Who’s Afraid of an Image?

I loathe having my picture taken. Other people like to take those up-close and personal, right-in-your-face, show every imperfection type pictures of me. And when that person has authority over what happens with said pictures, I become irked. I figured out a long time ago that people post pictures on social media as long as THEY look good, and don’t give a damn that other people in the photo look like crap. So to control my image, I make sure people know that to post my picture without prior authorization would be to the detriment of our friendship. (Kidding! I just beg them not to post, and they usually ignore my requests.) But back in the late 80’s, I wasn’t old enough to tell people that they had no permission to take and or display unflattering pictures of me. As a first grader, I had no control over it. But now that I  know better, I do better. Here’s how I learned my lesson.  

Walking to school- the chilly autumn air whipped across my ankles, crawled over my bony knees, and slithered up my dress. It seemed to linger there in the place “where the sun don’t shine” as my grandmother used to say. I quickly walked alongside my mother, one hand holding hers and the other holding my dress as close to my body as possible.  The feeling of excitement outweighed the cold. Picture day had arrived at Northside Catholic Elementary School, and my mother had truly gone through a lot to make sure my appearance was up to par. In fact, she extended the morning preparation for what seemed like hours.  

Not fully understanding back then that beauty is pain, I was disturbed by (1) having to bathe longer than usual (bathing was not my forte) and (2) utilizing cartoon watching time to moisturize with Johnson & Johnson baby lotion.  I hated them both- Johnson and Johnson for their evil plot to pull children away from the television set. I begged and pleaded with my mother to allow me to join Rainbow Bright and the Smurfs. But even with my puppy-dog face and quivering bottom lip, Mommy Dearest remained unmoved.

The time to slip into my clothes and to have my hair combed was upon me. My mother rightly recycled my adorable black and white polka dot Easter dress along with my coordinating ruffled socks. To put the finishing touches on my outfit, I slid into black patent leather Mary Jane’s. (These shoes were worn only on the most special of special occasions.)  I walked to the full-length mirror that sat in my mother’s room and stared.  Dorothy’s ruby red slippers could not compare to my Mary Jane’s. Ecstatic, I began to think: “there’s no place like school; there’s no place like school.” I clicked my heels three times. Mommy Dearest broke my train of thought as she commanded me to sit down so that she could comb my hair.

This would be an easy task, for the previous night the hard work had already been completed. My mother had adamantly insisted that my hair be pressed. With a stern yet sweet voice she asked: “you want to look pretty don’t you?” As if I had a choice in the matter.  Hesitancy filled the air around me, and I knew this would be a long and painful procedure when she called me into the kitchen that night. She warmed the gas stove, placed the hot comb on the stove’s eye, and pulled a chair beside it for me to sit. There she stood wearing gray jogging pants and her famous PMS t-shirt (It read “I suffer from PMS-putting up with men’s shit!”) She had her hair tied back, and her sleeves rolled up.  I walked towards the chair dreading the two hours it would take to straighten my thick, coarse hair. She handed me the jar of Blue Magic hair grease to hold throughout the process. “Hold your head down!” she demanded and proceeded to part the tightly coiled hair.

The Blue Magic felt heavy and thick on my scalp as she rubbed it between the parts. I anticipated the hot and heavy pressing comb that would soon follow and my body involuntarily tensed. On contact, I felt the intense heat on my neck and heard that familiar sizzling sound- a sound like bacon was frying somewhere nearby. I oddly became hungry and scared all at the same time. Immediately, I jumped and informed my mother that she had burned me. Her automatic response: “that’s just the grease and heat making you think you’re being burned, but you’re not.” I begged to differ.

The benefits of the “press and curl” I reaped that morning. Two ponytails sat on the left and right side of my head; curly bangs swept across my forehead. Two white ribbons hung around the pigtails, and I was in love with myself. The silkiness of my coal black hair amazed me. “This is how the white girls on TV have their hair!,” I thought. I could swing it, flip it, or twirl it; it would all fall back into place. This was how life was supposed to be.

So there I was decked out in my mother’s pearls, my face aching from practicing my smile by saying “cheese!” what seemed like a million times. Little did I know, the preparation was all in vain.

Fighting the blowing wind, we reached my school’s playground. I received compliments from the other students, and even the teachers said I looked “sharp.” I felt pretty and confident about taking a great photograph, and after waiting a few hours, the teacher escorted the class to the gym for picture taking. I waited patiently, and when it was time, my pigeon toes and polka dots walked cheerfully towards the prop chair. I smiled for the cameraman. “Cheese!!!,” I said on the count of three. And it was over.

It would be a week before the class could receive copies of the pictures.  Every day that followed, I eagerly approached my teacher to inquire as to whether the pictures had come earlier than expected. Each time she told me no, I grew increasingly aggravated and even more excited all at once. I obsessed over the pictures; my young life was consumed with the subject. And others around me grew impatient with my inconceivable excitement.  

Finally, the day I had been waiting for arrived. I expected my picture to be the most beautiful and amazing picture ever taken. I knew that practicing my smile would not go unnoticed. Moreover, I was certain that my beautiful silky ponytails (which by that time had turned back into afro-puffs), my mother’s pearls, and my polka-dot dress would show spectacularly in the photo.

Before we received our pictures, our teacher announced that she was going to display our pictures on the outside of our classroom door during recess. “Good,” I thought. But it, in fact, was not good. Viewing my picture for the first time my mouth fell open. There it was: a wallet size version of me, smiling, eyes half closed, and my tongue hanging out the left corner of my mouth. It looked as though I was in the middle of licking my lips and blinking my eyes, and the cameraman just snapped the picture! And now everyone could see, to my chagrin.  I could not understand why this had happened. My hair was silky and curly, my mother’s pearls looked attractive and elegant, and my polka-dots were cute and sassy.  But none of that mattered. The cameraman did not care.  And I continued to wonder. “How could my picture be so horrible, when I was so pretty that day?” I was mortified.

“Hey! Don’t you see how ugly I look in that picture? Take it down! I’m telling my mommy!” I told my teacher. At least I wanted to tell her those things. I was afraid to say anything to her aloud, but in my head, she became my enemy.

A few days later my enemy announced that there was going to be an opportunity to re-take our pictures. I thought to myself, “I’m doing this over!”, and thanked God for his grace. I advised my mother of the second-coming of picture day. No big preparation occurred. I knew I could not sit through another grueling two hours for a press and curl just to pretend I had “good hair” for a day. My mother knew she could not stand another two hours for that very same reason.  

The second picture day arrived, and I knew three things: (1) I hated the cameraman, and he was my new enemy (2) I was not going to smile no matter what and (3) this new picture could not be posted outside the classroom door. At last my showdown with the cameraman commenced. With my afro puffs and penny loafers, I let him take a second picture. “One…two…three…,” said enemy number two. No “cheese!” from me though- I learned my lesson the first time.



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