Reframing My Ugly Photos

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Last fall while I was in Southeast India for four months launching an academic initiative in collaboration with a women’s college, I got to speak several times at various conferences and events. My first engagement was five days after I arrived in the coastal town of Chennai. I was jet lagged, tired, and emotional from leaving my family and home for four months, the heat and humidity that I was not prepared for. I was struggling to adapt to all the newness of everything—a new home, new language, new job, new time zone, new food. The event was a two-day women’s leadership conference and had four men from my university (plus me) speaking to 400 students and faculty about women and leadership. 

My talk was on Day 2. After sitting through Day 1, I decided to spend most of the night re-writing my talk because I felt like I needed to go in a different direction and include all my ah-ha moments. The next day, I stood up to deliver my talk with my Powerpoint completed and iPad in hand. I was completely sweaty; beads of sweat trickled down my back, along my forehead, and down my cheeks. My hair was damp at the back and sides. There was salty moisture around my lips and my cotton clothes stuck to me at various intervals throughout the day. 

Despite all of that, my talk went very well. Many people asked good, hard, and important questions. There was a rousing round of applause at the end. I even had some great chats with some of the students afterwards. Some of them wanted photos with me, which I reluctantly obliged. 

There was a photographer taking photos of everyone and everything at the conference. A week later, I received the link to the photos. 

As soon as I opened the link, I closed it. 

I did not want to look at the photos of myself. I felt… ugly

***

Last week I found myself at the Getty Centre in Los Angeles, standing in front of a painting of a woman. She was a woman of wealth, a young bride who sat for French impressionist artist Edouard Manet to have her portrait painted, as was the custom for many women and men of Parisian society of the 1800s. According to legend, the woman burst into tears and refused to accept it as soon as she saw the finished portrait. 

Why?

Because, she said, she looked ugly.

I can fully relate to her sentiment. There are many, many times when I see an image of myself and think, “I am ugly.” I usually detest photos of myself that I have not cropped or filtered. More often than not, I delete, delete, delete the ugly photos from my camera or untag myself on social media when the image in my head does not align with the image on the screen. And all the mirrors I walk past without a glance because I am afraid of what I might see or how I might perceive what looks back at me. 

When I eventually looked at the photos from the conference in India, I did not like what I saw but two in particular have stayed with me. One, a photo of my male colleagues, all dressed in the same hue of blue (they said it was not planned) sitting in the front row looking at their phones while I spoke. And the other is me walking and sweating among the conference participants as I delivered my talk. I did not post either of them. In fact I did not even save them. The first photo magnified all my insecurities that I was not worth listening to and the second photo of a sweaty, overweight middle aged white woman confirmed it.

Herein lies the complexity of perception and reality: Do we see ourselves as others do? 

When I studied the Portrait of Madame Brunet (1861-1863, reworked by 1867) I didn’t think she was ugly. Rather, I thought she looked intelligent and thoughtful. She looked like she was considering all kinds of interesting things in a gentle, humble, and perhaps even mischievous manner. 

The genius of Manet is that he is considered a rebel modern era impressionist. He was a pioneering artist who believed that people—real people—should be painted as they truly are and not as perfectly imagined, flawless ethereal beings. He used shadows, dark colours, and sometimes ragged edges that off-set the subjects. The colours he used were meant to represent his impression of the subject, not necessarily the subject themselves.

Manet depicted people and places as he saw them, with colour and depth, light and darkness that represented the subject from his perception as an artist. 

I am a created being, one brought into earthly existence through biology and divine mystery by a master Creator. How is it that I understand and embrace God’s impression of me? As the crowning achievement of the Creator’s imagination, do I see what God sees? And how do I then live out of that divine impression in the ordinary everyday comings and goings of my life? 

How interesting that the painting rejected by Madame Brunet was saved and re-framed by Manet, subsequently displayed in a rebellious exhibit that was meant to infuriate and frustrate the influencers of the day. 

Perhaps I should hold onto some of my ugly photos for a little while longer. 

Perhaps the snapshot of my distracted colleagues is not actually about me at all and is only a brief moment in a series of minutes and hours that when strung together, may tell a very different story. 

And when I look back at that sweaty, smiling woman engaging a room full of young women and men, I remember her coming alive with the lively interactions, affirmations and robust discussions that unfolded as she fully owned the space she was invited into. 

I am learning to reframe the ugly photos in my life. Slowly. More gently. I am challenging myself to look lovingly in the mirror, smile at my unfiltered photos and turn towards my reflection rather than averting my eyes away. And the ugly stories attached to the ugly photos? I am working on re-writing those narratives as well, one by one, image by image, digging deeper to reveal the gloriously imperfect human I know myself to be.

 

***

     

Dearest Madame Brunet, 

I wanted to let you know that I see you. 

I see you.

I see you outlined in ornately carved frames with inlaid gold leaf, glinting, subtle, precious. Your frame is strong and ably supports the depth of your well lived life. I see your little frown lines, your furrowed brow and mottled shades of brown, grey and taupe that sweep across your face, your throat. They whisper to me that you study and discern, you collect thoughts and turn them into marvelous ideas and actions. 

I see your lips, fleshy and pink, both tender and tough, igniting fires with your words or smothering flames of dissonance with your cool composure. Sometimes both at the same time. 

I see your velvet cloak, rich and warm. Your whimsical hat perched on your head, wisps of hair peaking through the sides. Your broad shoulders and slender wrists. I see your exacting gaze as it penetrates my being right through to my laid bare soul, and here, we see one another. And I cannot look away because I see myself. I see myself in you. 

I promise to hold your gaze if you will also hold mine. And all that I see in you, your depth, your mischief, your mystery, your extraordinary presence, I also see the same in me. I won’t turn away if you won’t. I will choose to honour what is beneath and above, within and beyond because you and I are unmistakably glorious. 

 

With warmth, kindness and deepest regard,

Brenda-Lee

*Portrait of Madame Brunet by Édouard Manet courtesy of The J. Paul Getty Museum.*

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