You could get lost in the landscape of a face. Daily, I marvel at the point of my daughter’s chin, like the V of geese soaring in the sky. I trace that slightly protuberant upper lip with its soft rose-petal swell. In conversations, I’m mesmerized by the way my husband’s brows hook, then flatten like a mesa on a range. I see these familiar landmarks and I think, I know this place. I love this place.
But what about my own face, the landscape of which constantly eludes me? Why can’t I hold onto it?
Over the past year, there are only four photos on my phone of just me. Most mothers understand the small tragedy of being the observer, rarely the observed. Though my husband has gotten better at taking photos of me, I still find myself escaping the lens more often than not, ducking if I’m not up for posing. Deleting photos that aren’t conventionally flattering. Sometimes, while scrolling through the albums bereft of my face, I wonder if parts of me are getting lost in time. In 10 years, 20, what will I remember of the woman I am in this moment?
The mirror is deceptive. I see myself, but I can’t hold the image in my mind. It fades as soon as I turn away, and I have a hard time recalling what I look like. How others see me. Do we all feel so alienated from our own faces? Or is this a phenomenon of middle age, where certain details haze, like a fogged window? When I talk about wanting more photos of myself — because I do — what I really want is more evidence of my presence in the world. I just really want to be seen.
In high school, before the era of digital phones, we all carried around disposable film cameras. We’d whip them out in history class, in the chaotic back kitchens of our after-school jobs. We’d spend our pocket change on developing photos of ourselves to pass out to friends and crushes, as if we were minor celebrities. It was an era of beautiful solipsism.
I remember how a friend and I once staged a photoshoot at a rose garden. We wore low-slung, acid-washed jeans and midriff-baring tops. We posed in gazebos and among banyan trees, looking off into the distance. Back then, we were lithe and energetic, ready for our lives to begin, but completely unprepared for the homesickness we’d encounter at college, the men who’d break our hearts, the alienating anonymity of cold cities.
The other day, I showed my daughter one of those rose garden photos. Most details are blown out in the glare of sunshine — we were terrible photographers — but some things remain crystal clear. Anyone could see that we were desperately in love with ourselves. Infatuated with our own bodies, impressed by our newly purchased mall clothing. We were hyper-vigilant of the way we moved in the world, with determination, if not poise. I wondered what it would be like to love myself in such an unrestrained, unapologetic way.
The word “selfie” can sound precious; it rings with a certain sense of derision, hinting at narcissism. But I like how intimate it feels. Something between you and you, a closure of psychic distance between brain and body. Selfies are low-stakes in a way that self-portraits aren’t. They suggest candidness, though we all pose for selfies.
I’ve begun taking them myself. I even bought a tripod for this purpose.
Sometime during the day, I’ll step away from my desk and sit somewhere comfortable. Often, in my teal reading chair by the window, as blue as the Gulf on a summer day. Other times, I plop into bed, makeup-free and exhausted. No matter what I’m wearing or how I feel, I take the photo. I pledge to keep it, even if I don’t like the way I look in it. Day by day, I’m becoming my own historian.
This interruption from my routine always jars me. I live most of my life in the mind — thinking about a novel’s plot, ticking off the mental to-do list — so this return to the body, no matter how momentary, feels uncomfortable. I find myself asking, What right do I have to get in front of the camera? To devote album space to myself? It doesn’t escape me that I am, on some level, asking for permission to exist.
I study my selfies at night and see something of the old teenage-me, the young woman who’d spoken with such self-assurance and yet had so much to learn. The landscape of my face is becoming more familiar. There are twin creases below my nose that remind me of straight-trunked elms. Cheeks that hug the contours of my face — puffier than they once were, but still bearing the faint hairline veins that dip like rivers on a map. Dark eyes (“devil eyes,” a classmate once called them) that watch everything so cautiously.
I’m hoping to continue my daily selfies for a year, at least. Three hundred and sixty five photos of me in every season — among the snow-covered yard, sweating at the pool with a thousand children splashing in the background, dressed up for holidays and dressed down for lazy Sunday mornings. It thrills me to think I’ll have this record to look back on. Will there be more wrinkles? (Yes.) Will I change my hairstyle? (Probably.) Will I somehow soften into comfort in front of a lens I spent so much of my adult life avoiding? (Hopefully.) An album of selfies feels, at this stage of my life, like a triumph.
Once, I would have been embarrassed to pay this much attention to my own face. Now, that attention is how I’ll find my way home. For just a few moments, while I study myself with rapt attention, I am also embracing all the past selves that wind into this evolving landscape. We are here, we are together, and we will be known.
Thao Thai is a writer and editor in Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Banyan Moon, comes out in June. Thao has also written for Cup of Jo about absent fathers, styles of mothers, and physical affection. You can subscribe to her newsletter here.
P.S. 12 readers share what they love about their looks, and moms in the picture.
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)