“Seems the only one who doesn’t see your beauty Is the face in the mirror looking back at you
You walk around here thinking you’re not pretty But that’s not true
… And you’re tied together with a smile
But you’re coming undone.” —Taylor Swift, ‘Tied together with a smile”
It’s that time of year again when you add an extra number to your age, but I really don’t think I have to tell you though because you remind me of that exciting little detail like three times a day.
As you know, this time of year always tends to become very retrospective for me. As I stand on the brink of a new age, I like to reflect on the old one(s).
And so just the other day I found myself merrily tripping down memory lane, looking at old photos and remaining in awe, at not so much how much you’ve changed, but how the way you project yourself has changed. There’s one photo taken about three or four years ago that I kept coming back to —looking closely at the girl laughing back at me through the photo, trying to figure out why she looks so strangely familiar.
Turns out, she is you. The four-years-younger version of you.
In one photo you’re with two friends but your poor posture produces an easy target for the camera to add an extra few pounds. Plus, there’s a massive pimple clearly visible on your chin.
Your photogenic prospects are already appearing to be dim, but you’re smiling nonetheless. A big, broad smile. Wider than your chin, east ear to west ear.
“Wow. You’re happy. You’re so happy here,” I think to myself. I am surprised. Shocked. Not because of the happy expression (I like to think we skipped that ‘Emo’ phase altogether), but rather, I am utterly bemused at the possibility of you being so care-free, happy and confident despite all the physical ailments warring against you.
“Someone needed to tell her the truth” I conclude, describing you as blissfully delusional because a diagnosis of denial, in my humble opinion, can be the only explanation for your sincere smile and unpretentious happiness.
A trip down memory lane, to my younger care-free days when I knew how to smile, and actually mean it.
Despite the four-year gap, not much has changed between you and me since then. If I were to pose for a similar photo right now, you’d probably still see a pimple sitting too pompously for my liking on the right-hand side of my chin, and if I don’t pay careful attention to my posture, I still risk appearing a few pounds plumper (judging by the common denominator, I’m starting to fear that perhaps the camera can’t wholly be to blame…).
The only major difference is probably manifested in that smile. You see, in the updated pictures I’m ashamed to admit, my smile is often not as bright. I guess if I have to do some brutally honest soul-searching, when a camera is pointed towards me, I spend too much time concentrating on my posture: how to conceal my fat rolls and my pimples (aka hope like hell someone’s turned the beauty face camera setting on) and after all that fruitless faffing to appear flawless, flash goes the camera, and oops, I’ve forgotten to smile. Or rather, there’s no time left to smile.
I’m reminded of a comment my Aunt made a while back once when she was trying to take a picture of me. “Smile,” she said; “I am smiling,” I thought as I tried (harder) to obey her command the best I knew how. But despite my best efforts and stinging cheeks, our interpretations of ‘smiling’ seemed to be out of sync. It was like she was the manual version of that smile recognition setting most cell phone cameras have these days that only snap the photo once everyone in the picture is smiling. However, she didn’t seem to be detecting enough of a smile to validate pressing ‘snap’. “No, not a put-on smile” she finally offered, realising I needed some coaching. “Your natural smile, where’s that iconic ‘Jade’ smile we all know so well?”
And then it hit me. How far off the mark I had actually fallen. I knew which smile she was referring to. I just didn’t realise how out of out of practice with it I had become. I grew up being told I was “so photogenic,” even though I, naturally, couldn’t see it myself. Smiling came easy for me because I was generally a joyous, happy, care-free child.
And then I guess I grew up. And adulthood made me grow grim.
What happened? I wondered, what happened to my iconic, natural ‘Jade’ smile?
When did a quality that was so much a natural part of me fade into a distant memory; become reduced to a picture in a photo frame forgotten somewhere at the back of a dusty shelf?
Somewhere in the space of two years, I slipped out of my carefree state and fell in step with a self-consciousness that governs my every move; even the most innocent act of capturing a memory instills anxiety in me. At first, I was tempted to attribute it to one of the many plagues of adulthood: Say goodbye to those carefree days when life was one long party and you could throw your head back and laugh without a care in the world.
But wait. Hold that thought: darling, you’re twenty-two. If this is how adulthood manifests itself two years into its reign, HOW are you going to look when you’re forty-flawed with wrinkles and grey hair?? And I don’t mean how are you going to look with wrinkles and grey hair; I’m wondering how are you going to approach the art that seeks to capture this stage of your life?
What memories will you choose to be making, (or dwelling on) when the prospect of pimples is considered child’s play? Will you be that lady at the back of the photo, who, despite her efforts to sink into the shadows by hiding behind a younger face, she stands out because her refuge’s head moved just as the camera flashed?
OR will you give up altogether throw a packet over your head and smile? Because that’s just another subversion disguising defeat.
The evolution of my smile
Perhaps it was easier before all this digital technology. Perhaps then it was easier to accept oneself. When you took a photo, you only got one shot. Capturing memories was once limited to the amount of film-spool you had on hand, but the concept of a retake came at a cost. Humanity hates being boxed in, so enter digital technology— supposedly freeing us from all limitation by offering us unlimited opportunities, but failing to alert us to the fact that these “opportunities” come with a fixed set of instructions written in extremely fine print.
You see we were given the liberty to take as many retakes as we like, at no extra cost, or perhaps at an exorbitant price, because along with retakes comes the notion of retouching, and soon revising and reforming our realities became as natural as (not) smiling.
So now you can take as many pictures as you like until you find the perfect one that plays into the societal standard of beauty. Got a pimple, that’s what the ‘beauty face’ app is for: so you can appear to have perfect skin, even if you don’t (and while we’re about it, who decided on the definition of perfect in the first place?).
You look fat when you stand like that? No worries, just take another picture standing the other way. Haven’t you heard? We all have a side— a more ‘photogenic’ side that enhances our ‘good’ features’. So go on and snap as many selfies as it takes for you to figure out which side you’re on.
As for me, I’m starting to get a little disillusioned with the society I’ve been siding with. Sometimes I miss the sixteen-year-old version of you, who didn’t give a damn about which ‘side she should stand,’ but instead, stared straight at the camera and smiled.
Maybe we should go back to the start before retakes were a possibility; when a reel of film-spool reminded one to live in the moment before digital started dictating how our ‘second chances’ should define us.
Back to my reminiscing over the good old days where it was deemed perfectly normal to accept you (and still be happy) just the way you were. What has society done to my smile?
That unadulterated serenity. That joy that once was not governed by all those physical factors that are often out of my control.
When did I start allowing society’s standards to steal my joy? When did the weight of my body start determining the width of my smile?
I want to be the girl in that photograph. Whose apparent happiness does not depend on how she thinks she looks, but rather how she feels inside. And I want you to feel happy inside regardless of how you look on the outside.
I don’t want to be four years younger. I don’t want to look for years younger. But I do want to feel the freedom you embodied four years ago. The freedom to smile because your happiness was defined by who you were, instead of what you were not.
So dear Self, as I embark on the third stretch of this lifelong journey, I’m going to leave you with a promise. But before you start to fear that a promise spoken leads to a promise broken, I’m here to reassure you that this won’t be the case. I can confidently commit to this because (for once) it is something I know I am capable of, even though I may be out of practice.
I promise to smile. My most honest, heartfelt, happiest smile. Not only when a camera is pointed at me, but every morning when I greet you in the mirror. I promise to celebrate all that you have; all that you are, instead of feeding my hang-ups that subsequently steal my happiness.
Lots of love and happiness,
Featured image: Jade le Roux