The mail last week included something unusual: an envelope containing photos. No email, no attachments, no link to Snapfish.com: a real envelope with real print photos inside. With the level of obsolescence that hard copy seems to have reached in my life, this was a rare occurrence.
The envelope was addressed in my aunt’s handwriting, so I surmised that they were photos she took when my husband, my two children and I hiked with her in Colorado last August. And I confess that for a moment I was afraid to look, expecting the worst from a self-image perspective. “I was wearing my saggiest jeans that day. It was the week before I trimmed my hair. Did I even bother with any makeup before the hike? How many hair care products did I bring with me on vacation?” ran through my mind as I took the photos out of the envelope.
What a surprise. Although I look back on our visit to Colorado as a really happy time – one of the happiest parts of the whole summer for us – I didn’t expect photos to so faithfully reflect my memories. I usually don’t like looking at photos of myself these days. Approaching my mid-forties, I’ve reached an age where most of my friends and I agree it’s not enough just to exercise regularly: you have to work with a personal trainer to get the look you really want, and a personal trainer is definitely not in the cards for me right now. Moreover, it’s been years since I bought any new casual clothes – my wardrobe budget always goes to special-occasion outfits – and I can’t be bothered with the salon cuts from which I know I would benefit.
But the photos didn’t particularly reflect all my insecurities, nor did they look like the “before” pictures for a Botox ad, as I’d feared they would. When I look in the mirror these days I see horizontal grooves between my eyes, but these weren’t the kind of photos that show wrinkles. They were photos that show a family on a hike having fun: the four of us beaming at the edge of a rock formation with the blue sky and tall evergreens behind us; the four of us sitting on a granite ledge eating a picnic; my son with a silly grin, his head against my shoulder, as I held up a giant mushroom we’d picked.
Happy people on a happy vacation. Yes, true, that is how I remember the vacation, but it’s not what I ever expect to see when I look at pictures of myself.
And yet this wasn’t the first time I’d had this experience. Photos of me often show a more carefree, engaging image than I tend to have of myself. The rare video on which I appear does as well. When the film starts to roll and I know I’ll be on it, I tend to think, “Oh, this will be awful, I’ll look dumpy and old and my voice will sound stupid”…and then instead I see the image of someone who seems nice and friendly and cheerful, someone I’d be happy to hang out with for a little while. Not someone who reflects the self in my own mind.
Poet Robert Burns wrote “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel’s as others see us!” Many readers interpret this to have negative implications. They believe Burns meant we’d see that others think we are self-important, perhaps, or foolish, or disheveled. (Supposedly he wrote it after spotting a large insect perched on an unsuspecting woman’s fancy hat.)
But I interpret it a little differently. Every now and then, when I see myself as others see me – or at least as the camera caught me – I’m pleasantly surprised. Unfashionable clothes? Emerging crow’s-feet? Maybe so. But snapshots aren’t nearly as critical of me as I am of myself. My aunt’s pictures just showed a cheerful woman enjoying a hike with her family. That’s how I remember it, too. Especially now that I’m looking at the pictures.