My last pair of glasses, I bought because they came with magnetic clip-on sunglasses. Kind of goofy, but they totally worked. They lasted a long time, too, until, inevitably, they broke. I went a few years without sunglasses, until I stole a trick from my friend, Megan. She wears a pair of huge purple sunglasses right over her glasses. I found this pair of plastic pink sunglasses in a souvenir shop in Charlottetown, two pairs for 15 bucks. I bought these ones, because they fit over my glasses, and a pair of mirrored aviators, because I always wanted to be the kind of person who can pull off mirrored aviators. (It turns out I can’t, and it’s just as well those sunglasses broke mere weeks later.)
A self-portrait is a difficult thing, more for women than for men. We’re taught early on the things that are wrong with us. For me, it’s acne, a bit of a double chin. These are all ridiculous things, but they are the kinds of things you don’t see on TV. They’re not my ideas, but it’s hard to know the difference. I’m teaching myself to unlearn. I take selfies when I’m sweaty from a walk down to the beach and when my hair is a mess. My hair is curly, and it frizzes in the heat, but I don’t care. I’m not fixing my hair for a photograph. This is the real me. I want you to see it. I want to see it, too.
I’ve never been sure what looks good to other people. I’ve never been sure what my best feature is. I don’t get those kinds of compliments. Sometimes, people tell me they like the colour of my eyes. That’s the part hidden behind my pink plastic sunglasses, of course. For now, that’s just for me. I’ll grow beyond these sunglasses. Maybe my next pair will be different, smaller, more welcoming, I don’t know. What I know right now is that I’ve taken more selfies in the past year than any other year of my life.
In high school, I joined yearbook because I wanted a chance to play in the school darkroom. We took photos of cars in the parking lot. We stood in the middle of the street and shot the straight lines of the trees. Using a fisheye lens, we shot weird portraits of each other, then we developed those photos in black and white. It was exciting, exhilarating. It was making, with your hands and chemicals, and it felt like being an artist.
Despite the grand tradition of the artist’s self-portrait, you won’t find photos of me during those years. I didn’t care for my own face on film. I didn’t care for my face. I wasn’t popular, and though I had friends, I didn’t have boyfriends. High school was my acne at its worst, and I dyed my blonde hair a series of bright colours and then black for a year to distract from the problem. I didn’t get asked out. I never learned how to do makeup. When it came time for grad, no one invited me into their group, so I hitched a ride with my dad. There is a single photo of me in the blue velvet suit jacket and trousers I sewed myself.
I grew up a teenager in the time right before digital cameras. I spent a childhood, lined up with my two brothers in front of statues and signs, told to pose for my dad and his camera. There are a lot of photographs of me as a child in my parents’s basement. I’m the oldest, the first, on both sides of the family. There are a lot of photographs of me, my brothers and me, of road trips and Christmases, of camping and Disneyland. There are photos of us with our dad, us with our mom, though not a whole lot of the entire family together. Someone always had to be behind the camera.
It was harder to take photos of yourself back then. I don’t remember taking a single one. Years ago, even in the early digital days, you would ask a stranger to take your photo. “Excuse me, ma’am,” we would say. “Would you take a photo of us standing in front of this landmark, please?” We would hand over an expensive camera to a stranger. “Just press this button,” we would tell them. A nerve-wracking moment followed, not only your camera in someone else’s hands, but the photo itself. How would it turn out? Did you blink at the wrong moment? Does your smile look weird? What do you do with your hands?
On the road trips my friends, Megan and Elisabeth, and I have taken together, we have posed for a dozen photos in front of Elisabeth’s film camera. She sets up the shot and the timer, then hustles back into frame, we smile, wait, laugh, then click. Once, posing under the great redwood tree we had just driven through with our rental car, a fellow tourist asked if he could help us out. “No, thanks,” we told him. “We want to do it ourselves.” We want do it all ourselves, just like we planned the trip ourselves, we drove ourselves, we made our own souvenirs.
A selfie is a feminist act. We control our smile, the angle, sunglasses on or off. Most crucially, we choose which photos are worthy of being seen outside the camera. The ability to construct and edit our lives like this wasn’t available to me when I was a teenager, even through much of my twenties. I’m 33 now and only just learning to love my face in the photograph.