And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.
So last week Thursday, I had a new author photo taken. For many, including me, this feels like a necessary evil. People like to know what you look like when they read your books. I remember flipping to Wally Lamb’s photo a thousand times as I read She’s Come Undone, because I simply couldn’t believe that a man could write a woman’s point of view so very well. Each time, I nodded at him and said, “Good job,” as if he could hear me. I find myself smiling at a lot of author photos, because they make me feel like I can now picture a new and very good friend.
But photos of me – blech.
I was born with strabismus, which causes my eyes to cross. I had five surgeries to correct it as much as it could be – one at 16 months, 2 when I was 8 years old, and 2 when I was fifteen. The nights before school photos were torture. My mother would sit me on a footstool before her and we’d practice how I should hold my head just so, so that my eyes would look straight. Tilt here, tilt there, turn your chin, and so on. But when I sat down on the school’s stool, the photographer took the photo before I even had a chance to recite the directions to myself. My mother refused to buy my 7th grade photo. I bought it myself, so I would have record of who I was then.
So photos are not my favorite thing. I was in my early 30s before I could look anyone in the eye.
Body image is also another bugaboo. We talk a good game in this country about not body shaming, yet plus-sized models get slammed for being “unhealthy”, and thin models beam from multitudes of magazines. And don’t even get me started on how we deal with women and their breasts. We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk.
For me and my own self-image, I started with the crossed eyes. Don’t look at people, and then they won’t notice your eyes. I remember my father arguing with my mother, who wanted to get me braces. “Just don’t,” he said. “She gets teased enough about her looks already.” My weight has gone up and down so many times, I no longer know where I feel my best. I used to work as a weight loss consultant. At that point, I was a size 6, I worked out at the gym for at least three hours every day, and I had an eating disorder that outweighed my weight. I’ve had four babies, five, if you count the one I miscarried, and I do. And then there’s the breast cancer, which brings me right back to breasts again. My right breast has, with all good intentions, the ultimate one being to keep me alive, been mutilated.
It’s hard, sometimes, to look in the mirror and smile.
A few weeks ago, I bought a lovely soft sweatshirt. It’s blue, and in silver letters, it says, “Strong Women Come In All Shapes”. I saw that shirt in the store, teared up, and bought it.
And so now, we come to last week’s photo shoot.
My photographer, who has been with me for years now, is a lovely man who refuses to let me frown. Or even look brooding. He makes me smile. And when he takes my photo, he makes me feel the way I imagine supermodels must feel. Or the way they should feel, no matter their size.
For this shoot, I really wanted a photo by a weeping willow tree. This photo is for my novel, Hope Always Rises, which comes out on March 7. A willow tree features very strongly, and so does the Fox River. And so Ron and I trudged across the grass in Frame Park in Waukesha, heading to a weeping willow tree I love and always pat when I pass by. It didn’t take long to get the photos.
The next day, Ron sent me the digital image gallery. And I admit, the first thing I thought when I scrolled through them was, Oh, no.
I could hear my mother’s voice. “You should have tilted your head that way! Turned your chin! Look at your eyes!”
I heard my father’s voice. “She gets teased enough about her looks already.”
But mostly, I zeroed in on my breasts. I have a prosthesis, but I rarely wear it. It’s not that it’s uncomfortable. It’s that it’s a reminder. Plus, I honestly thought that the difference in breast size between my left and right really wasn’t all that noticeable.
In these photos, oh, yes, it was.
I sat with these photos for a few days. I showed them to my husband and my daughters. When I said something to my husband about not realizing that one breast is noticeably smaller than the other and why didn’t anyone ever tell me, he didn’t say a word. He just looked away. I didn’t say anything to my daughters. I let them pick out their favorites.
And then, reluctantly, when Ron called me to get my decision, I made up my mind. I actually went with his favorite.
The next day, I wore my “Strong Women Come In All Shapes” sweatshirt. I let it hug me.
Just a short while ago, Ron sent me the finished image. I sighed and opened it.
And you know what? My photo smiled at me. Strong. Confident. And you know what else?
I smiled back.
Because it was me. I shoved aside all the voices and just saw myself. I looked into my own eyes, I looked at my smile, I looked at my body, which, despite many battles, has served me well. I gave a nod to my mind, which fuels all of me, and has served me even better.
I smiled back.
Strong Women Come In All Shapes.
And I’m one of them.
And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.