There it was, staring right back at me. A version of myself I could hardly recognize, yet was purportedly none other than “me.” But it wasn’t, I tell you. That’s not what I really looked like. A blimp of a monstrosity crumpled into a chair. Someone must have set me up. Conspired to create all the wrong angles and lighting so that this was the false result. No one looks good slightly hunched over and from the side. I wasn’t ready. No one gave me a chance to prepare. To put my best “foot” forward. Oh if only it had been my foot that the waiter had snapped a picture of. Then at least I could have made a bit of money off it via some foot fetish outlet. But no, Aaron, as his name tag said, wanted to catch me and my body in a moment of all its non-glory. Yet I couldn’t fully blame Aaron for what was happening to me. Because it was Riley who orchestrated the group photo. A term and concept I had forgotten how much I hated in the years since the pandemic had prompted a social slowdown. Now, with everything back in “full swing” despite how none of us had truly dealt with our collective trauma, things like “group photos” were happening again. And it was quite literally destroying my image.
I’m not just talking about the one I have of myself, but the objective one as well. For what was presented in the photo taken by Aaron was a false construct of his own mind. It is said, after all, that people’s perception of you comes out in the photos they take of you. If that was the case, Aaron, for whatever reason, saw me as a fucking ogre (no offense to Shrek, or whatever). I don’t know what I ever did to him, apart from complain that the dessert I ordered—a banana split (we were dining at Mel’s, so I figured, why not take advantage?)—hadn’t arrived. That was only after a full twenty minutes had passed. Because, honestly, how fucking long does it take to slap some scoops of ice cream over a banana and douse it with whipped cream and chocolate syrup? Really? The answer, of course, is: roughly five minutes, tops. The truth was that Aaron had forgotten entirely about my order, possibly in his state of likely marijuana-induced highness. Something I couldn’t blame him for—unlike the way he rendered me in the group photo—as I would probably do the same if I was a server at Mel’s Diner.
The location had been selected by Alyssa, a Lana Del Rey-loving type who found the 50s endlessly “glamorous,” easy to romanticize. It took all my will not to show her the multiple episodes of I Love Lucy where Ricky freely spanks Lucy for “misbehaving.” So “glamorous” indeed, that time period of flagrant female oppression. But anyway, she had a thing for the past, and Mel’s, despite its ersatz décor, somehow accommodated Alyssa’s enthusiasm for it. She also invited Fiona and Dylan (the requisite gay man of the all-girl crew, which is why it was fitting that his name could go both ways). That made for a total of five including me, Riley, Alyssa, Fiona and Dylan. Since I thought this was a low-grade outing—it was Mel’s for fuck’s sake, I can’t reiterate that enough—I put in minimal effort to my look. I wore a past-the-knee-length skirt and a long-sleeve shirt with black and white horizontal stripes (what some might call part of “the French uniform”). Perhaps if I had accessorized with better shoes (instead of some beat-up old Converse) and maybe a hat (but not a beret), the result would have come across as chicer, less dowdy. And maybe I wouldn’t have looked as hideous in the offending photo. The one that Riley insisted upon.
I must have taken full leave of my senses in the moments leading up to and during it, for I remember being so willing to go along with the vain exercise in “proving friendship.” Like I was cocksure of how fucking good I looked. And, not to beep my own horn, but beep fucking beep. Because I have what’s colloquially referred to as a “bodacious bod” and a non-plainface to match. But that bodaciousness did not translate in this photo. Instead, I just looked fat. Full-stop. A heap of flesh piling onto itself. How could Aaron do me so wrong? Probably because he was white. White men never appreciate women with curves. They’re always fundamentally in search of a stick figure. A surfboard body. Try as they might to deny it, it’s probably part of their latent homosexuality—searching for another boyish husk to pump. But whatever, the point was, I had an erroneous sense of self-confidence, trusting in Aaron to see me the same way I saw myself—the same way I thought most people saw me. I had never worked very hard to curate my own image in the photos I took of myself, after all. Surely that must have meant something…a.k.a. that I was “hot.” But Aaron had me questioning everything after he handed Riley’s phone back to her, and we all caught a glimpse of the result. It wasn’t until she had posted it on social media against my will (the little bitch) that I could dissect with further intricacy, in the privacy of my own home, just how misshapen I appeared. But it looked so authentic that I had to keep going back to the mirror in my hallway to study myself against the thing in the photo.
The mirror reflected a different image than what the picture did. And what all the other photos of me did. So which was the truth? What Aaron had seen in a one-off moment of not caring at all about how to “make us look” (by the way, everyone else looked good except moi) or what I had seen repeatedly through my own “curations”? But I wasn’t the only one who had taken these far superior photos in my possession. Those from the friend group, family members, other random employees at various establishments—they, too, had all seen what I thought was real based on the pictures they took of me. Yet Aaron, with one nonchalant click of a button, had called my entire existence into question. Who was I, really? Had he turned me into this distorted beast for real now? Was this all I would be able to see every time I looked at a new image of myself? Forever flashing back to the snapshot of the person I might truly be? In other words, can you become the photo you hate? Especially if you can never get the image of your so-called doppelgänger out of your head. That gross, fat heap in the picture was all I could see at present. Even when I knew that there was patently another girl looking back at me in the mirror.
In effect, I rued the day I had ever agreed to go to Mel’s, to order a banana split and to get a group photo taken within that context. For it would perpetually have me asking what was real: the fat girl who ate banana splits at Mel’s or the curvaceous queen who thought she had been posting thirst traps this whole time that actually turned out to be pathetic bids for validation. Perhaps my “personage” lies somewhere in between. I would probably never know for sure…people were so scared to tell the truth with words nowadays. Which is why I couldn’t stop wondering if Aaron had unwittingly conveyed verity with his “photographer’s eye.”
Eventually, I became so paranoid about pictures of me being taken without my ability to control them that I wouldn’t even leave the house (oh, the joys of remote work that didn’t require any Zoom meetings). Some might call that a symptom of body dysmorphia, I just call it practical.