In the waning (pre-Internet) days of my senior year in college, I mused with friends about hidden side benefits of our career choices. The chemist was glad she wouldn't be expected to wear make-up in the lab. The physical therapist could show up every day in sweats. The advertising major had an excuse to binge on magazines and prime time TV.
And I said it was nice that no one would ever care what a writer looked like.
Within a year, I needed a black-and-white photo to accompany a column in a regional publication; but it was only an inch square. Next, I had to do the riding in a series of how-to articles for an equestrian magazine, but at least the main focus was the horse. Another column, and this time, a color photo. Still, I was in my 20s and 30s, fit, trim.
When I started writing more personal essays, some editors wanted a photo of the main character: me. At various times, I was pregnant, postpartum, depressed, overweight, frumpy. This photo business was beginning to matter, and I didn't like it.
Then came the Internet. And profile pictures. A blog. Social media. A website. Guest posts. Platform. Writers became people whose images had to stand up in front of their words. I wanted to hide, and tried to. In my personal life too, I began ducking out of pictures. So much that my sons may one day look through family photos and ask, "Where was Mom?"
Seven years ago, I had the good luck to be coiffed, styled, made-up, and photographed to accompany an essay for O, The Oprah Magazine. I asked the photographer if he could provide me with a headshot for future professional use, but his price was beyond my budget. He did however gift me a small format image which I relied on for every online need, and I joked that I'd use it until I was 90. Its size and low resolution limited its uses though.
More recently, when asked for photos to accompany essays from my memoir manuscript, about the relationship I formed with my father after he died, I persuaded each editor that something else would be more interesting--me and Dad on my wedding day; him holding me as a toddler; an image of Las Vegas (where he'd retired).
But I was delaying the inevitable. A month ago, an editor of a print magazine insisted. She suggested I stand in front of a leafy tree and snap a selfie, and while that appealed to my budget (one son in college, another heading that way), I knew I needed help to get camera-ready, a village, and that costs. Photography sitting fee. Make-up artist. A decent haircut, coloring, style. Then, paying for the actual images.
Then there were the emotional costs: Age, more weight gain, a neglected appearance, and a bitterness that a writer's physical appearance mattered. That my story might be judged, maybe before the words are even read, based on the size of my chins, my age, the fleshy contour of my cheeks, the width of my nose, the wrinkles around and the bags under my eyes. What did any of that have to do with the words, story, with writing?
But pictures do tell stories. And the one I joked I'd use until I was 90 suddenly struck me as telling the wrong story.
That woman no longer exists, in ways that please and pain me. A few days after it was taken, my father died. That woman was just beginning an MFA program, had elementary-age children, was in her mid-40s. Now, my mother is also gone, my children are older, my husband and I just marked our 25th anniversary.
I have gained weight almost steadily since leaving the photographer's edgy Manhattan studio that day. I'm older, maybe wiser, certainly different. If my writing is to be judged, even a little, based on my photo, then at least the image alongside my words ought to be accurate.
I decided to spend most of my limited funds on my thick, full head of hair. It was neglected, sure; I'd been using drugstore haircolor and cut my own bangs--but handled professionally, I knew it was my best feature. The hairstylist I see only for special occasions is a dear man who owns a small salon. We first met 18 months ago, hours before my mother's wake, when my house was full of sad, bickering relatives, and I bolted for air. I chose his salon because it looked quiet, and staffed by real people, not glamazons. I cried in his chair and ever since, he's taken care of my hair, wallet, and spirits. He agreed to do color, highlights, cut, and blowout for a lot less than normal.
For makeup, I asked a saleswoman at a department store make-up counter to do her magic, budgeting a reasonable amount to spend on makeup items so she'd earn her commission. I needed them anyway, having only a pile of poorly selected drugstore brands I'd occasionally buy on a whim while waiting for a prescription.
On photo day, I went from salon to makeup counter to a hotel, where my friend met me with her tricked-out camera. We moved some lobby furniture around (the front desk workers seemed amused rather than alarmed), I ducked into the luxurious restroom for wardrobe changes, and she took about 50 pictures. At first, I tried not to smile (my default), but realized I could stop overlaying this experience with memories of being forced to smile for grade school pictures when I had, at various times, an overbite, braces, a broken tooth, a scar.
I smiled. I let her direct me. I even laughed a few times.
Later, I slipped the SD card into my computer, clicked through images, and cried. First, reflexively, because I was dismayed that the hair and makeup ablutions hadn't camouflaged all the extra flesh nor lifted my droopy eyelids. But then the tears were about something else: a release, and a sense of gratitude. I'd needed help, support, a way to work within my budget. I'd asked, and I'd been held up, supported, helped, by understanding professionals, by a friend, by a sense that even something uncomfortable could be transformed by community and a willingness to accept what is.
My husband liked four images, another friend chose her favorite five, and three of their selections overlapped mine. I picked one, dragged it into PicMonkey for a bit of trimming and contrast correction, sent it off to the magazine editor, then surprised myself by posting it on Facebook.
Now, it's me smiling back from my computer screen, not a woman I hardly remember. Now, I'll no longer be tempted to squirm out of providing a photo, or send a format I know won't work and feign ignorance ("I can't imagine what went wrong!").
This is me--flesh, chins, wrinkles, heavy eyelids, and oh yes, fabulous hair; silky, lush, bouncy, cocoa-colored with honeyed highlights (sure, there's a whole lotta grey underneath, but let's not get carried away with this reality thing; dye is good!).
I'm still not keen that writers' physical appearance matters. But if it does, I am disproportionately pleased that my new photo looks like a slightly spiffed-up version of the current-day, imperfect me. When I posted my new photo on Facebook, the rush of kind and lovely comments warmed me, but also reminded me how sadly pervasive the feelings of trepidation and discomfort are among women of a certain age (that is, no longer in our 20s or 30s), when we contemplate having a more up-to-date picture taken.
A few days later, I included a version of this story in my email newsletter, which reaches hundreds of writers, and within a few hours, notes began dropping into my email inbox—dozens and dozens, all telling some version of the same story: Me too. Stories of women who avoid scheduling a new author photo, who think up new ways to be photographed that preclude full frontal faces; stories of creatively angled hats, pensive profiles, cuddling dogs, eye-catching backgrounds, and attention-grabbing foregrounds.
As I read each one, I wanted to hug my fellow writers, and I certainly felt them hugging me. I was glad we were talking about this. And I wanted to follow up with each one in a few days, weeks, months, and learn if they'd had that new photo taken yet, and what it felt like to them. Because I know what it felt like to me: freedom.
I wonder about all the other stories out there, women writers who are normal looking and perhaps not so young anymore, and their relationship to image, how they feel about leading with our faces.