On Shorts and Selfies: A Reflection on Visual Culture

On Sunday I went to Target and bought two pairs of shorts.

This seems like a mundane event, but it sparked a realization (revelation?) that I have lingered on/steeped in for days. It seemed an ordinary enough set of circumstances: it had become painfully, oppressively hot on my Midwestern plain of existence, and the thought of wearing any clothing that would induce even more sweating was intolerable. So when I happened upon a sale at Target (BOGO), I took advantage of it. I not only bought the shorts, but I went home and immediately put them on, wearing them around my house AND to church that evening for the first session of vacation Bible school (that’s right: I even braved the judgement of my favorite old church ladies, and if that isn’t courage, I don’t know what is).

I haven’t worn shorts in years. I’ve always had long legs and most shorts are frankly too revealing of my overall body mass to be comfortable and appropriate for public viewing. I’ve also gained weight during my doctoral studies (giving birth to a child and a book in four short years), and as a few clusters of unsightly veins have joined the curse that is cellulite, I have officially become the proud owner of mom legs.

But–and this is perhaps what is most astounding–for the first time in my adult life I simply didn’t care. It was hot. I bought and wore shorts.

And truthfully, because I was comfortable, I was happier, and because I was happier, I was certainly more attractive than if I had refused common sense in favor of an adherence to the ever changing rules of female fashion.

The next day, I wore the other pair of shorts and again felt more comfortable in the summer heat than I had in recent memory. I was frankly proud of myself–I was choosing my own comfort over the vanity of the age. But then of course it had to happen: I was “asked” to take a photo for a project, and thus had to visually confront what I had bodily enjoyed. And that brought me to another realization (revelation?): one of the core problems that stems from the proliferation of cameras (from smart phones to high tech paparazzi black boxes) is that one can never be off the universal photo map. Because everyone has and uses a camera, everyone is constantly pressured to be “on”–we are living in family portrait hell 24/7.

Both events–the buying/wearing of the shorts and the project photo–have led me to see and treat my identity differently. I’m 30 and I am thankful to have a healthy, functioning body, and I’m going to be kind to that body, including clothing it with an emphasis on comfort. I’m also not forced to be part of this photo-crazed culture, even though it may seem that way. As a woman of my time, place, and background, I never want to be a “party pooper” or have a bad attitude, and I have learned that saying no to being in a photo makes you a stick in the mud who is only out to frustrate the good times of others. However, what I want and how I feel actually DO matter, and if on a given day I don’t want to be in a photo, that’s okay. No excuses. No explanations.

In short, after 30 year of attempting to play along with the rules of polite and proper womanhood, including not offending the eyes of others through revealing varicose, cellulite-rich legs or making others unhappy through a refusal to be in multiple photos every day of my life no matter how I feel or what the circumstances are, I’m beginning to play for me. Because–and this is key–when I am physically, socially, mentally, etc uncomfortable due to actual bodily discomfort or an attempt to silence my true wants and personality, I am simply no good for anyone else. Instead I am aggressive, prone to lash out at others because of my own discomfort.

The lesson has become that it is truly better to be off-putting for a moment (“Nah. I’ll take a picture of you instead, or meet up with you later; or, “God, I love these shorts. Denim be damned”) and then resume authentic living and kindness, than continue to stuff, shape, and silence ourselves into conformity and the misery that accompanies it.

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