My cousin recently texted me a snapshot he’d taken of me when I wasn’t looking. In it, I am grinning so hard that my eyes are almost shut, and both my fists are raised in the air, like I’ve just won Wimbledon. I look outrageously happy — because I am. He snapped this photo at the very end of my wedding ceremony, just after I’d kissed and high-fived my brand new husband, Harry. I don’t remember doing this tennis-champion gesture, but there’s a lot I don’t remember about that day. Just as I’d been told, my wedding (particularly the ceremony) was kind of an out of body experience. I just knew I’d had a blast, had danced so hard my toes went numb, and that all the stress and panic just melted away the moment the DJ put on The Supremes and the party began. I couldn’t wait to see photos, and the next day I woke up to find dozens of them flooding into my phone, via text and social media. The fist-pumping one was the first I opened, and the moment I saw it, all that forgotten stress and panic came back in an instant.
Chipmunk cheeks, double chin, and a bulge of what can only be described as posterior armpit fat poking out at my side. This is what I first saw when I opened the photo. My eyes did a reflexive scan down to my waist (Ugh, why did he get me standing sideways?) and then back up to my biceps (Note to self: Never fist-pump again. Avoid bending elbows entirely, if poss.). Only after instinctively cataloguing the various offences on my body did I notice that, yes, I also looked happy. But damn, did I always look this gross when I was happy?
All this happened in a heartbeat, of course. It’s an entirely unconscious habit I honed over a lifetime of picking apart my image in every photograph, mirror, or reflective surface I happened to pass. Odds are, you do it, too. It’s a sadly universal human habit, I think, to look at recent photos of ourselves and see only the things we wish to hide. Just as sad and universal is what happens 10 years later, when we look at these same photos and think: Look how lovely I was! God, I wish my legs/skin/arms/tummy still looked like that. The only exception to the rule is haircuts. Haircuts don’t age well.
I’ve done a lot of work to break myself of this habit. Four years ago, I quit my lifelong cycle of dieting, disordered eating and exercise, and the high-intensity body hatred that went along with it. Now, I don’t believe my body is a problem to be fixed, nor that any part of it is more acceptable than another — and I’ve spent the intervening years busting my body positive ass to make that sentence true. Oh, the therapy I’ve done, the books I’ve read (the books I’ve written!), and the time I invested in order to embrace my appearance, or at least, to neutralise its power over my sense of self. And it worked! If it hadn’t, then I would not have been able to stand up in front of a crowd of friends and family and let them stare at me for 25 minutes. Standing sideways, no less.
But here’s the thing: Four years of active self-acceptance does not erase a lifetime of self-loathing. Body positivity is not like learning a second language. It’s like trying to forget your first one. My brain still thinks in useless terms sometimes. I’ll be browsing the fruit aisle and it will notice a bunch of “27 net carbs” instead of “bananas.” I’ll see a cute dress and it will remind me to buy it in slimming black. “Stretch that chin out,” my brain will nudge whenever I pose for a picture. “Is there someone you can stand behind?”
When it’s your wedding, the answer is no. Normally, I’m pretty comfortable having my picture taken these days. Even if my brain starts barking orders like a pageant mom, I’m able to just wave her off, and say cheese. But weddings aren’t normal. They can be spectacular days or dreadful days, and often they’re a bit of both. But they are never normal days. And I was not my normal self — I was a bride. I was dressed up in piles of tulle and silk, I had pearls in my hair, and while I knew, I knew, that the old saying about your wedding being the most important day of your life was bullshit, I also knew it wasn’t a not important day. I was anxious and tired, and when that happens, my brain tends to fall back on its first language.
As planned, we gathered for family portraits before the ceremony. “Angle your body,” my brain whispered as I stood beside my almost-husband, thronged by dozens of relatives. “Elongate that neck, please.” For every photo, my wedding photographer took about 10 seconds to arrange everyone, and then another 30 convincing me to put my chin down and step forward — no, more forward. A little more. Aaaaand one more step please.
Once the formal pictures were over, it was time to get married. This is the nice thing about the emotional rollercoaster of weddings: One minute, you’re hugging your weeping grandma, and the next you’re signing a legal document next to your new spouse. You’re thrust into one incredibly intense scenario, and before you have time to really freak out, it’s time for the next one. At a certain point, hopefully, you can let go and just ride. Somewhere between taking my dad’s arm and saying “I do,” I did. I let go, and just rode the damn coaster. From that moment on, I loved every single minute of the ride.
I wanted, so badly, to be beyond that nonsense.
Have you ever seen a picture of yourself riding a rollercoaster? Mouth open, wild-eyed, a light coating of theme-park sweat across your brow? Why do they take those, anyway?
That’s what I thought the next morning, laying in bed with my phone (oh right, and that guy I’d just married), scrolling through my family and friends’ snapshots. On any other day, this wouldn’t have been a big deal. Just as I’ve gotten better at having my picture taken, I’ve also gotten better at looking at photos of myself, even when it comes to “bad” ones. In fact, I try and use those photos as opportunities to laugh at myself a little, or to confront that nasty voice in my head. Someone will tag me in a group shot on Facebook, and at first I’ll cringe at my awkward expression or my visible belly outline. And then I’ll sit there and look at the photo until it no longer bothers me. If I’m really going for it, I’ll look at myself in the picture and say, “Love you!” It sounds hokey and tedious (and it feels that way when I’m doing it), but this exercise really does help me to un-link my self-worth from my appearance, and so I normally make a point of doing it.
But again, weddings are not normal. It wasn’t a couple group shots, but a couple hundred. And I wasn’t in one or two of them, but pretty much all of them. There I am, looking frazzled and half-dressed, getting ready to leave for the venue. Here I am mid-cough, during one of the toasts. And, oh god, someone got a video of me when the Spice Girls came on. Once more, I reminded myself that this was not the most important day of my life, and that therefore these photos were just not that big a deal. But — oh fuck it, yes, they totally were.
In that moment, all those years of rigorous self-acceptance abandoned me, along with my beliefs and principles about the fallacy of beauty standards, the patriarchal wedding industrial complex, and, you know, feminism. I stared at the pictures on my phone, making no effort to silence the voice in my head screaming, “YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BE A PRINCESS.” All I could see was upper arm fat (“WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THAT BRIDAL BOOTCAMP?!”) and the waist of my dress riding up (“DID YOU ACTUALLY EAT FOOD AT YOUR WEDDING?!”), and, of course, my chin (“STRETCH THAT NECK, MILLER! WE’VE BEEN THROUGH THIS!”).
Just as it is hard to un-learn the language of shame and self-loathing, it is also hard to un-learn the lesson that brides are supposed to look perfectly, unequivocally beautiful. Above all, it is nearly impossible to let go of the idea that beauty is thin and wasp-waisted and utterly free of posterior armpit fat. I wanted, so badly, to be beyond that nonsense. But somewhere inside me, there was still a woman who believed all those things, and she was ashamed of me. And I was ashamed of her.
Then, the rollercoaster did one more loop. Harry poked me in the side and I looked over to see him flashing his wedding ring, and a huge, goofball smile. I snapped the hell out of it. This was not a morning to be ashamed of anything. I was neither a fairy princess, nor was I a paragon of perfect confidence. And yes, I had posterior armpit fat, and the photos to prove it. I also had a fantastic, goofball husband, a host of incredible friends and relatives who had come to celebrate us, and a wedding so joyful and magical that it hardly seemed real. But thanks to these photos, I knew it was. Because of these snapshots, Instagram posts, and drunken late-night photo-booth pics, I had a permanent record of the whole, incredible day. It didn’t matter that so many moments had passed me in a blur, because my loved ones had captured them for me. None of these were bad photos. They were treasures.
I’d love to say that was the end, and I lived happily with my body ever after. I wish I could wrap this up by saying that I never cringed at another snapshot, or that I didn’t feel a mix of excitement and dread while waiting for our photographer to send the formal photos. More than anything, I wish I didn’t wish that I looked different in them. But part of me does. Part of me is still hanging on to those old, ridiculous beliefs about beauty and smallness and princess brides. I have faith that one day she’ll let go too, and just enjoy the ride. For now, when I look at myself in these photos, my first glance is always through her critical gaze.
But the longer I look, the more I notice other things: my joy. The beloved friends around me. The wide-eyed look of glee that passed between me and Harry, the moment that we chose each other, for keeps. The longer I look, the harder it is to see anything but love.