I never intended to share this picture. Taken hastily at an awkward angle by my brother who is a billion feet tall, it is a picture of two tired looking moms and two distracted kids. You can see the dark circles and puffy faces and very uncooperative cowlicks. When I first saw it, I noticed every single flaw. So I quickly filed it away on my phone. I did not want anyone to see it and judge me as lazy for not putting on make up or sleep training my baby or knowing how to take a good picture. No one would look at this picture and say “Wow, she is awesome. She’s got her life all figured out.”
But here is the truth about this picture. It is not physically or aesthetically beautiful. I know that. But I share this picture because I want to share my story, for you to know me better and I hope look past the appearance. The story beneath the surface of this picture is truly beautiful because it is full of beauty. This picture is of me and one of my very best friends.
When I was younger, I hated the idea of a best friend. It felt so exclusive and usually was intended to point out who was not your best friend. It meant girls at school with matching heart necklaces. I always wanted someone to give me one half of their heart necklaces. I always wanted to belong and be known. But when I say Lindsey is one of my best friends, it is not an exclusive title like it was in middle school. She is really the best at being a friend.
Lindsey and I met in 2002 on the steps of the Admissions building at UVA. I had heard of her because my parents knew her boyfriend. My mom told me that I would love her. My mom was right. Lindsey and I bonded quickly in our friendship and I loved that she was a no-drama kind of girl. She did not tolerate shallowness or self-indulgence— a rare treasure in the college girl world.
Lindsey and I have been friends for fifteen years. She was the friend Josh called for ideas and help when he was planning his proposal. She is the friend I text when my children are driving me crazy or I do not know which haircut I should get. She is the friend who welcomes me and my family to her house for an afternoon while we wait for a flight. She is the friend who tells me I need to be more loving towards my family.
This picture is also beautiful because of the stories of the babies in it. Lindsey’s son Ben was born in China and adopted into their family last year. It was a honor to hear Lindsey speak about Ben from the first day she saw him and knew he was her son. Having heard about each step of the long journey he had taken, watching this little boy from Inner Mongolia playing in my friend’s lap was nothing short of a miracle. Margot, my youngest, could also have been missing from this picture had miracles not occurred. During my delivery of her sister, Annie, I had complications that almost required a hysterectomy. If they had not been able to save my uterus, Margot would not have even been conceived. If things had worked out differently, this picture would never have been possible. But still, upon first glance, I wanted to hide it and never share it with anyone, let alone post it somewhere for everyone I know to see. And that made me wonder why my first reaction was to hide it away.
After long considering the purpose of social media, ultimately I came up with one word: connection. We long to be connected to one another and we have an insatiable, innate desire to be known and loved. This is not new. The mission statement at Instagram is all about storytelling. We love stories because we see ourselves and our loved ones in them. I read as much as I do because I want to know others and their stories. I want to know my own story. As William Nicholson said, “We read to know we are not alone.”
But if we are going to be known and loved, we have to be honest. It’s easy to share only the beautiful, the perfect, the organized but ultimately it is dishonest and not fair to those who see our pictures or posts or tweets. I know this whole issue of social media and transparency is one that matters more to me than to most people. I generally cannot tolerate spin or flattery. The more I get to know myself, I realize this is both a blessing and a curse. This drive for honesty makes it hard for me to participate in surface social interactions because I am not one to just say “Oh, I’m fine” or believe you when you say you are fine. I am awkward in social situations because of it. But this has made me study my online activity too.
Our aspirational lives on social media are having an effect on us as women and as a society. Studies have recently shown that young women are struggling with depression and anxiety at higher rates now than ever before. When I was in high school, Reviving Ophelia came out and drew my attention to advertising and its effect on adolescent girls. We saw the waifs of high fashion ad campaigns everywhere and studies showed that eating disorders rose while self esteem plummeted in our ranks. The same is true for teenage and even pre-teenage girls now only it’s more pervasive and more dangerous. Instead of seeing perfect bodies of supermodels in ads on billboards or magazines, teens and pre-teens are seeing us in our highly edited social media feeds. No longer is it just a celebrity inspiring ridiculous ideas about appearance, it is cousins, friends, mentors and mothers who are living seemingly perfect lives. If I as a 34 year old woman have trouble distinguishing between real life and the life presented on Instagram, I can only imagine what a thirteen year old is thinking.
When I had just had my daughter, Annie, I was in our yard when a young neighbor walked by. She stopped to say hi to us and looked at my stomach, still swollen from pregnancy. Her eyes stayed on my stomach as she said, “I thought that went away with the baby.” While I was a little hurt, I realized it was an opportunity. “No, not for awhile, if ever,” I replied. Later as I reflected on it, I realized that along with some of my disappointment in not having a perfectly flat stomach ever, let alone two weeks after delivering a baby, I also felt some hope. Maybe she will remember me when she has a baby and her stomach stays soft and wobbly. Maybe seeing someone accepting her body after a baby will lead her to love her own someday.
That is why I do not want to hide this picture anymore. I want younger women to know that when you have an infant, you might not look rested and alert. Your skin may be marked with hormonal acne or dark circles or age spots. Not sleeping has an effect on your appearance. Only a rare woman looks like a model the day after giving birth. If they do, they probably had on a lot of make up and did their hair. They used filters or good lighting. But young women will never know that unless we are honest about our lives. Our unfiltered lives are beautiful because they are full of beauty. Truth is beautiful because it allows us to connect over the joys of our lives and the disappointments. That is what I want my daughters to know and to see when they see these pictures. I want them to see the beauty of a fifteen year friendship, of a sacrifice of sleep, time and sanity.
We all have a chance to be who we needed when we were younger. For me, I needed to see that perfect hair and perfect skin and the right clothes and house and a photogenic family are not the end goal and striving to attain those things is just not worth the effort. I needed someone to tell me that happiness is not found in perfection but in the joy of being known and loved. Social media allows us to connect with one another in new and interesting ways. We are able to see everyday and special moments in our friends lives. I stay in touch with friends from miles away, around the world. But if we are only presenting our filtered lives, we are not really known and therefore, cannot really be loved. I think in our quest for love we settle for admiration and there is a much richer life to be had.
The beauty of this picture is that the woman standing next to me knows me, listens to my real life frustrations and excitements. That is worth sharing and that is worth celebrating. It is a gift worth infinitely more than good hair or organized kitchens. If we are going to live aspirationally, this picture is a good one to start with. Be a good friend, a loyal friend, a friend of fifteen years who still knows me on my good and bad days, a friend who tells me when I need to be kinder or more generous and who applauds me when I am thoughtful and wise. That is something to aspire to. And share those stories and those pictures with the world. We all need more of that truth right now.