Out of sight, out of body

Worm memories

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The girl in the glass

who was not invited in 

arrived anyway.

All photos of me are something of a catastrophe. I look at them the way one might look at a car crash: first glancing out of the corner of my eye, a subtle peek held back by both respect and caution, then head-on with rapturous intrigue, taking in the scene until reality hits and I reel back in shock. 

I know, sounds typical for a girl my age. This, however, isn’t a story of insecurity or self-hatred. The relationship between me and my image has less to do with a want of beauty — although I would be lying if I said this wasn’t a factor — and more to do with a want of context. It’s not that I outright dislike my appearance and try to avoid any contact with it. In fact, there are times when I think I could stare at my face in the mirror all day, studying it like a foreign object. I set out to analyze myself, commit myself to memory, as though I’m afraid I might forget something. 

It seems like a ridiculous thing to be afraid of, I’m sure, and yet somehow I always do forget. I’ll catch myself in a store window or a glass door, and suddenly it’s like the car crash happens all over again: the confusion, the fascination, the shock. Whose eyes are those that stare back, impossibly bright and impossibly large, one slightly higher than the other? Whose nose juts out all strict and militant? Whose hair, frizzy and unkempt, flies up with the wind and crowns their head like a laurel wreath? In these moments, all memory, all history, goes away. I become a stranger to myself. 

Looking at photos allows me to hold onto those memories for a little while longer. It’s a way for me to reclaim my image, although an appearance were something that I could possess or collect, stored in my pocket like a memento. 

Photographs, however, also pose an entirely new problem. If I am this frightened by a mirror, then imagine how I felt when I found out about different angles? Or, God forbid, different lighting? It’s maddening how much a person can change from moment to moment. How many versions of myself are possible? How many of them may be out there somewhere without my knowledge? 

I take photos of myself like they’re damage control, a rounding up of survivors. A new version of myself is cataloged with each “click” of the camera shutter, logged into an account and stored away in my phone with meticulous care. This is me at home. This is me in public. This is me when I am tired, when I am unruly, when I am in a Moffitt Library bathroom and when I have lost all control. This is me on Thursday the fifth in an adorable pink suit. 

It helps in some ways; in others, not so much. The more pictures I take of myself, the more comfortable I feel. I am no longer the strange and alien creature I thought I was, but rather a human girl in very human clothing, thinking human thoughts. But every once in a while, a photo comes along — a photo taken by someone else, a photo I didn’t sanction — that throws me off guard, starts up the internal catastrophe all over again. 

Photos from my childhood are the hardest to deal with: They represent versions of me that I haven’t accounted for and that I can’t control. Even worse, they are versions that I don’t understand. The older I grow, the more I seem to forget about the past, and the more distance there is between me and the array of Laurens I’ve left behind. There are few things I hate more than seeing an old picture of myself and realizing I no longer have a connection to the person in the frame. I can’t help but be overwhelmed with morbid curiosity when I see a photo from 10, 15 years ago; it’s the uncanny valley at its very worst, a feeling of complete alienation from the self. 

I saw a picture recently of a strange girl in a red dress, and I realized at some point that the girl was me. Although her features were similar and her hair was more or less the same, I hardly recognized her; too much had changed. I’d forgotten her favorite song, the way she talks to her friends, the things she thinks about as she is dropped off for school. I forgot she even had that dress. It’s not easy, learning to accept your own image. It can feel confusing and alienating at times, but when I stare at that girl in the red dress, I realize that she and I have something alike: We are both trying very hard.

I wonder what she would think of me now, if she could see that I was trying just like her. I hope she would be proud. 

Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].