A Different Kind of Selfie — Atlanta, GA Photographer



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expressive, Mental Health

A Different Kind of Selfie — Three days ago, I photographed my back. It was compulsory; I had to do it. And yesterday morning when I got home from taking the boys to school, I sat down and wrote the majority this blog post in an equally compulsory way. I stared in bits and pieces of seconds at the photo in question as I wrote the post.

I got home from an errand before the plumber arrived to fix our toilet three days ago. In a mad rush to finish and get dressed before the plumber got here, I stripped right in the studio. I got out the camera and tripod and light and just took photo after photo until where I stood, with my back to the camera, and got the whole thing I wanted centered correctly.

For those of you who may not know, I had/ have severe scoliosis— the curve was 87 degrees when they operated in 1993. I grew a full inch and a half in that 10-hour surgery that saved my life. I found out in college that the curve would have eventually crushed my heart, uncorrected. Last I knew 20 years or so ago, the curve had settled at around 45-47 degrees when all was said and done after the surgery.

I’ve never really taken a photo of my back, a different kind of selfie, before. I’ve seen the scars, etc. in the mirror, but I’ve never taken the time to really look at it, beyond in passing in the mirror.

So, thirty years and nearly six months later, here we are and I photographed my back. And I sat here, for a few seconds at the time, staring at it. I can’t look at it for more than a few seconds at the time,

I am not self-conscious about the scars themselves. As a teenager, I’d pull up my shirt and show the front and back scars (It was a 2-part surgery and I have a scar that winds down my side and around front in addition to the one that spans the entirety of my back), I’d show them off just for fun. When I was younger I’d wear dresses and shirts that would show the top bits of my back scar. It was a sort of “see how tough I am” sort of mentality thing. One of my last psychiatrists said the showing off was trauma response.

With the photo, a different kind of selfie, what I wasn’t prepared for (though I knew it was there and wanted to see) was the visual evidence that the scoliosis did indeed keep progressing as I have gotten older, as I have gotten more sedentary. It’s unknown but doubtful that the sedentary lifestyle is the sole-cause of the progression. My scar makes a sort of ellipsis shape now, with a mini-S in about the spot where I had a ginormous hump in the lumbar portion of my back as a kid. My bottom end continues the curve, where things should otherwise be straight.

I wasn’t quite prepared to see the bunched up fat sitting on top of the scar that wraps around my side and up the left side of my back, nearly to my shoulder blade. I’ve known it was there because it makes nearly all bras uncomfortable now. But seeing it there was another thing entirely, not just my reflection in the mirror. As I sit here looking at it now, I see a sort of stretch mark has formed above the fat pocket, and that fat pocket is indeed sitting right above the scar line. It looks like my recent weight loss has left a tad bit of loose skin, even, at the top of the crease in my back. A solid mark of middle age.

For the photo, a different kind of selfie, I purposefully stood in my most natural, comfortable state, letting my left shoulder droop purposefully. Most people don’t know this, I assume, but when I walk around I consciously hold my left shoulder up much higher than is natural. I got so good at it as a young adult when I was in good shape that I could walk around without it mostly drooping at all. What surprised me about the photo is I expected to see a more pronounced droop than is actually there— in my mind it is more pronounced than it actually is.

I wasn’t prepared to see the little indentation of the chest tube spot, which would mostly only look like a fat roll indentation in the photo to anybody who didn’t know what they were looking at.

I wasn’t prepared to see the mottled skin of solid middle age, all along my back, where it used to be creamy smooth.

I had two different edits worked up, both in black and white. I called Jared over Tuesday night and we agreed on which one was the better edit. The one we settled on has more contrast, more definition to my shapes, shows the scar more completely. The sun was coming in bright through the double doors on the sitting room side of the studio. Eventually I’ll need to get shades to cover those double doors or I am going to have trouble controlling light in the studio; the sun is shining on my right side and on the right side of my hair in the photo, despite having the Lume Cube on full power on the opposite side of the room. (And no, our only neighbors on that side cannot see in those double doors even without shades.)

This photo, a different kind of selfie, is more than navel-gazing. It allows me to face head-on in a tangible way, beside the ever-increasing presence of pain, particularly in my upper back at night just after I lie down— it allows me to face that there was a force completely beyond my control that has shaped my life in more ways than I can count.

This photo, a different kind of selfie, probably equally as well represents my humanity, just as much as that little inch-and-a-half piece of the metal rod I have from the top of the rod that had to be cut out in December of 1994, because that silly little twist-tie had popped and the rod had made a nice sized-callous under my skin where it was poking out, leaving me breathless from the pain occasionally.

And, this photo, a different kind of selfie, helps me come to terms with my age, too. I am painfully, painfully aware that as a teenager, that scar was straight as a line, with no curves in it at all. It is visual evidence of the reason I am now closer to 5 foot 8 inches tall, than the 5 foot 10 inches I used to be. It is visual evidence of fairly severe deformity inside my body. For a perfectionist, that is a hard image to see in oneself.

On March 1, 2023, about 5 AM in the morning, I felt a sort of “pop” behind my heart area, is the best way I can describe it. It wasn’t painful, but I was awake at the time anyway and it was a sensation pronounced enough that it sort of made me lose my breath as I sat on the edge of the bed. Jared thinks it was a muscle spasm or something like that and maybe it was.

I’ve had an x-ray of my back since that time and so I know it wasn’t anything that is going to cause issues, at any rate.

But, I sort of look at that event as a marker reminder that I am living on borrowed time. I don’t know how long I would have lived without that scoliosis surgery when I was 13. I know that having children would have been much more difficult and more painful and more dangerous. I know that I probably wouldn’t have lived to be 44 years old.

There is a sort of grief, too, that bubbles up to the surface, knowing that while everyone has their trials in life to carry, this particular one has been mine, and mine alone. It makes me tremendously sad that I have been so very hard on myself my whole life, for various extremely trivial, superficial reasons that never really mattered all that much.

Looking at this photo, a different kind of selfie, brings into crystal clarity the fact that I am grateful that Jared came along when he did, and that I am with the sort of man I was meant to be with all along, despite the fact that prior to Jared there were a few men of questionable character— it’s no wonder at all I was so desperate to be accepted that I lowered my standards, allowing men who had no business in my life to be there, for way longer than they should have been there. I am grateful that Jared came along and taught me what respect from a man really looks like.

I will never be one for proper boudoir photography. Seeing myself like that isn’t interesting to me. But this exercise has been a big lesson in learning to be kind to myself, and reminding myself that there is more strength in me than I give myself credit for.

This epitomized my empowerment session. I doubt it will ever live anywhere besides my external hard drive. But the photo exists, for me to see, when I need a few minutes to just remember exactly why my hips hurt late at night, and why my upper back hurts when I lie down first thing in the bed at night, and mostly it’s there for me to remember exactly how strong I really am and have been my whole life long.


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