So, I’ve been doing this interview. They’re about ready to post it so, understandably enough, the interviewer asks for a head shot. Cue the panic.
I… I’m not so good with pictures. I love taking them, love seeing pictures of other folks, but when I’m in front of the lens… it’s not good times. I often tell folks, only half-joking, that I believe cameras steal souls. Not the whole thing at once, of course. (Of course!) Just slivers and shards, which grow back in time, or chips and chunks, which maybe don’t. When you tell it right, people don’t pry for details, don’t get upset and bully you into the shot, don’t tease with that dagger in your ribs all “friends” here, don’t chastise for ruining their fun; they know it’s a joke (they know it’s not a joke). But only when you tell it right.
But they do. Steal souls, I mean. If you’re ever in doubt, just hold a camera up to my face. Watch the eyes dull, the jaw slacken, rosy cheeks go sallow, the breathing still— not stop, stopping is abrupt, rupture is resistance, and resistance is a lifewell. Just still like an unused balloon discarded on the floor, no impending movement, no impeding movement. Deflated ragdoll corpse. Might as well take the fucking picture now. The soul has already gone. You better get what I paid for.
For the longest time I never quite knew why I hated pictures. By which I mean: I knew. In that way the body knows what the mind can’t admit.
There’s the family gatherings, the unending demand for circus performance. Stand up tall next to angry father! Show your smile with abusive mother! Oh you can stand closer than that! Ooh, ooh, hug your rapist! Yeah, like that, let’s see an embrace! Now for the group shot! And the solo shots! Did we get the pairs? Let’s do another set, why not! Now with Aunt Judy’s camera! Wait no, we forgot the hallway shots, gotta do them all over again! A soulless enumeration of all possible positions, like much of Marquis de Sade. Rolls and rolls of film, back when film was a thing. Like cellulose can replace the real family with something else. The day the first in our family bought a digital camera I cursed their invention, cursed the ever-hungry void of their unending memory. But no, that’s not where it started. That’s just the acid in an already raw wound.
I’d always supposed it started with mental illness. Danielle Vintschger talks about mental illness as becoming invisible, symptoms as a way of demanding to be seen. Her article resonates strongly within me, though I find her own in/visibility skewed at queer angles to mine. Growing up in that family, the last thing you want is to be visible. Being visible means being a target. The only way to survive an abusive childhood is by learning to become invisible. Pictures are dangerous. Pictures get you noticed. Pictures risk letting out the demon of truth you hide inside your flesh. Pictures risk showing something real. The most dangerous thing in a toxic environment is to expose anything real. The real is where you keep what’s sacred to you; and anything you value is a vector of attack. You must remain phlegmatically disinterested in all things. As soon as someone guesses what’s important to you they’ll break it. They will destroy it piece by piece, in front of you to make sure you watch, to make sure whenever you think of that shredded joy you think of them and their victory over you. But not just joy, any weakness any illness you must also hide. Muffle your tears into a pillow. Cut where it can’t be seen. When you have to break down, dissociate, divorce from reality, do it somewhere else, somewhere you can leave the body safe in your absence, somewhere noone can see those disquiet moments when you leave and when you return. Never leave pictures, pictures are evidence, and all evidence will be used against you.
There’s something else too besides visibility, something evil in pictures, some contagion that leaks out and seeps in through your eyes. Muslims know this. Or perhaps the evil is already inside you, and the image merely beckons it to surface. Wherever it is, you instinctually know you must not look. But you can’t keep others from looking, so the evil gets in them. It wasn’t until a couple years ago I began to question. Maybe my problem with pictures wasn’t only from mental illness. I only began to question because I began to look.
The evil lives not just in photographs but also in mirrors. It started slowly, unintentionally, out of the corner of my eye a glimpse. You can go thirty years without looking in a mirror. Shaving, brushing your teeth or hair, you never need the mirror. At most you only ever need parts not whole, like a masseuse uncovering singular limbs to avoid seeing the body. You notice the reflection because you can’t remember the last time you saw one. Did you know bathrooms contain mirrors? The first few glimpses you turn away, pretend not to see. But it’s startling, this other person in that tiny room with you. They seem to be ignoring you too, so that’s good. In time you make peace with your bathroom double. Some days you sit with them, both not looking, becoming used to the presence. Other days it’s easier: you each go about your business, not talking but knowing how to stay out of the other’s way. Until one day you forget the rules, you turn to talk and see… someone else. She’s a girl, your bathroom double. Kinda cute, you never expected that. How strange. You could’ve sworn she’d have a different face. Something more masculine, something more hideous. As if on cue her face begins to droop and swirl, bits melting into other bits, all come undone. You look away before it’s too late. The next few days she isn’t there. You kinda feel lonely, but also kinda feel relief. Eventually she comes back, in furtive glimpses. When she seems calmer, you sit silent with her, apologizing without words. The second time, you ask before you look. Over years —and it does take years— you build a tentative trust. You can look at her now. You’re not sure where the evil went, but you no longer need to hide from mirrors. You’re not sure anything requiring such powerful trust can ever be called “safe”, but maybe safe is something you can build.
It all makes sense now. Of course my hatred of photos is all tied up in dysphoria. (Of course!) But as I said: the body knows how to hide the things your mind can’t admit. Like it hid all those mirrors I never noticed.
Yes, I came to terms with being trans years upon years ago. But acceptance does not cure dysphoria. The longer I accepted being trans the deeper my dysphoria got, until the day I started correcting the hormone imbalance destroying my body and mind. The dysthymia and depression lifted immediately, but the longer-term psychological damage takes more time to recover. I was on HRT a year and a half, or so, before I started catching those first mirror glimpses. At three, I can look without the image going all melty. Sometimes, (sometimes,) I can look at photographs and not see the hideous thing I grew up with. Sometimes, (sometimes,) I think maybe pictures don’t always have to lie.
It is a mental illness this dysmorphia, this problem with reflections, this inability to see the self as others see it. It’s a hallmark of schizophrenia, the fear of portals consuming souls, the fear of what dangerous things lie beyond the looking glass. But it’s not just the schizoid, it also shows up in anxiety. My wife sometimes has problems with windows at night, they reflect you see. But it also shows up with eating disorders. But it also shows up with so many things. Which is why I cite Islam. The justification for the interdiction against images of humans is avoidance of idolatry, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s some other reason, something more they know. Islam also requires the immediate disposal of hair and fingernail trimmings; things which are uncanny, things which disturb and disgust when encountered unexpectedly.
The dysmorphia goes beyond dysphoria; which is to say, it’s not just being trans. I follow plenty of trans ladies who post the most gorgeous selfies. And while I do not know their minds, many post without comment so I can’t help but to think they do not suffer the same demons. But then, many others do post with comment. Selfies can be a form of radical self-love, an act of reclaiming the body that has been denied us so long, an act of resistance against the perpetual bombardment of messages telling us we’re ugly, telling us we’re not good enough, telling us we don’t have the right kind of shape. This need for self-love is not just for trans women, but also black women, but also disabled women, but also all women.
Sometimes I think, “I want this love. I deserve this love.” Then the world reminds me: pictures are dangerous. Living as a woman online is dangerous; especially as an outspoken woman, a difficult woman, a challenging woman. Clades like GG and 4chan seek out women like me for destruction. Pictures are evidence and all evidence will be used against you. I’ve spent my whole life trying to break away from my family, from the invisibility they instilled in me, from the perpetual need to annihilate the self. I need this love, but I know not where to find it. Taking pictures at all is hard enough, the idea of sharing them fills me with terror. I’ve spent my whole life breaking away from how others see my body. My whole life breaking away from the pain that body caused my mind. I know not how to love the body. Know not how to see the body as more than mere possession, how to see the body as the very self. Growing up I was taught the greatest sin is the love of self. And though I’ve discarded Christianity, it’s much harder to discard their commandment to hate thyself.
Sometimes I think, “I need this love.” But how does one overcome the terror?