My grandmother was in her 40s when she gave birth to my mother in 1943. She already had two grown-up children, so to be pregnant again at her age was quite a shameful thing. When I compare my experience of being a 40 year-old woman to that of my grandmother, or even my mum, I know that I got the better deal. Despite living in a culture that places such ridiculous importance on youth and beauty, turning 40 no longer signifies the end of your juicy years; in many ways it feels like just the beginning. Yet every time someone tells me I don’t look forty — which is always appreciated! I’m as vain and insecure as the next person — I still wonder what is forty supposed to look like?
After years of making do with Polaroid and iPhone selfies, I thought it was about time I got some proper author photos taken. In Unravelling — actually, in all of my classes — I talk about the value of self portraiture. I don’t know many women who enjoy having their photograph taken, so taking your own portrait is a way to take back some control. You can play with angles and light; figure out which side is your best; finally get acquainted with the woman whose eye you studiously avoid in the mirror. But it has to be said that photographs usually lie. Being photogenic has nothing to do with how attractive you are and everything to do with how the bones of your face translate into a flat image. If, like me, you have a particularly expressive face you’ve likely had a shock when you see snaps of yourself. Really? That’s what I look like? But it isn’t. It’s your face caught in the split second of the shutter opening and closing. Thankfully we don’t live our lives on camera.
So when I asked Xanthe to take some portraits of me I had to let go of my need to control the outcome. Obviously we talked about best sides and angles and what I think works and doesn’t because I’m a perfectionist and that’s what i do — if this rattled her she was professional enough not to let it show :) We spent an hour walking around my neighbourhood, finding walls for me to stand in front of, awkward at first but gradually loosening up. Despite having absolute faith in Xanthe’s abilities as a photographer I was convinced we’d have to redo the shoot. I thought it might be easier to do it inside. I thought perhaps I should have worn something less…clingy. Fret fret fret. But as it turned out, my sweet friend had done what she does best. Looking through the 40 images she sent me I was quick to skip past the ones I didn’t like… and then there it was — a photograph of me that looked like I feel. She’d caught me through her lens when I’d let my guard down. She saw me.
It’s nice to be seen through the eyes of another — taking portraits was one of my favourite things to do when Polaroid film was in plentiful supply. And as uncomfortable as it can be to have our picture taken, think of them as gifts for your future self to find. I’m grateful for all the self portraits I took at art school, glad to have those reminders of who I was trying to be:
I look at this photo from 1993 and wonder what the hell I was so worried about. I had such great skin! Great hair! I want to pat that girl on the head and say there there, you really don’t know you’ve been born, eh? And I know my 60 year-old self will want to say the same to me when she looks back at these new portraits. And boy, does that put everything into perspective on the difficult days.
Today, right now, is the youngest we will ever be. Let’s make the most of it.