I’m a Body Liberationist, So Why Do I Avoid Cameras Every Summer?

Well + Good Creative | Top Middle: Don Calva | Top Right: Melissa Lozada-Oliva
There are a lot of ways that an essay like this could begin. I could explain the way my year crests: a June birthday, swimsuit season stress, and the slow return to full-body coverage comfort that cold weather awards. Then May arrives again, and I worry about events that mean swimsuits, pictures, and sweat.

I could compare my life to the scene in Back To The Future when Marty McFly's mom vanishes from a family photo, leaving only space where she once stood. I could say I fade from photos like Mrs. McFly, but the truth is I'm never in them. When friends gather for a photo at the beach, leaning close and flanked by waves, I conveniently slip away to refill my drink. 

I could also start this essay by posing an age-old question. What came first: the proverbial "chicken" (I don't like my picture taken) or the "egg" (I don't always like myself)?

Last Christmas, my parents moved out of my childhood home, so I returned to wade through family flotsam. Remnants of my life—and their lives before my brother and me—pooled on countertops and spilled from open closet doors. Rooms were awash with frayed school folders, stacks of diaries and karate belts of varying colors. A five-foot paper maché Tutankhaman I made in third grade sat buried beneath abandoned Christmas decor.

In the basement, I discovered a sky-blue plastic box, heavy with photos from 1930 to 1990: I spied a picture of my laughing gray-haired grandmother, opening a screen door, with a hand placed over her heart. In another one, she's younger and standing on a seawall. She wears slacks, and her thick hair is curled and pinned. She sports cat-eye sunglasses, dark lipstick, and a confident smile. Behind her, the cresting wave sends foam into the air, like confetti falling just for her. In another photo, she's sitting on the hood of an old car, hand on her head, mouth wide open, mid-laugh.

People have said my grandmother looked like Elizabeth Taylor, and before she died, I asked her about posing for pictures. "Lift your cheeks and your chin to the light," she said, demonstrating in her recliner, as a hospice nurse packed her bag. "It's about holding your head high and thinking, I'm the star."

I asked everyone to share photos of me: candid, posed, good, blurry or bad. Photos that I knew existed but hadn’t actually seen.

There are a lot of ways that an essay like this could begin. I could tell you about the empty Google Drive I sent to a dozen people: friends that I talk to every day and folks with whom I've long lost touch. I asked everyone to share photos of me: candid, posed, good, blurry or bad. Photos that I knew existed but hadn't actually seen. Why? When I occasionally consent to having my picture taken, I don't look at the result.

I am a fat-positive body liberationist who genuinely loves herself. I use my work to push back against fatphobia and bias. Still, if my smile isn't quite right or my angles aren't perfectly posed, that hot feeling of frustration bubbles up and makes my chest burn. Before I embraced my body, I fretted over pictures because of my weight. Now? My gender, my hair, my expression, my posture, and the lighting are go-to excuses.

Fat activist and author of Weightless, Maggie McGill speaks about accepting your fatness and being confident in photos. They've said to get comfortable with your body in pictures, you should experience yourself from many angles. Notice where your stomach folds. Explore where your chin softens. Examine the contours of your face (brows, cheeks, bone). This is a skill and a muscle. One I'm learning to strengthen.

Exploring a Google Drive wasn't like unearthing the bin in the basement. There were smears of smiles and splotchy chunks of life. In early-college photos, I'm small and feminine. I barely recognize myself. There are elementary school photos—neighborhood tomboy in cargo shorts—a "me" I remember well. There's a 15-year-old version of me, with straightened hair and an early aughts wardrobe, when I thought my desire for girls would ruin my life. (Plot twist: It saved me.) There were photos where I'm larger, butch, tattooed and stronger from weightlifting. In them, I'm older, a more calcified version of who I am—the person I'm meant to be.

It’s loving for someone to say, “Stop, right there. I want to remember the you that exists at this moment.”

In 2015, before I was open about being a lesbian and accepting my fatness, I read an essay by Ashley Ford. She opened up about how being loved by her boyfriend (current spouse), regardless of her weight, helped shift her self-perceptions. "I know real love makes room for you to love yourself the way you are, and the way you want to be," she wrote. Those words were revolutionary to me back then. I didn't have to remain small to be loved.

Later, I encountered Sarah Hollowell, who wrote about how she wasn't a 'little chubby' she was fat, and she still had a gorgeous, satisfying sex life. "My curves are not in all the right places, but they still bring men to their knees," she wrote. "This [is true], despite the fact that I have been told that because I am fat, I can't expect to be loved, desired, to have my body worshipped."

Ford and Hollowell gave me permission to stop shrinking. They helped me realize that I didn't need to be a thin, feminine girl to matter. I was evolving years ago, even if I didn't have pictures to prove it. The lack of photographic evidence isn't a tragedy, and the Google Drive didn't devastate me, but both made me realize I'm at my next fork in the road. It is time to, not only live my life as the fat dyke that I am, but to own it, savor it and see it.

My Google Drive has gaps: Spaces that highlight a decade of saying "now isn't the right time" or waiting for a more photogenic future where I'll be prettier, better, less … myself. The truth is I have a life worth remembering now. I deserve to look directly at the lens—despite the reasons I might not feel ready.

It's loving for someone to say, "Stop, right there. I want to remember the you that exists at this moment." It's pleasurable to comply: to slow down, smile and let yourself be seen. In the basement, I went through decades of my grandmother's life in minutes. Her photographs are a gift. 

There's still time to get more comfortable with photos and build a box of memories that someone I love may one day find. On a winter afternoon, they might find me singing karaoke on my 26th birthday—chin lifted to the light, hand on my heart, mid-laugh. They'll think, She was beautiful. So was her life. 

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “Every body is a beach body,” right? Still, navigating the summer can be challenging. This week, Well+Good is publishing All Bodies Are Beach Bodies—A Realistic Guide to Preparing for Summer to help you hold on to your confidence, embrace joyful movement, manage sweat, make meaningful memories, and find major swimsuit inspiration all summer long. 

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