In Defense Of The Unflattering Photo

Originally Published: 
Bridget Placek

Technically, I am a millennial. I was born in 1980, so by definition, you can group me into that generation. I don’t feel millennial. A very honest man I know, upon hearing this fact, said, “Well, then you are the world’s oldest millennial.” And that is a label that probably rings truer for me than the former. I didn’t have a cell phone until well into college. I didn’t get on Facebook until it was no longer cool. I do take enough selfies to be a millennial, though, with my friends and with my kids and with my husband. I have a very full album of selfies on my iPhone.

I take selfies because I have monstrously long arms and social anxiety about talking to strangers, not because I want to control for the right expression, lighting, or angle. The truth is, I really don’t care what I look like in these photos. I don’t erase bad pictures, and I don’t ask friends not to tag me in an unflattering post on social media. This all very un-millennial, I know.

But my theory is that a picture shows how I looked at that very moment in time. Maybe 15 seconds after one was taken, I wasn’t making the expression of a constipated baby and looked more attractive. That’s cool. In the moment of that particular picture, constipated baby = me. So be it.

I wasn’t always so blasé about this sort of thing. There was a time when I cared very much how I looked and sounded in every recorded memory. I threw away many an old-fashioned photo. Some of this change can perhaps be attributed to my age. I have always heard that as one gets older, one gives fewer and fewer fucks about what those around them think.

Maybe I can attribute my nonchalance to being a mom. Having children has certainly made me less interested in my own appearance and more interested in, you know, making sure my kids survive each day.

I can definitely attribute part of this to being a very lucky woman who married a very wonderful man who tells me daily how beautiful I look. He is an excellent liar, and for that, I am very grateful. I suspect, though, that much of this change has to do with my mother.

It has been almost eight years since we lost my mom. There is no good time, no good way, to lose a parent. Though each death is different and some are more unexpected and traumatic than others, nobody is ever entirely unscathed. We are all part of the same club — a sad, unwilling membership pool.

My mom’s death was traumatic, though, and unexpected in many ways, and it came at the worst possible time. When she died, I hadn’t spoken to her in months. It was a complicated relationship but one that did not lack for love. My mom was the center of my universe, and I (and my brother and sister) were the center of hers.

But as with all the best things in life, it was hard. That’s just the way our relationship was. And grieving over my mom has also been complicated and hard. It feels sort of trite and psych 101 to look back and pinpoint the textbook stages of grief through which I’ve traveled, but I can safely say that I spent more time than most in the “anger” stage. I felt angry at my mom, angry at the universe that stole my mom, angry at everyone around me, and her, and us for not doing something, anything that would have made it so that she was still here.

Sometimes I still feel angry. I travel back to that particular stage of grief like a teenager on a family vacation — outwardly unwilling to be there but also unwilling to miss it. For the most part, though, I have accepted my mom’s death, and her life, and our journey together. Most of all, I just miss her.

I miss my mom the most around her birthday. I would have thought it would be the anniversary of her death that was hardest for me. But after the first couple of years, that day became just a pause for reflection and checking in with my family. My mom’s birthday, the day that the world became richer with her presence and her joy and her aggressive mom-love, that’s the day that stings.

She would have been 62 this month. I imagine she would have wanted to celebrate that. Not because she was honoring herself or her years or her accomplishments in those years, but because she would have wanted the excuse to make us all come see her. Maybe we would have been glad to do so. Or maybe we would have been annoyed because our lives are busy and who has time for such things? We would have gone though. No matter what else was happening or what we were feeling, we would have gone. We would have eaten and talked and laughed. We would have made memories. But we wouldn’t have taken any pictures.

My mom hated pictures. She was not a vain person. She did not spend a lot of money or time on her appearance. I don’t think that came from a place of confidence though. I think that came from her resignation. She was very, very beautiful, but she never felt beautiful. And she was not a millennial. At 5-feet-2-inches, she also did not have selfie arms. She could not take a picture and filter it and save it for editing later. (Though she wouldn’t have done that anyway. Makes the pictures look too abstract, is what she would say.) She just was a mom who had lots and lots of pictures of her kids, but no pictures of herself. And we never really did anything about that. God, how I wish we had.

Every year on my mom’s birthday, I look for old pictures of her, of us. I don’t know why I keep looking. More pictures are not going to manifest themselves. But I do it, and I am always disappointed with the paucity. Back then, when I was a little girl telling my mom how beautiful I thought she was and asking if I could brush her hair and put makeup on her, examining every centimeter of her face and her eyes and her untamable curls, I had no idea that over time it would be harder to remember the exact details of her.

The crease in her eyelids and the exact placement of freckles would start to get fuzzy over time until it was more like a dream than my reality for 28 years. I wonder if my mom had known this, if she had known how desperate we would feel to see her face and compare her wrinkles to our own, or remember exactly how she smiled, or how her hands looked wrapping our little fingers, I wonder if she would have taken more photos. I think she would have.

Someday, hopefully a day in the very, very far future, my babies will miss me. They will talk about me to their babies and their babies’ babies, and they will show them my pictures — my awkward selfies. They’ll look at photos where I am being silly, or I look tired, or bloated, or splotchy, or even like a constipated baby. But one thing I know for sure is that they won’t care. They won’t care if I was perfect, or thin, or beautiful. They will be glad to see me and share me for who I was, in that one moment of time.

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