Sunday, September 5, 2021

A Picture Is Worth 1,000 Lies

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but are any of them true? My experience with portrait photography is that at best, it captures the idealized image you have of yourself or your loved ones in your head; at worst, it's downright visual manipulation. Add social media to the mix and you've entered a world of highly cultivated bullshit.

That's a cynical preface to a post about maternity photos, I know. And yet, I went ahead with this third-trimester tradition anyway. Given how deeply ambivalent I've felt about this pregnancy since day one (OK, not that early; sometime around week six), I thought maybe getting a fresh perspective vis a vis a pro's camera would help stoke some excitement about my baby-on-the-way.

I did not go to the same photographer from my last round of maternity shots. She was too expensive and busy and honestly, I wanted this process to be as anonymous as possible. (Why, exactly, I'll get to in a moment.) So I booked one of the photography services where you choose a date, time, and location and are assigned a photographer at random. You get a 30-minute session with the photog for free, then only pay for the pictures you like.

"You're so small!" was the first thing my middle-aged and somewhat grizzled photographer said when we met up on a Sunday morning at a rose garden in Minneapolis. I've heard this refrain before and it always boggles my mind. If this is small, what do objectively "big" preggos feel like? Because I feel like a fucking whale and I still have 10 weeks to go until D Day.

"Thanks," I told her. "Though I don't feel small."

The shoot was rather uneventful. She walked me through the garden, stopping me along the way for some very awkward poses that I was sure would look ridiculous later. (A model, I am not.) I focused on not looking directly at the camera (anathema as far as I'm concerned) and tried not to appear too surly, though I felt anything but smiley.

Halfway through, she led me to her dusty, old sedan, popped the trunk, and showed me a couple of maternity dresses she'd brought along in case I wanted shots in something other than the skin-tight blue gown I'd bought off Amazon. One was a short, velvet purple frock that never should have left the '80s and the other was a regal, dark green number that I never would have chosen for myself but that she insisted would look great with my coloring. Feeling pressured to please her and accept this generosity, I opted for the latter. She popped a portable changing room upright, I made the swap, and she finished shooting.

The photo shoot triggered something in me. It felt so frivolous and vain. It did not make me feel more appreciative of my pregnant body or connected to the baby. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Like people who excessively photograph themselves being all gooey with their significant others (and force the rest of us to look at, if not "like" it), it reeked of desperation.

I'd put thoughts of adoption out of my mind, despite having met with the pregnancy counselor, filling out all the paperwork, and choosing and communicating with a potential adoptive family. Now, those thoughts about giving the baby up (or, as the current woke vernacular goes, "making an adoption plan") came rushing back. I wondered: Am I capable of parenting another child well? Do I want to parent another child? (According to the pregnancy counselor, not wanting to parent even if you are fully capable of doing so is a totally valid reason for making an adoption plan.) Is it wrong to bring another child into the world just to give our toddler a sibling, playmate, and lifelong companion? Am I meant to bestow the gift of a baby to a family who would be more enthusiastic about welcoming her? Is this story not one of me raising another baby but about giving one away? Is it, in fact, selfish of me to have four children when others have none? What does God want for everyone in this situation? Does God even give AF about me and my petty dilemmas anymore? 

I tried to stifle those questions throughout the week as I waited to see the maternity photos. When they arrived I was about as dis/satisfied as I expected to be. Out of 50 photos, only a few didn't make me cringe. It wasn't the photographer's fault; I am just merciless when it comes to judging myself. I nit-picked my way through the gallery. Too old. Too wrinkly. Too lumpy. Too frowny. Too veiny. I found something wrong with every image, even the ones I liked. Part of this was that the photography service doesn't do any editing (or so I thought). And part of it is probably just old-fashioned self-loathing.

After spending way too much time attempting (and failing) to Photoshop the images I purchased, I texted the photographer to see how much she'd charge for airbrushing. She said couldn't provide that service, contractually speaking, but that the company could. I inquired with the company and was given an estimate for editing, which I eagerly paid just so I would have something worth posting for my paltry social media following and to enlarge and frame on the nursery wall.

The pictures came back lightly airbrushed. My skin looked smoother but it was still me. My body was still my body. And my attitude still stunk. And yet, I posted the pics on Instagram and Facebook, just like all the other approval-hungry pregnant women out there. The whole process reminded me why I've cut way down on my social media use (I've only posted twice so far this year on my personal Instagram, and both times were unnecessarily fraught). The process makes me feel obsessive and unhappy and inferior. I doubt any of that comes across to the few people who bothered to scroll and "heart" these new maternity pics, though. To them, I likely appear feminine and elegant, blissed out and blessed. A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but in this case, they are lies.

I do not like how my body looks. I hate how it feels. There is nothing wondrous about being pregnant this time, despite all the effort that went into "achieving" this pregnancy and the fact that this is the last time I will ever be pregnant. I wish I felt differently, but I don't.

My hope is that a massive wave of relief and love will wash over me when the baby is born, that the positive emotions will be strong enough to erase the mental hell of this pregnancy and make me grateful that the baby is finally in the world and in my arms. My hope is that I will be freed from all this negativity, that the darkness of these nine months will seem like a psychological glitch, that I will return to a place of gratitude and contentment (happiness is far too lofty a goal for me, given my almost lifelong depression). My hope is that I will want this baby, ferociously.

That is the picture I try to paint in my mind. I just don't know if I believe it yet.

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