I worry about how I look in real life. It used to be that someone could ruin my day or even my week by posting a bad photo of me. The week I got my wedding photos back was hellish. I felt like my handsome husband had made his vows to a walking double chin and overbite. It sounds funny, but it was crushingly painful. I was that vulnerable; and it only got worse over the years.

But now I’ve seen overwhelming evidence that sometimes I look bad and sometimes I look nice; and now the stakes simply aren’t that high. Even if I see that I look crummy in real life some day, if my skin is broken out and my hair is weird and I remembered too late why I never wear this shirt in public, it’s … like … not the end of the world. Not because I can look at pretty photos and reassure myself that those are more accurate, but because I have a more comprehensive understanding of what I look like overall, and of who I am. Bad days are just bad days, and no longer feel like a revelation of what I truly am inside.

When I see photo after photo of myself all with my unavoidable flaws, I don’t zero in on those flaws, but I see myself as just another person. I’m not a supermodel, and that’s okay. Most people aren’t. I have a pleasant smile. I dress okay. I don’t demand that everyone else be flawless before I consider them worth my time, and I’m learning to stop demanding it of myself (and to stop being crushed when I can’t deliver).

So many women, and men, too, have a self-image that’s been skewed and distorted literally past recognition. So many live in genuine fear of finding out what they look like — and that fear shows that it’s about more than aesthetics, but it’s about self-worth. We need many kinds of healing from this kind of wound, but healing of our physical self-image is not an insignificant one. No one should feel fear at the idea of showing their face.

Selfie culture can be poisonous, and can foster narcissism, envy, and crippling anxiety. But if you use it intentionally, it can help you heal from self-loathing and the anxious vanity that goes along with it.