In the fall of 2013, I was hanging out with Tammie when her daughter, Lissa, showed me a distortion camera app on her mother’s phone. She mugged for the camera, her ridiculous faces made even goofier by the camera’s distortion lenses, then passed it over to me, a moment I now equate with opening a can of juicy worms.
Normally, I run from cameras. I’ve long hated my own image and all the flaws I can detect in it; before then, I had never even used the feature on my own smartphone that would allow me to produce the selfies I saw popping up across social media. No way, no how. But, this was different. I made stretched alien heads with my own image, then blockheads, pinheads and swirlies. I was addicted. I downloaded the app and began trading images with Tammie and another friend, Kim — the more distorted and ugly, the better.
About a week later, it occurred to me that, for the first time since I could remember, I didn’t mind having my photograph taken. It was more than that, though — I didn’t mind having truly godawful ugly shots taken, and I actually reveled in sharing them. What was this about?
That fall, I began peeling the onion. Maybe it was about how I felt inside more so than how I looked outside. Yeah, it was about growing up feeling like an ugly nerd, something that had never left my sense of identity even after I transformed from a duckling into something swan-ish. I was pretty sure this was it, so I made a proposal to Jack Straw that October to create a multi-media installation called UGLY ME about beauty and self-worth that was based on distorted selfies. In March of 2014, my proposal was selected with one caveat: they asked me to compose original works rather than selecting works by other authors to read as the audio component of the installation. Okay, fine.
Since then, I’ve watched other artists stage installations on selfies and celebrities publish books about them. I’ve seen friends and strangers post their own selfies on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but nowhere did I see people sharing on a personal level about the relationship of one’s self-image with her worth, identity and value the way that I wanted to. Still, I struggled to express myself in the poems I was writing. I felt like what I wanted to say was just out of reach; I just couldn’t get there on my own.
Seattle poet Jeanine Walker, who agreed to give me poetry counseling, caught on immediately. When we met to review my work, she said, “I like where you’re going conceptually, but –if you don’t mind me saying– I think you’re hiding behind these poems. These need to be personal; I want to see more of you in them.” She was right: even when I thought I was revealing everything, I was still hiding. After that, I started writing loud and embarrassing poems, poems that delved into my childhood, poems about the effects of the fashion industry on my sense of beauty, poems about being silenced, poems that touched on many reasons why I look at my own image today and feel shame and worthlessness. Reading them aloud, I realized that these were naked poems, and I became nervous then about recording them.
At the end of May 2015, I worked with Christine Brown, an actress who gave me voice coaching, and Tom Stiles of Jack Straw, the sound engineer who recorded and mixed my readings. It was scary and exciting to be in the recording booth again, sharing not on paper but out loud in front of two warm but professional acquaintances admissions that I would even hesitate to divulge to friends. At different points, Christine had tears in her eyes, as did I; I tried to hide my wavering voice as we recorded. A week later, Tom sent me the digital files: there they were, my naked poems that made me feel so shy I could barely listen to them.
Yet, in the weeks since, I have felt exhilarated — so empowered, in fact, that when I had to have my photograph taken for work, I channeled that feeling of being safe in the studio with Tom and Christine, and I didn’t flinch or cringe the way I normally do when sitting for a photo. And guess what: the picture actually turned out great.
I’ve been peeling this onion for decades, and only now can I see how I’ve been dragging myself down all these years. One thing I’ve concluded is that it starts young and words matter; children indeed live what they learn and what they hear — they process and internalize external feedback all the time. The self-image we create as children becomes a deeply entrenched basis of self-understanding as adults; it’s so ingrained that we can pick apart all the good of ourselves without knowing that we’re even doing it, until we know no other way to live. (Ever seen Amy Schumer’s video of women who can’t take a compliment?)
Next Friday, on July 10, UGLY ME opens at Jack Straw New Media Gallery at 7 pm. There will also be an artist talk on July 31 at 7 pm. This installation is two years in the making, but looking back, I think that time was necessary. I am trying not to have expectations — there are still many things to pull together — but I do have hopes.
I hope that you can join me for the opening or the artist talk.
I hope that you will bring your own selfies that you will pin to the wall.
I hope that you will laugh and get enjoyment out of what is intended to be silly.
I hope that you will take something away from this that softens your heart to yourself and those you love and care about.
Click Jack Straw for more info.