A few days ago, a friend invited me to go out to the bar. I’d been hunkered down in my apartment for a few days because of the cold, and I was ready for a night on the town. I caught my reflection as I jumped in the shower. Maybe it was because I was happy to be getting out of the house, or maybe I was finally looking at myself with some acceptance instead of criticism. Whatever it was, as I looked at myself, I felt good. I felt so good that I grabbed my phone and took a picture of myself.*
Like any human being with a high resolution camera on them at all times, I’ve taken nude pictures of myself before, primarily for the benefit of other interested parties. I’d considered cataloging those pictures on a Tumblr or something like that, but I always chickened out in the end- worries about future careers or relationships and the like. But something about this picture compelled me to share it. I didn’t understand why I felt that way, so I do what I normally do when I don’t understand something. I wrote about it.
This is the second version of this essay (hence the “Redux” in the title). In the first version, I wrote about how my desire to be seen was vanity, and then launched into a defense of vanity, pride and immodesty. It was a fine essay, yet there was no real point. I do think that vanity, pride and immodesty get a bad rap, but the world doesn’t need an essay from me to make a point Al Pacino made better twenty years ago. It was a hollow piece of writing, as if I was building a flimsy writerly framework to justify saying, “Hey everyone, look at me!” Which, honestly, would be completely fine. I have dozens of pictures I could have done that for though. Why this one?
I let a couple of friends read the first draft, and they agreed that something was missing. Between talking to both of them at length, I realized that unlike most of the other intimate pictures I’ve taken, this one was taken for me. I didn’t have anyone else in mind, and I wasn’t performing for anyone else. I was pleased with what I saw, but what I was capturing in that image was not my body. I was taking a picture of my happiness.
What does it mean, that I couldn’t recognize happiness as such? That when I tried to understand it, my first instinct was to label it with pejoratives-vanity and pride? That it took a few days, six hundred words and the insight of two different people to help me experience my own emotions? It means that I haven’t done enough work to tear down the emotional walls I’ve built up over the years, the walls that have kept me safe in very difficult circumstances but have also cut me off from fully experiencing my own feelings. That trade-off made sense in other contexts, but not in the one I find myself in now.
I felt happy in that moment- with myself, with what I was doing, and where I was going. I also felt happy when I decided to share that picture, because I looked good and I want others to see that. Maybe that is vanity and pride, but I don’t want to frame it that way. I like looking at myself. I like being looked at. I like the nervous, edgy energy of being seen. And if it is vanity, well, then it’s my favorite sin too.
*This is the picture I took. IT IS NSFW. It leaves some things, but not all, to the imagination.