A few years ago I was going through a weird time in my life. I had quit drinking and was coming to grips with the fact that by rejecting everything alcohol-related, I had essentially stomped out my own identity over a few short months, leaving me with little to no sense of self. At the time this was terrifying, but of course hindsight being what it is, I see now just what a gift it was. In a lot of ways I was working with a blank slate, so I did exactly what one might be expected to do: I started trying on new identities and making attempts to create a version of myself that was as far removed from the old one as I could manage.
The result was a string of attempts to sort out my values through trial and error that spanned at least two years. I tried out Super Formal Business Vanessa (or, as I like to remember her, Pencil Skirt Vanessa), Tabletop Gamer Vanessa (SO FUN), Student Vanessa, Forced Humility Vanessa, and Socially Conscious Vanessa, to name a few. It was a strange, super interesting, and difficult period of growth and self discovery in my life that I feel so grateful to have gone through.
Bits and pieces from almost every persona I tried on have endured in the long term (the best bits, I hope). I’ve retained the drive for constant improvement and steady growth in my career; the appreciation of a good board game; a love of learning and hunger to continue furthering my education; and a deep desire to act and work in ways that contribute positively to the world around me. The one stage I went through that I have come to reject almost completely, though, is the period of forced humility. There was a span of what I think was about six months when I questioned my ability to be fully committed to philanthropic values while still concerning myself with what I considered at the time to be shallow pursuits like wearing makeup and taking selfies. I decided to stop wearing makeup completely and swore off selfies as well, hoping this would somehow make me a better, more committed person (sounds a bit like the martyr syndrome I’m constantly railing against in the nonprofit sector, doesn't it?). The result was a bare-faced Vanessa whose existence is not particularly well-documented because it turns out that taking selfies is actually a pretty darn good way of preserving moments in our lives for future review and reflection. Who knew?
Something I find interesting in looking back on that time - and also something that in retrospect should have tipped me off that the rules I was imposing on myself weren’t really in line with my deeper values - was that I didn’t apply the reasoning that I was forcing on myself to other people. In my mind, if I posted a selfie or spent time doing my makeup in the morning I was being vain, but if someone else did I understood that they could have any one of a million motivations for doing so and there was no reason to judge.
It was all a bit extreme, but I did come out of that period of my life with a new appreciation for my naked face and an understanding that I don’t need to feel obligated to wear makeup or look pretty every day (but if I want to do so that’s totally OK). I developed a firm belief that everyone should be free to dress and otherwise adorn themselves in a way that they enjoy and feel comfortable with on any given day - myself included.
These days I’m a big fan of selfies, particularly the outfit-of-the-day (OOTD) Instagram variety because they give me an outlet to share something that I really enjoy - pulling together outfits from mostly thrifted clothes - without feeling like I need to go through a full-on photoshoot or write a whole blog post just to share a look I like. I love scrolling through other people’s posts and borrowing ideas, or just reading the little tidbits they share about their lives in the caption. It’s a fun, easy way to add a little bit of creativity to my day while also creating a digital archive of outfits that I can look back on for those days when I just don’t know what to wear.
Another thing I love about selfies is they have helped me develop a stronger awareness of what I actually look like. I struggled with disordered eating when I was young and into my early 20s and have only in the past few years really started to develop strong, healthy habits around how I think about food, my body, and overall wellness. I’ve lived in a body that was unhealthy, uncomfortably overweight, and stricken with addiction. I’ve also lived in a body that was “skinny-fat” from yo-yo dieting and haunted by a skewed self image. These days I live in a body that is healthy, capable, thrives on daily exercise, and feels comfortable to live in. I’m always working on developing more healthy habits and have strength and wellness goals the same as most other people I know, but I no longer dislike or feel dissatisfied with my body. Part of that is recovering from addiction and healing myself in the aftermath, part of it is getting older and becoming more accepting of myself and others in general, and part of it, I think, is taking and seeing photos of myself that confirm that I’m no longer that sad, depressed, alcohol-dependent version of myself. That’s a powerful and important affirmation for me, and I’m willing to accept all the risk of vanity that comes with it.