I’ve always hated having my picture taken. My mom was consistently disappointed at the results of grade school photographs, my messy hair and downcast eyes. I recall numerous photo shoots for our church bulletin; the camera man at the little Olan Mills shop in Rocky Mount, NC, sprinted back and forth from his camera to me, manipulating my head: “look up, please, Miss. Look at me. Look at the pinwheel on the wall, now back at me.” When it came time to choose an author photo, I was especially mortified. My publicist and agent gently asked if I’d be willing to get a professional portrait done. I wasn’t. I had visions of awkward head tilting, my chin resting on fists, a thumb and a forefinger on the collar of a leather jacket. I ended up holding a one-eyed cat in front of my body in hopes that readers would look at him and not me, and let my husband snap the photo.
That’s the weird thing about a lot of writers. We want your attention only when it’s convenient, only when it feels good. Some of us crave your approval—we can’t do much without it—but can’t reconcile that need for attention with introversion or crippling shyness. I update my social media accounts almost daily, and blush whenever anyone tells me they read them. My husband still mocks me for telling a reader who inquired after my book, “you wouldn’t like it.” But thanks to public speaking training at my old corporate job, where a table full of co-workers would slap the table if a woman defaulted to “upspeak”—the approval-seeking tone that imbues every sentence with the sound of a rising question—I do okay at readings now. Maybe even more than okay.
Still, I loathe that self-conscious feeling, the one I often get standing in front of readers at the podium, where you realize you do care what someone else thinks, that you wish you’d paid attention that time at the makeup counter when the lady in the black smock and faux beauty mark, reeking of Calvin Klein’s Obsession, showed you how to apply blush to the apples of your cheeks. Of course I often feel as though I’m being appraised when I’m not; it’s one of the fallacies of the self-centric way we think, the belief that we’re on people’s minds when we aren’t. When you see me read you are most likely thinking “now there is a girl reading” or you’re thinking about dinner or letting your dog out when you get home.
I know how I want to feel about vanity, philosophically, but spontaneous waves of insecurity wash over me anyway, ones I’d do anything to keep my two daughters from noticing. When it was time to take my first author photo, I’d just had my second daughter, and my hair was falling out, a glamorous byproduct of pregnancy. The extra attention that came with my first book gave me a weird urge to put the most ugly, plain picture of myself on the Internet, to get it over with, let everyone come to the conclusion that I was unattractive and square.
What’s the worst they could see? I wondered.
Turns out it’s a video, not a picture, and for years it’s been haunting me. I want to be free of it. I want to unleash it and laugh at myself and cringe alongside of you. Help me get this over with.
Disclaimer: I’m eleven here, and accidentally a Republican. It was the early nineties. I grew up in eastern North Carolina, was raised Southern Baptist, and was steeped in jingoistic songs and the daily Pledge of Allegiance. I didn’t hear the societal commentary in early Mellencamp and Springsteen records – I heard mention of “America” and my heart swelled. I thought everyone loved the president; I had a benign vision of politics. Now I’m a far left agnostic New England vegetarian who composts and gets excited about ornamental poultry. I’m just saying. People change. But in this video, I’m a little kid visiting Florida, I’m fresh off of getting lost at Sea World, and I’ve just met Ronald Reagan.
Okay. Now you’ve seen it, the “picture” I’m most ashamed of. I have an eighties sweater and permed hair, buck teeth. That part sucks. I look like an apricot poodle crossed with a member of Kajagoogoo. I tell myself: no author photo will ever be that bad. No author photo will ever use incorrect grammar on the nightly news. I will never wear a bejeweled hairbow my mom made with her glue gun at the podium during a reading.
But what really gets me in this video is my sickening insecurity, the way I’m folding in on myself, the way my already helium-laced adolescent voice goes higher. What I’m thinking: I’m so lucky to be here, I can’t believe that “great” man gave me his signature on an official Post-it, and you don’t really want to talk to me, do you? Stop looking at me. Please. I already hear my eldest daughter switch into this mode, the tone of her voice eerily similar to my own, going from bubbly to overly self-aware and then to a whisper, shielding her face behind my back when someone asks her a question.
I know that shyness comes in stages and few eleven-year-olds thrive on camera or speak eloquently and insightfully about politics, though I’m sure many do better than I did here. The insecurity of adolescence and puberty is a painful rite of passage, and it ravages everyone a little differently. I accept responsibility for my awkwardness and know that it sits at the intersection of nature, nurture, and personal choice. But this video reminds me to do whatever I can to boost my daughters’ sense of self-worth, to keep them from wilting when someone asks them what they think.
When I hear my eleven-year-old self mumble that Reagan is a “very nice, caring man,” I die a little. Maybe he was a nice person to have dinner with, but as a politician he showed outright disdain for women and minorities, taking largely anti-choice stances and opposing the Equal Rights Amendment. Growing up in the south under Reagan in the woman-as-second-class-citizen culture did nothing to bolster my self-regard. I had very few strong female role models as a child. My heroes were my mom, my sixth grade English teacher, and a lady who hoarded animals. Most of the women I observed first hand were proud conservatives, didn’t work, and were on the hook for cooking dinner at night. (There’s nothing wrong with either parent staying home with kids—I do a bit of it myself—but when that’s all you see of women growing up, it’s limiting.) Some women around me bought into the Promise Keeper’s notion of subservience. Many of the girls I grew up with are still fine with white male politicians making decisions for their bodies and opposing equal pay movements. I imagine it’s what they’ve always known, and gender inequality is easy to sweep underneath the carpet of religion.
Twenty years later, Romney and Ryan frequently evoke Reagan’s spirit and anti-choice stance. The fact that this sort of anti-feminist culture thrives and exists not on the fringe but as the core of one of our two political parties is deeply disturbing. It’s toxic to any girl’s self-esteem, and we’d be foolish to think young women aren’t taking it in. Just think—Michelle Bachmann, the most recent female candidate for president during the 2012 primary—made these public comments to a congregation in 2006: “The Lord says: Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands.” What are young girls supposed to think when accomplished women in the public eye speak this way?
But are people listening to Michelle as much as they are looking at her? There are entire sites devoted to her “hotness.” She was number 10 on The Hill’s “Most Beautiful” list. Women in politics aren’t spared physical appraisals. It killed me to watch Michelle Obama’s phenomenal convention speech and see just as many tweets and headlines about her Tracy Reese dress as the content of her speech itself. Hillary Clinton recently took a reporter to task for such focus:
Interviewer: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
Hillary Clinton: What designers of clothes?
Hillary Clinton: Would you ever ask a man that question?
Interviewer: Probably not. Probably not.
I’ve always been aware of how my femininity and appearance factor into a professional setting. I’m five feet tall and blond; nothing about my physical appearance screams authority. I’m physically incapable of intimidating anyone while standing—believe me, I’ve tried. I was promoted more when I started working for my consulting firm remotely. When I was hired for one of my first teaching jobs, a man told me: some of our professors wear jeans, but you shouldn’t, because you look young. When I interviewed at a consulting firm down south, the interviewer, who clearly hadn’t looked at my resume and 8 years of work experience, asked me: are you looking for secretarial work or what?
So when I see this video of eleven-year-old me, I burn inside. Maybe I should take it easy on myself, but I see a fumbling, painfully awkward girl supporting a politician whose influence still buttresses today’s anti-feminist conservatives, and a culture that thinks of women as pretty pets who can’t be trusted to examine the thresholds of their minds and bodies and make decisions for themselves, a culture that believes it’s okay that men out earn women in 97 percent of Congressional Districts.
As a parent of two girls, how do I ease that painful self-awareness and not pass along my fear of being looked at, appraised? How do I save them from rhetoric that infantilizes women, pay that nets out a twenty percent less than their male colleagues? And Elizabeth Hurley’s new leopard print bikinis for girls? I’ve moved them to Vermont and surrounded them with friendly wiccans and cat ladies with shag haircuts, but what else can I do? For starters, I have to stop giving a shit about my author photo. I have to smile hard when my three-year-old traces my stretch marks. I can’t spend two hours getting ready in the morning, fussing over hair. I have to model behavior that doesn’t come naturally to me, masking self-consciousness and the painfully acute social awareness that every southern girl who ever sat in church cultivates—Easter dresses, anyone?
And if I could, I’d send a message to all those little girls like me down south: Work hard in school and less on your hair. Don’t grow up thinking that boys are better than you, or you might spend your whole life trying to convince yourself otherwise. Try to avoid appearing on video from ages 11-23, but if you must, look the camera dead-on, summon all the integrity you have, and speak with confidence. Other little girls are watching. Don’t wear Elizabeth Hurley’s leopard print bikinis. And when you turn 18, vote for the party that believes you’re equal. Maybe by then there will be more politicians who care about your future, the affordability of your college education. Maybe you’ll become a writer and maybe you won’t, but know this—all of you have something worth saying.
Listen to Megan read her essay: