While conducting an archeological dig of my office, unearthing crumbling notebooks that contained the early drafts of all the books I have written, and all the books I intended to write but somehow did not, I found a box of old photos. They were from a summer I’d spent in Europe when I was 20 years old, heartbroken and an utter mess, a pile of emotion barely held together by the straps of her crocheted halter top. It was 2001, my grandparents had just died, and I’d gotten dumped by my boyfriend. Over the phone. Four days before my grandfather’s funeral. (It is a story I relay in my first book, which you should read because it’s somehow sort of … funny?)
I made the sudden and financially irresponsible decision to skip town, buying a round trip ticket to Rome through London, to spend the summer with my aunt and uncle and cousins. I figured this would offer me the change I needed: a new venue in which to cry. It probably wasn’t the best of ideas, in retrospect. But what I remember, distinctly, throughout that entire trip, was not liking myself very much. (It did not help that I’d tried to mend my heart with a summer fling with some Italian guy who kept telling me about the other girl he wanted to hook up with. In my defense, he wooed me by saying things like, “Oh, your hips are really big, huh?” and “I’m kissing you so you stop talking.” I was making great decisions!)
I’d always thought I had an okay body image. Which, I’m beginning to realize, by today’s standards, just means that I usually don’t hate myself or how I look in the mirror. This does not make me worthy of praise. I shouldn’t get a prize for liking myself 51% of the time. But I realize how rare it is, especially looking back at those moments in Italy, where I felt, for one of the first times in my life, truly awful about myself. The way it permeated all through me. That somehow being unlovable meant I wasn’t pretty, and vice-versa.
This didn’t stop me from taking a thousand photos (it was Europe, I was young, how could I not?). It was the days before digital cameras, which meant that every memory I recorded onto film was a mystery. You paid to have images developed, not knowing what the outcome would be, not knowing if you would hate every single one. I had more than a dozen rolls of film from that summer. When I finally got them developed, I remember thinking that I didn’t really look very pretty in any of them.
In a twist that will surprise no one: I look at them now, and am stunned by how beautiful I am.
My mother told me this would happen. That the years bring a sort of clarity that you don’t have at the time. When I was a kid, I remember going through photos of her from her teens. I thought she was so beautiful. She laughed and told me she thought she was ugly. This was incomprehensible to me. Now, I get it. We do not see ourselves clearly. Your whole existence is a Magic Eye poster where you’re too close to see the dinosaur riding a skateboard. It’s just pixels.
Also, I … thought I was fat?
I THOUGHT I WAS FAT.
I don’t actually know how to even broach that one. Now in my forties, and a firm 25 pounds heavier than the girl in the photos (which is probably for the best, I mean, dear god, she needed to eat), I find that entire line of thinking amusing, to say the least. Fat. I thought I was fat and ugly.
And … honestly?
What if I had been? What if I had been (sarcastically horrified gasp) fat? What fucking difference would it have made? Explain to me how fatness could have made me less loveable. I was still funny. I was smart as hell, and could run circles around people in two languages. I was still snarky and clever and fun. You can see it in the photos. I mean, look:
Would being fat or ugly have been the end of the world? I couldn’t have wrapped my head around this concept at 20. It’s still tough to grasp it now, at 43. That it doesn’t matter if you feel fat or if you are fat or if you’re an ancient sea witch that’s living among humans, because no one should care and anyone who does isn’t worth your time.
I remember this next photo most clearly of all. We were on the shores of Lake Balaton, in Hungary, and it was hazy and hot and someone – I think my cousin – snapped this from the shore. I remember being briefly horrified, but I decided to smile and wave to the camera anyway. And when it came out, I was relieved that you couldn’t see me clearly, because just my silhouette was bad enough.
Now, looking back, I’m sad you can’t see me more clearly in this photo. And I’m sad I couldn’t see myself more clearly at the time. I mean, good lord. Look at her. Look at me.
There are days when I do not feel good about myself. I feel ugly and old. The people yelling at me from the fringes of the internet occasionally manage to break through the protective walls I’ve set up and really, truly get to me. At times like these, I look in the mirror, and I try to see myself with the clarity of someone looking back, decades from now. I am so, so young and beautiful, and I have so little grey in my hair. I still have all my teeth. I still have my mom. Look at me:
I am beautiful. And loved. My life is wonderful. And honestly more than I could have hoped for as an insecure 20-year-old who dreamed of becoming a writer, who so desperately wanted someone to love her for who she was. And it is okay to say these things. It really is. We are allowed to love ourselves and our lives. What else are we supposed to do with our limited time here? The clock is counting down. The last twenty two years passed by in a blink. Listen to me: enjoy every minute. Do not spend time hating yourself.
And when this forced perspective does not work, and I still feel ugly and unlovable, I just remind myself: I’ve been wrong before.