I’m so uncomfortable with candid photographs of myself that appear online. They actually sometimes make me physically recoil. The little voices rise up, the ones I’m embarrassed to have and to share: I look strange to myself. Why is my lip doing that, so much of my gums are visible! The shape of my nose/cheek/chin/belly/hand/shoulder is weird. I look weird. Not totally human somehow.
I’m a solid feminist, and I know it's all BS -- so I stand before the image and battle with my feelings.
I know we are all just fine, all beautiful, in our own unique way. “And I am too,” I whisper.
We are all worthy, we are all whole, we are all wholly human: so what's happening here?
I start this post with these personal moments, because of how common this experience is to those in my world and in my community of business builders who are making images to market our brands.
Almost everyone I am close to reports similar discomfort with our own images, whether candid or posed.
I know that a large part of it is about our relation to the “norm” - that giant, specific, cumulative visual narrative, informed by layers of oppression in an economic system that is driven by marketing that manipulates our fears, relies on our awareness of ourselves as packaged objects in a consumer culture, triggers our survival instincts in a system that uses specific but arbitrary physical attributes and conditions as an excuse to separate, oppress, discriminate, assign worth.
John Berger, the art historian and writer, describes the situation in these terms, while discussing the impacts of male domination in society on women’s self perception:
"A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.
And so she comes to consider the *surveyor* and the *surveyed* within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman."
When I see a photo of myself, the surveyor in me as activated. The surveyed in me gazes back.
The eye of the culture, of the “norm,” informed by the billions of images I have seen in my life that comprise this mythical “norm” - is inside of me, looking at me. I am, in that moment, divided from myself. Berger again:
"One might simplify this by saying: *men act* and *women appear.* Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object - and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."
What Berger is describing here is what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey coined as the male gaze. Similar dynamics are at play in every case of oppression and culture: the colonial gaze. The white gaze. The oppressive gaze objectifies, and “others” the one being seen. The one being seen then sees themselves...as other, and object.
We all carry the surveyor, and the surveyed, within.
And this is a big reason why it’s complicated for us to feel comfortable with selfies.
Especially when we are using our images to sell - our message, our brand, our work. We are participating on our own packaging: the positioning of our value for the market.
For many of us, the conflicted emotions and even contrasting belief systems inside of us leave us only this: to either attempt to conform to the “norm” and find acceptance there, to whatever degree is possible (depending on our privilege in the matrix of identities and oppressions), or to avoid the thicket altogether and be invisible.
Conform, or disappear. Those are the default options. ANd they are both devastating for your business and brand (not to mention the culture at large).
I’ve got some alternatives, and I offer them all in my business. But since I started personal, I am going to talk about the one that I personally use here. The one that suits me best.
Here’s my new default option:
To perform my identities and realities. The method: PLAY.
I see my branding photographs as both a place to be the business owner I am and to be “in drag” as a business owner: suit, tie, and cardboard briefcase included.
A child playing dress-ups with the world is, in a very real way, a cultural agent. The cultural forms around her (the stories, movies, packages, songs, picture books, toys) become raw material. She is the producer of her identity and her story. She is the one with agency. She is both a princess and an astronaut. She is a teacher, a horse, a nice doctor and a mean cat. All of these identities and characters are parts of her being expressed through story and metaphor.
That's what we do, from a very young age. We relate to culture, we understand our lives, and we learn the world: through story, imagination, fiction, poetry, play. We relate to the world as flexible, creative authors of our story.
When we are children we know this: we contain multitudes.
The reality of our imagination IS the reality of our existence. We know we each have inside of us a rock star and a nerd. A mystic and a clown. We are small and delicate, we are epic and unstoppable.
Rather than see performance and dressing-up (in all its forms) as some kind of contradiction to the idea of authenticity in our business communications, why not recognize that we are more vast, more complex, more genius and beautiful than one photo of us with our laptop on the beach can ever show?
Performance, drag, dressups, composing, posing and constructing - these are all the tools of the artist and visionary, using multiple languages to express the complexity and emotional range of their visions.
When we take the tools of world making and culture building into our own hands and play --
When we recognize that while we may be the faces of our brands, we are not branded, our identities are not fixed --
We recognize ourselves as the authors of our lives and our images.
We replace surveyed and surveyor with CREATOR.
Your own unique genius, your unlimited creativity is what is most authentic to you.
So go play dress-ups!
Yours in re-imagining reality,
This post and all writings on this site are copyright Amy Walsh 2017.