A couple weeks ago, I received back portraits that I had taken in the spring. I don’t think we need to justify spending money on portraits, nor do I think anyone needs a “good reason” to invest in some stunning pictures of themselves. However, for me, there was a reason, and I felt compelled to tell the story of these portraits.
At the risk of sounding outrageously cliche, I’ve been on a “journey” the past eighteen months towards loving my body. I have been “overweight” since I was very young – even “obese,” according to traditional charts and measures. From a young age, I internalized the message that I was a fat girl, and that became a lens through which I viewed myself (and assumed everyone else viewed me, too). And “fat” to me meant less beautiful, less desirable, and altogether less valuable.
I still remember overhearing comments, having conversations, seeing memes, and just generally receiving messages from culture that convinced me I was unlovable or at least less-lovable because of the shape of my body…
- in grade school, a popular older boy hitting on my friend but saying he wouldn’t go for me because I was fat
- in sixth grade, overhearing girls making fun of me while I was running because I didn’t have a properly fitting bra
- in eighth grade, my friend talking to a boy to figure out if I had a chance with a friend of his; his response: “She doesn’t have a chance with anyone.” To be fair, I don’t know whether he was referring to my appearance, but I always assumed he was.
- sometime in my early teen years, overhearing my mom on the phone with an aunt talking about being worried about my weight
- sometime in high school, seeing a meme on Facebook that read “Tits on fat girls are like abs on skinny boys: they don’t count.”
- some stupid comment on That 70s Show about how a girl shouldn’t outweigh her boyfriend by more than 20 pounds
- when I started dieting junior year, family friends asking me about my weight goals and say they’d give me $25 if I lost the 25 pounds I was aiming for
- each of the many weddings I was in throughout college, struggling with bridesmaid dresses because the largest size offered on many popular websites is an XL, the equivalent of a 12/14 — or having to pay an extra fee to buy an extended size
- similarly, never being able to shop at cute local boutiques because they didn’t offer sizes beyond Large or maybe Extra Large
- for years, being too self-conscious to sell clothes in Facebook groups or on Instagram stories because I was embarrassed for people to see what size pants I wore
- also for years, wondering whether the reason guys haven’t been interested in me was because of the way my body looked
- in recent months, struggling to find ethical and sustainable clothing brands that offer sizes beyond a 12 or 14 – because apparently only skinny people care about style through the lens of human rights and a healthy planet
I could go on for a while, but hopefully you get the idea. I’m not telling you these things so that you’ll feel bad for me. In fact, I’m tempted to say it this way: don’t you dare pity me. I’m sharing this so that 1) if you’re like me and have received similar messages, you’ll know that you’re not alone and that it’s possible to stop buying into the bullshit; 2) you’ll see how painful even well-meaning comments can be around the topic of weight; and perhaps, 3) you’ll be appalled enough to want to change stereotypes and stigmas about weight and body size.
I don’t remember when or how it happened, but sometime in the last year and a half, I decided to start loving my body. It was just last February – winter of 2018 – that I willingly wore a shirt tucked in for the first time. I remember the day. I was in Portland. It was a black sweater. I wore red lipstick. Formerly, I had always been afraid to tuck in my shirts because I was horrified by the idea that people would see my fat rolls.
Fast-forward to this summer: I’m tucking in my shirts almost every day, wearing shorts that show a lot of thigh, and wearing tops that sometimes reveal a bit of midriff (g a s p). I bought a bikini for the first time last month, and I’ve been laying out by the pool without obsessing over what people might be thinking about my body.
For the first time in my life, I can see my body in the mirror with or without clothes on and not be ashamed or repulsed.
During this process these past several months, as an intentional exercise in self-acceptance, I decided to invest in professional portraits of myself. The idea was inspired by my good friend Cassidy, who participated in a fabulous portrait shoot a couple years ago and insists that it helped her see herself as beautiful. So I saved my pennies for a couple of months, and my parents contributed as part of my birthday gift. Then in April, I got with my friend and super-talented-photographer Rylee, and we made magic happen. We spent an afternoon driving to different locations, changing outfits and makeup, going out on limbs with unconventional poses and shots, exploring personality through a lens (more on this another time). It was a blast.
I was beyond eager to see the final product. I had high hopes, but I also worried that the portraits would confirm my fear and expose me as lackluster.
* * * * *
And then I got the portraits back. To be honest, my first and most natural reaction was to review the details of the pictures with a fine-tooth comb because that’s what we’ve been trained to do–to pick apart and scrutinize every beautiful thing until we lose sight of its beauty. So I spent some time looking through the portraits and quietly critiquing every one of my “flaws.”
You can see my fat pale belly in this one.
My face looks so dumb talking like that.
This shot is super artsy but my hair is so frizzy.
My skin looks really bumpy.
HELLO, fat rolls.
I hate my double chin.
There is absolutely no dimension on my face – I should’ve contoured.
etc., etc., etc.
But at a certain point, I had to take a step back to remember the point of this whole thing: self-love, -celebration, and -acceptance. I had to consciously decide to re-frame the way I was looking at these pictures. I sent a couple of the preview shots to Cassidy, and she asked how I felt. I replied, “I feel like I just need to stare at them for a while and call them beautiful” –because regardless of how I feel, my conviction is that we are all beautiful. And I am beautiful.
Of course I still struggle with body image. I spent over two decades buying into the story that only certain body types, skin types, facial features, and hairstyles were desirable. But these portraits were a statement: towards my body, a white flag: I refuse to remain at war with myself; towards the world, a battle cry: no one has a right to exclude me – or anyone else – from their definition of beauty.
Here are a few favorites from the shoot.
P.S. Rylee Beck is a portrait guru, and if want to see more of her work or inquire about a shoot with her, you should check out her website: ryleebeck.com.