The Photo Not Taken

A beautifully reflective essay from Dara Chadwick at You’d Be So Pretty If… 

"When my daughter and I appeared on NBC’s TODAY Show recently to talk about moms, daughters and body image, the producer asked me to bring along some family photos of my mom and me.

“Sure,” I told her. “I’d be happy to.”

I didn’t spend a lot of time searching through boxes of old pictures for a good one. I simply lined up the five pictures I have of the two of us together and grabbed what I thought was the best one. No, your eyes don’t deceive you: I have five photos of my mother and me together.

See, my mother hated being photographed because she didn’t like the way she looked. She’d turn her head away anytime she saw a camera pointed at her. In my book, You’d Be So Pretty If…: Teaching Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies – Even When We Don’t Love Our Own, I wrote about the time I tried to get my mother to sit with my then seven-year-old daughter and I for a portrait at a year-end Girl Scout mother-daughter breakfast. No matter how I pleaded – and believe me, I tried – she refused, so the picture is of just my daughter and me. Three months later, when Girl Scout meetings started up again and the leader handed me the photo taken that day, my mother was gone. She’d died just weeks earlier from complications after a surgery.

Every time I look at that photo, all I can see is what isn’t there – and I’ll always wonder why. What was it that she saw when she looked in the mirror? What ‘flaws’ did she think photographs of her revealed? She was smart and funny and all my friends thought she was the cool mom. I thought she had pretty dark eyes and a great smile. Yet I never remember a time when she wasn’t the first to crack a joke at her own expense or brush off a compliment. 

Over time, as I began to look more like her, I found myself picking up those same behaviors. Jokes about the size of my behind came really easily to me and if someone told me I looked good? Well, obviously they were just saying that. But one day, I started to pay attention to the look on my daughter’s face when I said those things. Though we never really talked about it, I thought I recognized the same hurt I used to feel when my mom would say mean things about the way she looked.

These days, I don’t need a photo to remember my mother. When I want to see her, I head for my mirror. I don’t look exactly like she did; some of my features are different and I’m shorter than she was. But if I tilt my head a certain way, all of a sudden there she is. Those pretty dark eyes I remember stare back from my own face and I see her smile in my own. It makes me happy.

Sometimes, I catch my daughter watching me put on make-up or looking at my own reflection. “I love your hair, mom,” she’ll tell me. “It’s so pretty.” Or she’ll see me walk out of my bedroom, just dressed for the day, and say, “You look so nice, Mom.”

These are the turning-point moments. Though my first instinct at times might be to deflect her heart-felt compliments, I’ve learned to just say, “Thanks.” Who am I to tell her she doesn’t know what beauty looks like?

And as for the cameras? Bring ‘em on. I’ll gladly say cheese."

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