I spent most of Saturday working on a self-portrait in my sketchbook because it was too cold to leave the house. I posted it on my Instagram story and got a DM that has been rolling around in my head. My friend Maggie messaged me to say that her wife, a therapist, said it looked “EXACTLY” like me. “This is a woman with zero dysmorphia.”
Immediately, I’m joking to myself about how I’ve tricked another therapist, this time, one I’ve not even paid (which yes, I know is not unique enough to be that funny or that pitiful.) But the thing is, of course I have dysmorphia. I came of age with a screen in front of my face, sometimes two. No, I do not really know what my face looks like. But I do agree that this particular self portrait does really capture my likeness, which is not as true of previous attempts.
If you don’t paint or draw, what happens is that once you’ve warmed up, your eyes kind of adjust to the subject and you stop looking at a face and seeing a face, but rather its components. Not eyes, nose, lips, but colors and shapes in relation to one another. When you’re looking at shapes and colors instead of features, it’s a lot easier to deliver a somewhat true picture. Like, I won’t feel emotional about a narrow blob that’s a slightly greenish beige as I do about the shape of my neck or the size of my upper lip or my brow bone or whatever else I choose to fixate on. I actually think doing a self portrait is a great way to challenge dysmorphia because the only way to get it right is if your features, even your less favorite ones, are correctly represented. But that’s a separate point.
I’m really interested in what this can look like in writing. It’s a lot harder to get away with projecting wishes onto a visual portrait because it will look bad. It’s a lot easier to get away with it in writing, but I think it’s what separates good stories from generation-defining ones. At the same time, it’s a lot harder to abstract components of a person into meaningless colors and shapes when you’re building a story.
Everyone talks about Lena Dunham’s Girls, how it’s so good and so interior, and despite the shenanigans, so lifelike. Dunham is a master at portrait-like characters who feel like people you’ve interacted with and therefore can understand, from throwaway, mundane lines of self-aggrandizement to serious, personality-shaping moments of jealousy and losing. It’s why she’s a legend, despite being so widely disliked. Writers, me too, are often writing, hoping to impart to the reader what we want them to feel, sometimes if you can pull it off, what we want them to feel about us. That’s a magic trick too, a good one to get right, but if you’re a writer, it’s easy to want to take all your shame and insecurity and shove them into the trap door. An audience can clock it, especially the more they care about you. The main characters of the novels, the narrator voices in the essays, the girls in the paintings are so often cartoonishly sharp-chinned and doe-eyed, like Pixar characters more than real people. And if that’s the point, okay! Sometimes it is. But there’s no honoring the hard-earned lessons this life has taught you if they only happen to protagonists who are glossy and quippy and just adorably tortured, but have no unshakeable shame, no guilt, no jealousy, no capacity for wrong, and no dislikable qualities. I’m always writing with the goal of creating a picture that represents my point of view correctly, but it’s hard to do that when I’m obstructing view of the cringe and ugly stuff.
I think it’s possible that people may misunderstand self-portraiture to be narcissistic. I would say that getting it right is actually a remarkable act of vulnerability. Like, yeah you have to give care and attention even the parts about you that you’re embarrassed about because it’s way more embarrassing to do a self portrait that looks off, and your only option to avoid the feeling all together is to never put out a thing. Still, there are worse things than showing people unflattering things about you, such as never letting them know you at all.