As terrible as it may sound, I've spent a lot of time this week thinking about not what songs I'm going to perform at tomorrow's open mic (Thursday, 8-11pm, at Sabor y Cultura in Hollywood, if you're interested), but rather what I'm going to wear. Don't get me wrong, I've been thinking about what songs to play and I've been practicing too, but there's talk of videographers, photographers and the like coming tomorrow, and I know it takes effort to make me look good on camera. And even after putting in all that effort, I probably won't look particularly stunning.
It used to bother me. A lot. Why was it that given the same lighting, photographer, even poses, my friends would look like movie stars and I would look like a shiny potato? Why did I look so boxy? So wide? So (dare I say it?) fat? And all while everyone else looked pretty? I didn't like showing people my school photos when I was younger, because even though everyone swore that I looked like me, that didn't change what those pictures looked like. I knew I wasn't horrendous looking, but according to my pictures, I wasn't beautiful either.
I rarely felt beautiful. I take that back, I think I felt beautiful quite a bit (it's difficult to love dancing and not feel beautiful doing it), but I never thought of myself as beautiful. I was more tan than my friends, had darker hair and eyes. I was shorter and not as elegantly built. I was obviously different (and probably a little self-involved and irritating, but that's beside the point), and I was very aware of all this. Especially when people picked (what I considered) prettier, more glamorous people to play with. Comparison--the downfall of many a young girl. Throw on top of that the fact that there seemed to be photographic evidence that I was actually an oiled spud in a wig, and it almost surprises me that I'm not more concerned about my looks now. Almost.
At some point, it struck me that we write our own stories. And if that was the case, I was the heroine of mine. And if I was the heroine, I could describe myself in terms that made me sound heroic. Or beautiful. My hair could be "dark as night" instead of "black as coal". My eyes could be warm like melted chocolate instead of muddy like dirt. My skin could be bronze, no gold! My big legs could be the source of my power...And then I realized, these were all just words. All of them--the positive and the negative--were mere words.
It didn't matter what words I used to describe me--they didn't change what I was. And they certainly didn't dictate what I could do. These words couldn't change the way I was built or the sound of my voice or the shape of my face. These words couldn't tell me how fast I could run or how high I could sing or how much knowledge I could stuff into my brain. We pick the words to describe ourselves or we let others pick them for us, but either way, they are merely words. And so, my concerns shifted from labeling myself to being who I wanted to be and doing what I wanted to do.
I danced. I wrote songs. I sang. I hung out with friends. I started a band. I sewed. I welded. I went to school. I did whatever. It was great. It was experience. It was living. And it made me feel beautiful. But I still never thought of myself as beautiful. Why? Because despite everything I could do and all my confidence in my capabilities, there were still those pictures that would show up on Facebook that made me go, "Are my arms really that big? What's with my upper lip when I smile? Why is my hair such a mess? Look at how uneven my skin tone is! Oh my gosh! I should never let anyone photograph me ever again! Blah." I guess I'm one for evidence.
Recently, however, I realized that the evidence could be flawed. And it's not a matter of "inner beauty" outshining "outer beauty" or of a good personality being more important than good looks. It's a matter of what a picture can capture. A photo is amazing, but it is only an impression of an instant in time. More, it's only an impression with one eye of an instant in time. Details get lost, depth is gone and all of the movements surrounding that one instant are forgotten. If you don't reflect the light in a flattering way when the shutter closes, it doesn't matter what you were doing before and after, you won't look attractive in that picture.
That doesn't mean that you aren't ever attractive. It doesn't mean that you aren't beautiful. It means that in that moment, your lines weren't attractive or the lighting was bad or the camera was at an unflattering angle. It means that for an instant, from a certain point of view, with one eye closed under a harsh light, you look like a Yukon Gold.
But all those other moments? Or all of those moments strung together? Or from a different angle? Under different lights? The transitions from one picture to the next? The smiles in between the flashes? The way you walk? The way your laugh chimes? The way you smell of vanilla after baking? Though they aren't captured in a photograph, are they not beautiful?
And so, I've come to this conclusion: It is not impossible to capture beauty in a picture, but just because I don't look beautiful in a picture does not mean that I am not beautiful. It means I'm not photogenic (which fuels my current debate on what to wear tomorrow) but it doesn't mean that I'm not beautiful. That being said, just because I'm not photogenic doesn't mean that I am beautiful, but I think the measure of one's beauty--physical, spiritual or mental--requires more thought, observation, emotion and trust than a single photograph can provide. Pictures, much like the words my pre-teen self attempted to define myself by, do not change what is actually there. Beauty simply is, and the words we ascribe to it and the pictures we take of it, no matter how flattering or unflattering, do not change whether something is beautiful or not.
So, as I rummage through my closet and drawers, make faces in the mirror and ruffle my hair, I find myself singing, dancing, smiling and being utterly ridiculous. And feeling beautiful. And knowing that while I can try to up the odds that I'll look nice in at least one picture tomorrow night, that picture (and all of the not so flattering pictures, too) does not define me or what I do, and does not decide whether or not I am really beautiful.