I have always had a love-hate relationship with my appearance. I have a distinct memory — I couldn’t have been more than two or three years old — of staring down at my stomach, pushing it out and sucking it in, and asking my mom if I was fat. That can’t be normal, right? I should have been pretending to be a princess or something, but not tiny Jamie. She’s worried about how she looks.
And it wasn’t just my body image. My clothing and hair were issues too. My family loves to remind me that it sometimes took four adults chasing me around the house to get clothes on because I didn’t like the way they smelled or felt. Combine this with the fact that I had perhaps the most humiliating of all childhood haircuts — a neatly rounded puff of curls which we sometimes tried to tame with a headband. My sister likes to recall how I would pick my hair out, making it bigger. Looking back, I’m not sure seven-year-old me should have been expected to know how to tame such an unflattering haircut. It was an impossible mission.
You name a period of my life, and I can tell you the specific insecurities that came along with it.
- Middle school? Leg shaving was new. I forever had little cuts all over my legs. When I got chill bumps, my thick black hair returned immediately. Why was I a gorilla? Why couldn’t I have the fine blonde shave-once-a-week leg hair that my friends had? And razor burn! Was I doing something wrong? And guess what doesn’t help insecurity about the complete bottom half of your body….that’s right. An unflattering pixie cut up top that I didn’t even know how to fix. And braces.
- Junior high? I have zero curves and suddenly a butt. Where did this butt come from? What do I do with it? How do I hide it? Throw in some pimples and the desire to be a fashion risk taker. Why did no one tell me that it’s impossible to look good in a SPAM shirt and Dr. Martens? Put me in a cheerleader uniform. Bleach a streak of my hair — a last minute decision which looked strikingly beautiful on my two best friends, but like a devastating accident on me.
- High School? More curves. Let’s cover them. Grow out the hair, but keep it in a constant ponytail. Get the braces off, but stop smiling. Get a boyfriend who buys me trendy clothes. Wear what other people wear, and eat bean dip for lunch daily. Realize that I need makeup to cover the pimples, but I don’t really know how to use it. Use it anyway. Notice that I’m bigger than a lot of my friends, so I stop eating. When my brother notices that I’m smaller than a lot of my friends, I eat a whole pizza in front of him to prove him wrong.
- College? I spent the most attractive years of my body-life in sweatpants in the back of a college classroom. I had a boyfriend who told me I looked like a whore even in my sweatpants and a huge crush on my classmate who told me I looked pretty in them. Zero hair maintenance and little makeup. I bite my nails and smoke like a freight train because it makes me not hungry.
The second I broke up with that boyfriend, I instantly turned to cute clothes and makeup. I look at pictures from that summer and don’t recognize myself. Who fixed that hair? Where did the confidence to wear those pants come from? I kept them for years after they didn’t fit — they were super tight denim capri pants with beaded fringe on the hem. They swished when I walked. I was magic in them. I had this really tight light-purple tank top I would wear — as a shirt by itself and not layered under something?!?! — and I was dark and thin and confident maybe for the first time in my life.
I many ways, this confidence lasted into my first year of marriage, but in a lot of ways I was still really self conscious. I guess I was caught between my cute college appearance and feeling the need to become something a little older. I was a wife and a teacher. I needed to look like it. But what newly married person can afford an entire professional wardrobe? I mixed and matched things that shouldn’t have gone together. I dressed like I was ten years older than I was. I gained weight. I struggled to find an appropriate hairstyle.
So then came pregnancy. While I felt fine physically, I really hated the way I looked pregnant. Not early “this is fun” pregnancy, but the later “even my nose is swollen” stage. I remember my sister telling me that my body would never be the same. Even if I lost it all. Even if I worked out. So when I took Talan to his week check up wearing my pre-pregnancy jeans, I felt like I had won a serious victory. When Talan was a month old, we celebrated my birthday at my mom’s house. I put on a t-shirt and capris and fixed my hair and felt like myself. I remember sitting on the picnic table outside and thinking “I’m different now, but I’m ok. I feel ok.” Someone took a picture of me that night, and I can still feel the spark of confidence when I see it. That maybe I was going to feel ok about me again.
And for the most part I did stay ok. I felt “ok” about my body through and after my second pregnancy. I had “the ugly years” where my children were so small and high maintenance that I was lucky to shower, much less focus on appearance. With the exception of a several-years-long experimentation with a bob haircut, I feel like I was too busy to really be very self-conscious. Most of the time, I’m still there. I do not have time to stop and create the perfect appearance. Life is just too fast. I don’t have time to feel anything other than ok. I still can’t really accept or believe a compliment, but I function without much hinderance. I look nice enough to keep my job and not embarrass my family. What else is there?
Don’t get me wrong. There are moments — I buy something online that doesn’t look the same on me as it did on the model, I catch a glimpse of my mom-thighs in the full length mirror, or a friend gets some seriously fabulous plastic surgery — where I am right back in junior high. Some days my flaws are all I see. My hair is stringy. I have 7 million freckles. There are two tiny stretch marks above my belly button that look like antennae on an alien. I STILL don’t really know how to do my makeup. It’s like this nagging, this questioning, doesn’t ever go completely away. One day, I’ll insist on yoga pants in 100 degree temperature because I want to disguise what I can. The next, I’ll grab a pair of old jeans and cut them off so short that there will be zero hiding my mom thighs. Feelings toward my appearance are totally unpredictable.
So perhaps it was in a moment of confidence — or maybe because I’m a glutton for punishment — that I challenged myself to take a picture alone on this year’s float trip with my girlfriends. It really was just a fleeting thought while I was looking through my own Facebook pictures: “Hey, there’s not a single picture of me by myself on here.” If other women can post two or three selfies a day — pictures of themselves alone which they love enough to show the world — surely I am capable of taking one, ever. I’ve long joked that if something were to happen to me, they’d have to pair my obituary with my senior picture because it was the last time I was photographed alone. Some friends and I have even chuckled at the idea of what Snapchat filter we’d put on our final picture if we could. Because it’s not that I don’t take selfies — I take plenty — it’s that I don’t love them enough to let anyone see them. So yeah, when it comes down to the world needing a picture of me — if I’m missing, dead, win an award, make the news, running for president — the world is going to have to choose between a senior portrait, me with the Snapchat flower crown, or cropping me out of a picture with my kids. Because that’s all there is.
My friends and I regularly discuss our body issues. It goes something like this: “I hate my body so much. Here’s everything that’s wrong with me. This is why I am right to have body issues. You look better than I do, so you shouldn’t have issues.” Do you see how no one can win that conversation? I do try to opt out of those as much as I can. But the one time I will chime in is when we are talking about pictures. I have said it a million times: If I could just have the confidence it takes to post numerous selfies a week — I wouldn’t do it — but, I would be satisfied knowing I felt that good about pictures of myself. I’ve seriously said it so much that people can finish the sentence for me. That’s probably why they kind of rolled their eyes at me when I announced on the car ride to the river that I wanted a picture alone which I liked enough to be my profile picture on Facebook. That was it. As soon as I said it, we kept talking, and I didn’t even really think about it again.
Then there was the butterfly. I’ve always kind of liked butterflies. They seem very hippy and nature-lovey to me. They’re beautiful and mysterious, and I’m into that. I have a butterfly tattoo which is one of the more spontaneous and unexplainable things I’ve done. I mean, have you ever seen anything more simultaneously delicate and bad-ass as a butterfly? So here we are, floating down the river, when a butterfly lands on my arm. I slid a finger underneath it, and showed my friends. My friend snapped a couple pictures. It flew away. I didn’t even see the pictures until later that evening when she sent them to me. And there it was, without any planning or posing, a picture of me — alone — being comfortable in my own skin. Isn’t that how the best pictures happen? When we are able to capture a moment, unposed, that totally shows the person?
Of all things, I am wearing a bikini top and a baseball cap. It’s not a fancy baseball cap either; it’s one I bought for a school fundraiser and wear because it’s soft. I have opted for my eight year-old Target sunglasses because I am afraid of losing my RayBans on the river. I’ve thrown on my favorite earrings as an after-thought in an attempt to look more feminine. I have a beer in my right hand, and my left hand proudly displays the butterfly. I am smiling ear-to-ear. The girl in this picture is dark and thin, and she has beautiful teeth. She doesn’t notice how little clothing she is wearing or that there is a man behind her who seems to be paddling an air mattress with a dog on it. She is happy to be where she is, and to be holding delicate badassery in her hand, even for a minute.
So I made it my profile picture. Can I tell you that being alone in your profile picture is a weird thing? It’s just you, alone, waiting on someone to click it. When someone searches my name or sees my comments, they aren’t getting my favorite celebrity, my happy marriage, my cute family, or me with my best friend. They just get….ME. And here’s the thing: No one really even noticed that it happened. Sure, 30 something people liked it. Two or three people commented on it. But no one noticed that for the first time in years, I was comfortable enough with a picture of myself alone to put it out there. It was an accomplishment.
But maybe the accomplishment is actually recognizing that it is an accomplishment. I have spent so much of my life at battle with how I look. My confidence in my appearance most days is as fleeting as that butterfly, but shouldn’t I stop and appreciate confidence when I feel it? I should take the picture, and I should post it. We all should. Life is really too short not to. Here’s to being butterfly-girl more often than not.