self portrait assignments invite ridicule and identity confusion

My mother likes to tell the story of how my sister, who is mixed but way, way güera, was assigned in elementary school to do a self portrait and colored herself with dark brown crayons, because the children she was friends with were brown, so she assumed she was, too. I like to not think about every time I’ve bought makeup and either bought it way too light because I tend to forget I’m not white, or I’ve bought it too dark because I go, “Oh, wait, I’m black,” but I forget that actually my skin is not the darkest of dark.

Backtrack. Yesterday I found this graphic narrative at Sadie magazine, and while it’s really not about this subject at all, it does bring up an episode from a Babysitters Club book in which Claudia recalls being assigned a self portrait and not knowing what the phrase means. So she draws herself as a colorful butterfly, because that’s how she sees herself, and she gets ridiculed by her teacher and classmates for it.

Aside from the fact that I don’t think real teachers would do that (i.e. my sister’s teacher told my mom because she thought it was adorable/hilarious/better than just looking into a mirror/sociologically interesting, not because she thought my sister was an idiot), remembering that book made me think of how it’s nearly exactly like Molly’s Pilgrim. If you haven’t read that book, by Barbara Cohen, you need to get on that shit, and please excuse the fact that they recently reissued the book with new illustrations that are awful (so look for an old copy or go to your library, please). Molly, a Jewish immigrant whose family left Russia because the Cossacks were, you know, not so great, is given a Thanksgiving assignment to make a Pilgrim doll and bring it into school. Her mother makes the doll for her (because it’s totes cool for moms to do your homework–no lie, when we made a quilt in eighth grade, my formerly-a-seamstress mother was so ashamed of my sewing that she redid my entire square for me), and when Molly wakes up the next morning, she is horrified to find that instead of a little Puritan lady in all black, her mother has made a doll with a babushka who looks like Molly’s mother. Molly is embarrassed, but she has no choice but to bring it to school, and as her mother understands it, if Pilgrims are people who moved to America to avoid persecution and practice their religion in peace, then she herself is a Pilgrim.

Genius, right? Anyway, it’s one of the best books ever, and now I’m extra super glad that I have the real edition of the book, which, by the way, looks like this if you have the first edition (right) or like this if you have the later edition (which still has the same illustrator, just a different cover; left).

I always hated doing self portraits, and I still do, and it’s not just because I suck at drawing. It’s also because I have huge issues with how I look, and it goes way beyond simple ideas of beauty, and even beyond more complex sociopolitical issues of beauty standards. It’s because how I look is really, really confusing. I honestly can’t say that I have ever matched what I think I look like in my head with how I look in the mirror, even though I look in the mirror daily, though probably not excessively. My skin tone changes throughout the year depending on my sun exposure, and it’s to a shocking degree. Right now there is a five or so tone difference between my thighs and calves, and that’s about a month and a half after the tanning incident that led to it, meaning that there was more of a disparity then. So I can never count on my skin looking like I expect. I also tend to be clumsy and bruise myself or cut myself and forget, so that when I do actually look in the mirror thoughtfully, instead of just to brush my teeth, I will often find scars and bruises that I can’t place.

Also, though, I am a minority, in many senses of the word. That’s something I have in common with both Claudia Kishi and Molly, and I’m willing to bet other American PoC, especially women, have similar experiences of not being able to reconcile their appearances with their sense of the world around them, and it’s in a way that’s almost divorced from self esteem or ideas of beauty; it’s just a sort of forgetfulness that comes with assimilation, even if you don’t think you’re assimilating.

So much as I think people like Kjerstin Gruys are interesting, I know I would never be able to go without mirrors. Not only do I not want to or need to, but I also think it might be rather dangerous for me as a woman of color to forget what the world sees when she goes outside. It’s only the past year or so that I’ve been more aware of the fact that my sarcastic, often-angry personality and demeanor probably don’t make me seem quirky and interesting so much as they make me yet another ANGRYBLACKWOMAN. Self portraits might be terrifying and confusing, but they’re also a necessary tool for living in a white world.

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4 thoughts on “self portrait assignments invite ridicule and identity confusion

  1. I really appreciate what you’ve mentioned about sort of needing the mirror to help reconcile the way you think of yourself on a daily basis and the way the world views you. I have found that this idea is difficult to articulate…difficult to explain in words that sufficiently express that while I do have a strong sense of cultural pride, I also have the need to view myself in terms outside of race. I don’t know…maybe I’m saying something totally different than you are…either way, I appreciate your words and could connect to the sentiments expressed in your writing. Thank you for sharing!

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