All About Me
by Anupa Mistry
I hated taking photos until a year and a half ago. It’s not that there aren’t photos of me under the age of 28; it’s just that I don’t like them. Even the ones that are halfway cute shore up memories of intense dislike for the camera. When Facebook blew up, I was the person who’d untag myself from group shots. Once or twice I even requested a photo be taken down. You will not catch a #TBT of me between the ages of 9 and 20, my most awkward years.
This obsessive self-loathing is, despicably, practically a rite of passage for young girls. Even after the face relaxes past high-definition adolescence, too often the personal narratives of girls freeze-frame on that crucial, crushing, period of primary socialization: hellfire that rages before mastering self-validation.
So much of my identity as an adult woman is premised on spending 16 years of my life actively hating the way I look. And it’s taken me almost as long to write this piece because I knew I’d have to come out as ugly.
I wanted to talk about the way I fit into the world and not allow yet another one of its projections — that I have poor self-esteem, or that I’m whiny or cynical or vain — to be absorbed back into my psyche. This essay was supposed to be about Kim Kardashian-West’s Selfish, but now — apropos of theme — it’s all about me.
Unlike a lot of dark-skinned girls around the world, it wasn’t my complexion that gave me anxiety. It started with either my name or the glasses: I’m not sure which shocked me into ugliness first. Kids started to get mean about my name in grade two, when I was seven, the same year I got my first pair of round, red, plastic-framed lenses.
Before encountering the interminable list of things to hate about my girl-self it was a name, literally plucked from the stars per Hindu astrological tradition, which drove me nuts. Anupa; it’s so different that that’s what it fucking means. Unique or unusual. Incomparable, if you’re looking for a word with a more positive connotation. I could only focus on how it was foreign and unwieldy and bulging, with rambunctious syllables and rounded letters, easy to rhyme with terrible things.
I GREW UP UGLY YOU DONT KNOW MY STRUGGLE
— EARL (@earlxsweat) September 14, 2012
As I grew older, I started to understand that what the world perceived as feminine didn’t look like me. Thankfully, I never wanted to be white, but I watched, longingly, as my friends — brown and black girls of all sizes and complexions — grew into their symmetry. They didn’t look like me with my too-big nose and gummy smile, chipmunk teeth, a lazy eye that I could never catch in the mirror but always turned up for photos. There are so many yearning entries in my teenage diary hinged on the idea of, “If only I was pretty…” Even upgrading to contact lenses couldn’t soften how hard I was on myself, a feeling that had crystallized into paranoia. I’d notice the way boys crushed on the same girls over and over. Or how everyone wanted to be friends with those girls — myself included — even if they weren’t the greatest people.
She was talking about writing, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently commented on the toxicity of culturing girls to be likable. “I think that’s what our society teaches young girls — and I think that it’s something that’s quite difficult for even older women, self-confessed feminists, to shrug off — is that likeability is an essential part of the space you occupy in the world.” It took me years to understand that insecurity is a state of mind and not an actual existence, but I also know that we all experience the benefits or disadvantages of where we stand on the hierarchy of physicality. We just don’t talk about it.
Selfish, and the discourse around it, might be the closest we’ve gotten to confronting beauty privilege beyond circles of people who sleep with a copy of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. Kim is stunning and, bless, has made a career out of the actual, literal fact that people want to look at her. There are troubling aspects to this: that ass and larger lips and tanned, darker skin is seen as desirable on white women, but black and brown women have been historically, physically othered for being born with these attributes. In Selfish there’s an icky moment that lends some insight into Kim and Kanye’s dynamic, where a post-spa photo is captioned: “Fresh spray tan. I get so dark Kanye calls it a Ye-tan.” Dark skin is only valuable if it can be bought, maintained, and allowed to fade at will.
But, while poring over pages of selfies, I was also awed by the way Kim has offered up her appearance — the universal currency for determining a woman’s worth — for public consumption. I basked in Kim’s ballsiness and marveled at how okay one must feel to publish an explicit document of procedural enhancement, to provide a timeline of her insecurities. Even though she is, objectively, a member of The Beautiful People Club, none of this has quelled the dull roar of one hundred million people dismissing her as not good enough.
For years I stayed quiet about how I felt about myself because, as much of the criticism leveled at Kim suggests, just as it’s gauche to preen, it’s equally unseemly to gripe. Conversations about beauty privilege were frustrating because they are often perpetuated by women who, I felt, benefited from it: women with smaller bodies, softer faces, straighter teeth, lighter skin, no deep laugh lines or dark circles — almost never the person on the other side. The assumption is that if you’re a woman who says, “Hey, I don’t fit into conventional ideas of attractiveness,” you’re pathetic, or petty, or suffer from poor self-esteem. Whatever privileges I inhabit surely don’t exempt me from speaking on the ways in which, for a long time, I moved through the world feeling invisible. Feeling like I genetically lacked a more lucrative social currency, I became bright and curious instead. It didn’t result in many real world gains — I’m almost certain life would be easier if I had a smaller nose — but I developed an absurdly high level of confidence rooted entirely in understanding that I’ll always occupy a certain place on the hierarchy of attractiveness. The two can co-exist; my Instagram, which has evolved into almost-all portraits of myself (some by me, some by others) is a testament to this.
The piece of writing that helped me better understand the radically personal potential of selfies was this one, written in 2013 by Maurice, a black, queer blogger who used them to take control of his visibility. “I take my selfies because I am that guy who, unless he takes the picture or suggests it, doesn’t get his picture taken. My friend who asked, truthfully had very little right to judge; everyone takes pictures of him, with him, and for him. The same is true of almost all my friends. I live in a world where I didn’t hear someone romantically call me beautiful and desirable till I was 26.”
A year and a half ago I started dating someone who, not knowing anything about how I felt about myself, believed I was worthy of documenting, whether the world — whether I — thought I was beautiful or not. Learning to relax in front of the camera in my late 20s, for the first time in my life, resulted in some truly beautiful photos. Now, I want my photo taken. Now, I want to be as visible as possible, even if I still can’t stand my nose. I was already on the road to understanding what happens to your self-image when you take control of the presentation; Selfish suggests this is an actual superpower in a patriarchal world.
Unsolicited meditations on Kim’s apparent narcissism are signal-blocking, like surround sound. But how different is Kim’s lifelong vanity from mine? Certainly, she is situated much differently in the world and the results are skewed in her favour: I do not have a little nose, I am exponentially less wealthy, and my past is littered with struggle rappers. But we both have a relationship to reflections of ourselves; Kim’s self-obsession is prompted by the same invisible ideology that set me up for existential failure. It sometimes bugs me that I wasted so much time obsessing over the outcome of one photograph instead of just taking more — the higher the output, the better chance of success, no? Shout out to the ‘burst mode’ function on iPhone.
I wish I had an archive as honest and enviably gorgeous as Kim’s. Toward the end of the book there are these photos of her in a nude bikini, dripping wet, posed inside of this magnificent outdoor shower. It’s a stunning room, the kind I’ll probably never encounter in my plebe-ass life, and the photos are a reminder to situate myself in my memories of my current life, and all the beautiful places I’ll go.
Anupa Mistry is a writer living in Toronto. She tweets sometimes @_anupa.