The Best and Worst of Photographs

by ceeangi

My dog, Lola, turns six next week. Every time she has a birthday, I like to look at photos from the first day I brought her home, when she was about six weeks old. As a puppy, she was 90 percent head with googly eyes and floppy ears resting on a marshmallow torso with toothpick legs. Her expression of bewilderment and fear were unchanging in every shot. I love these photos and I put them on Facebook for her birthday, since people love my dog more than they do me.

Since I had the folder open, I perused the other photos on my computer—images mostly from the past seven years, with a few select shots from childhood that I lifted from my parent’s house.

My favorite of that variety is a shot of me from age six on vacation in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I’m standing on the deck of a rented house in a white T-shirt with a bright orange sun and cartoony mountains that my mom bought at the giftshop before our conversion van got stuck on the steep driveway of our chalet. I’m snuggling my Pillow Person, which I’m holding in front of me, peeking over the top of his square head like Kilroy, and looking right at the camera. My fabric friend obscures my mouth, but the glimmer in my eyes makes it apparent that I’m smiling. After all, there was no reason not to smile: I am a babe in the woods and, judging by the darkness over the mountains, I am staying up way later than my usual bedtime. Seeing the hours that adults typically kept for themselves seemed so important at that age.

Then I’m quickly reminded of why I do not open the photo file too often—it is a minefield of happiness and abject horror with each subfolder threatening to be more wonderful or more painful than the last. I do not archive anything by event or spoiler alerts, just by date. It makes it more difficult to find what I’m looking for and hide what I’m not, but it does help cobble together a more complete archive of experience, which can be as grand as stopping in a giftshop and picking anything you want (under $20, of course, we’re not made of money, Cee) or getting your tires stuck in the mud while trying to climb a steep hill.

I found a photo on vacation with the ex I rarely speak about. I don’t speak about him much because I also don’t like thinking about him, fearing that if I say his name too often he’ll show up like Beetlejuice, do something offensive, and vanish back into obscurity after trenching up the bullshit. I like looking at him even less, his devilish smile peeking from behind his goatee as he wraps an arm tightly around my waist. I’m arching my back ever slightly, subtly recoiling, uncomfortable with his touch. To this day, when someone touches me in similar “you’re mine, let me paw at you” way, I tense, cringe, and clench my eyes, remembering that these sort of embraces are meant to be kind, not controlling.

One year after that trip, there’s one of me standing on a street corner in Andersonville with an ice cream cone—mint chocolate chip, my favorite. I’m unaware of the camera and between licks, I’m beaming alongside school children as I watch Puppetbike—a Chicago phenomenon that’s part bicycle, part puppet show. The mysterious Puppetbiker rolls up to different parts of the city, climbs inside the puppet theatre on the back and mans the hand puppets, who perform well- choreographed numbers to catchy tunes for dollar bills. In this photo, just as I am still when I see it parked around town, I am gleefully entranced by the powers of boogying felt. I am so glad this photo exists.

Then there’s a photo of me standing in a bar, sidled up to the man I wanted to be with. We met at the worst time for love to start, after respective breakups, but he felt different than anyone I wanted before; I found myself engaging in the cliché-girl behaviors I loathed: saying my first name with his last, wondering where we would live, and if I would compromising on not wanting children if it came to that. It didn’t matter though; he reconciled with his ex and he married her straight away. This photo was taken five months later when I agreed to have dinner with him and his wife. He put his hand on my lap during dinner as she sat across from us; he kissed my neck while she was in the bathroom, and I numbed the awkwardness with shots of bourbon. When he hugged me goodbye, he whispered in my ear, “you’ll always be the one who got away,” and it was the first time I actually felt relieved that he would be her problem instead of mine.

The next photos are seven days later, snapped from the left-field side of U.S. Cellular Field from a suite on Opening Day. The White Sox beat the Rays 5-1, and Edwin Jackson had 13 strikeouts.

There are more photos of events than of myself from 2009 to 2012. That is not a coincidence that those years correspond with embarrassing weight gain. I have never been thin, but at least I had been active, and when I stopped moving and started eating and drinking, I added 60 pounds to my already large frame, topping the scales at a weight that earned me the Bartolo Colon treatment—people mocking my every move, no longer seeing me as a person but as a caricature, a lesser being not only not worthy of adoration, but deserving of the harshest vitriol that thinned-framed folks can dish out.

My appearance bothers me in these photos—a double chin, a round face like a bloated cherry, an inner tube for a waistline, and tree trunks for legs. The worst part of these photos, however, is  the denial that I had a problem with over indulging with food and alcohol. I see these photos now—birthday parties, baseball games, and grad school commencement—and I loathe the weaker and less disciplined version of myself. I felt happy in many of those moments, but I would love nothing more to erase the years in which I shrugged, draping myself in tents for clothes, and telling my reflection that, “this is as good as it gets.”

I am much lighter now, hitting the gym six days a week and obsessing over every calorie, but that doesn’t make photos from then, or even now, easier to look at.  What they don’t tell you about losing weight is that, at least for a stretch, you will actually hate your body more the thinner it gets. Clothes don’t fit well. You don’t want to wear anything revealing, because overweight women are taught to tiptoe around their beauty, accentuating only the one or two features that are not marred by conventional beauty standards, while shoving the rest into Spanx. When you drop sizes, you still reach for the things that were flattering in the past. And even as you get out of plus size clothing, you’re still left with extra skin, imperfections, stretch marks, and little pockets of fat that you can’t figure out how to exercise.

I’m told there is a moment where all of this levels out, where the slight symptoms of body dysmorphia melt away and you see yourself through new lenses. A friend took my photo this weekend at dinner, and I don’t hate this photograph, one of the firsts where I am starting to see the transformation. My jaw line is stronger, my face seemingly less round and better balanced by new glasses and longer hair. There’s a man off to my left, sitting by himself. I felt his eyes on me for most of our dinner, and I wondered if he was judging me for what I ordered, but in seeing the still image, he is seductively smiling at me, not targeting my flaws in his crosshairs, but enjoying the view. The doubt is not about self esteem; it’s about knowing there was once a version of myself who punched a guy in the face for calling me “a worthless fat fuck” when I bumped into him on accident in a crowded bar. It was six years ago, but I remember standing in the alley sobbing, trying to catch my breath long enough to hail a cab and sulk away from the cruelty of Lincoln Park Chad.

I found screenshots of some text messages from a guy I went on two dates with when I first moved to Washington DC, a baseball fan that I knew through Twitter. My schedule got busy with work and I had to cancel on our third date, which sent him on a text message tirade, in which he told me he didn’t appreciate being my little whore, and that I was a “back-stabbing arrogant little cunt” and that I should “go back to the south side” because nobody wanted me there. He called me “south side trash” and said that, “they love fucking fat girls” there. He also told me that he only wanted to sleep with me because he always wanted to know what it felt like to be suffocated.

I still see him in my timeline from time to time, interacting with mutual acquaintances.

There are a group of photos from the spring of the following year, where I am standing alone on an empty beach. In all of the photos, I have a camera bag strapped across my body, a black tank top, and jeans rolled up, with chunky cuffs sitting just below my knees. In some I am splashing, in others I am posing, and in two of them I am carrying a cocktail in a plastic cup. In my favorite, my hair is resting on one shoulder, with the longer layers cascading down my chest. My back is to the water, the red highlights of my hair are glowing as the sun sets. There’s a boat the size of a thimble in the distance, and I am tilting my head backwards as far as my muscles will go, and though there is no sound, I can tell from my expression and pose that I am letting out a deep belly laugh and the camera has caught me in the throes of delight.

I can’t recall what made me laugh that hard, or why there’s a photo of it, but I am hopeful there will be more moments like that one to come.