Yesterday, I took 35 pictures of my own butt.
I like some angles better than others. The photos feature my butt in a skirt, my butt in high, high mom jeans, my butt in underwear. Some—my favorites—are of my butt in this winter’s hottest look, “just tights.” (I’m telling you, Just Tights 2015. It’s the way forward.) The pictures are sitting in my phone now, carefully protected by an app designed to keep them for My Eyes Only. (I am also careful to make sure I’m not taking NUDEZ that other people might discover.) I scrolled through the photos earlier today while I was making dinner. I will not show them to anyone; won’t print them or Snapchat them or post them online. They’re joining hundreds of other pictures of my body, my face, and sometimes my body and face together to hang out in a top-secret folder, looked at by me and only me.
María Fernanda wrote beautifully about public selfies last month, calling them an “act of bravery”: a confrontation with our vulnerability in the face of public opinion. I wondered what my private collection means, what purpose it serves, and why I keep coming back to it. My phone is around a lot, and often, when I’m alone, I take it out and snap a bunch of pictures of my lips, my outfit, or of myself feigning sleep, because I don’t get to see what that looks like, and I want to. In our daily lives, women and girls spend a lot of time being looked at. Sometimes it’s nice to be the one looking.
We’re told that selfies are narcissistic, frivolous cries for help. But it doesn’t feel frivolous to bear witness to my body on a particular day of a transitory existence. It feels good! Still, the idea of anyone happening upon me, in my bathroom or bedroom or car, snapping pictures because I’m happy, trying something new hair-wise, or I just opened my phone and the app was there and, Hey, why not, is somewhat mortifying. I would, I think, feel very exposed. But exposed for what? For finding myself attractive? For being the opposite of that One Direction jibber-jabber: “You don’t know you’re beautiful / That’s what makes you beautiful”? Shut it, Harry. My ownership over the fact that I like my lips and hair and face (AND BUTT) makes me beautiful, and the photos on my phone are a testament to moments I felt my own beauty (or found beauty in some weird angle or part of me) and got to portray that exactly as I chose. I feel some embarrassment at the admission of their existence, but in the moment, the documenting of my body and life and youth feels like the most natural thing in the world.
The first just-for-me selfie I ever took was in my friend Mark’s dorm room at Queen’s University in 2005. The night before, I had had my first real sexual experience—some furtive first-through-third base fumblings with the aforementioned friend—and was surprised not to feel different. Wasn’t I supposed to be A Woman now? When was someone going to hand me a Cosmopolitan and a pair of stilettos and perform some kind of sexual goddess initiation ceremony? (I’m thinking robes, I’m thinking some kind of lube-based dance, I’m thinking group breathing exercises.) Shouldn’t I at LEAST have a knowing glow? I wondered if I looked different, or might see the difference retrospectively. When my friend left the room to take a shower, I took the photo in his mirror with a disposable camera. The flash reflected off the mirror, distorting my face. The background of the image is mostly shadow. I’m standing in front of a sink in my 17-year-old skin and a tank top and underwear, with a lens flare for a head, topped by a few wisps of messy red hair.
I stumbled upon it recently while moving the last of my childhood things out of my dad’s apartment. Looking at the picture today, I do feel different. Of course, that photo is almost 10 years old now. It’s a time capsule, a souvenir of adolescence. A post-Mark self portrait and a postmark of a feeling and a period in my life.
I think that’s why I don’t just delete the pictures I take to test a T-shirt’s sheerness, see what I might look like with ombré lips, or contribute to Boobs: A Journey, a decades-long art piece I am only half joking about. It means something different to see myself at 17 at that same age of 17 than it does to look back as an elderly, wizened 26-year-old. It will mean something different to be 40 and see the photos I took of my mom-jeans butt at 26.
When my mother and her best friend from high school get together, they often break out old photo albums. “My god, look at us,” they’ll laugh, looking at the Valencia-before-there-was-Valencia-tinted photos in wonderment, as though they can’t believe these carefree, waterskiing teens (it seems like my mother spent her entire high school years either posing on rocks or waterskiing with perfect hair) were them: “We were hot as hell!”
They were. But looking through these albums isn’t only an exercise in nostalgia. While flipping through shots of themselves drinking beers and trying out hairstyles and wearing truly tiny bathing suits, they’re also revelling in the feeling of, That’s me. They giggle and talk about what babes they were and are, and I think seeing those photos feels good because they’re reminders of my mom and her friend’s beauty, then and now. Regardless of how different they look now, that’s still them. They’re those hot girls driving a boat around in tube tops, having a sneaky cigarette behind the school, designing and sewing fur-trimmed dresses and matching capes to wear to prom. They were, and are, amazing.
Taking photos of my body and face and clothing and hair in different lights and from different angles and with different levels of makeup or emotions or unshoweredness at play is a way of creating, right now, that feeling of wonder at myself. I don’t always look in real life the way I do in a particularly fire selfie, but I get to look at it when I’m feeling particularly worn down by the barrage of voices (outer, inner, social, commercial) telling me the myriad ways I’m failing to look mainstream-beautiful today and think: My god, look at me, hot as hell, etc.
I share a lot of myself fairly freely online and with friends and strangers. I don’t have many secrets. But my little library of photos of attempts at contouring, of my face with no makeup, of my attempts to answer the questions, Can I get away with no bra in this dress? What would I look like with a nose ring? Why don’t I get more compliments on my eyes; look at these things, is just for me. It’s weird, varied, sprawling, and silly, but it’s certainly nothing to be embarrassed of. If I saw a friend’s secret selfies folder I would never think I’d stumbled upon something shameful. I’d think, There’s a person who knows the foxiness of their own butt, and I’d be glad they knew what makes them beautiful—which is to say, whatever they want, and from whatever angle they decide for themselves. ♦
Monica Heisey is a writer and comedian from Toronto. Her first book, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better, is forthcoming in spring 2015.