My very first computer – one that was truly mine, not a slow, shared desktop that all four members of my immediate family squabbled over – was a 2010 Macbook, encased in shiny white plastic.
It was the most extravagant gift I had ever been given, on the eve of my departure for university, and it represented freedom.
Freedom to use the internet, freedom to watch a whole series of The Inbetweeners in the murky hours after midnight, and freedom to spend hours on the Apple iPhoto app.
In the days before Instagram and Snapchat, this Photoshop-lite programme, with its exposure and contrast tools, was the first time I had the ability to control my own image.
It was a hobby, to begin with. I would take my silver digital camera on nights out, where I would snap pictures of my friends tottering around on skinny heels.
Sometimes I’d get mistaken for the club’s resident photographer, ushered over by a group of boys in Topman polo shirts, and I’d take their picture too, sniggering behind the lens as if committing the ultimate hoax.
And then, towards the end of the night when I was squashed against the DJ booth, I would raise my arm above the crowd like a periscope, look up, and take a picture of myself.
The next day, I would sit on the desk chair in my student halls, wrapped in blankets and sipping weak Ribena to steady my rolling stomach. Flicking through the photographs, I was horrified at how sweaty I looked after-hours dancing, how my hair puffed up around my red cheeks. So I simply opened iPhoto and edited it all away.
It’s hard to say when this tipped from something that I considered fun – maybe even an artistic hobby – into something stranger. I found the pressure to perfect my pictures rose as I uploaded weekly photographs onto Facebook and my need for perfection increased.
My finger hovered over the delete button of images I didn’t like, as I banished picture after picture to the trash. It didn’t matter if it was a happy memory with someone I cared about, the hint of a double chin was enough to make me get rid of it.
My anxiety spurred me to scrub out teenage acne and smeared lipstick, upping the saturation until my eyes shimmered in an unreal shade of blue. I bore only a whispering resemblance to my true self – just the way I liked it.
It might sound like this was an act of extreme vanity, but I felt the weight of how I looked pressing on me relentlessly and editing my photos felt like a way of protecting myself. If I only kept pictures where I looked acceptable, then I couldn’t be confronted with pictures I hated and in turn hate myself. My fragile self-esteem would remain intact.
But lies catch up with you, and the falsehoods I built permeate my life today. I avoid looking at photos from the past – all those parties that I so carefully documented – because when I click through those albums my mind murmurs ‘look how much better you looked then, you’ve really let yourself go’.
My edited pictures created a standard I could never achieve – not then, and not now. They show me the best version of myself, smiling and smooth-skinned on a never-ending night out, but she never existed.
We talk a lot about the impact heavily edited celebrity photos can have on society, but we don’t often talk about the impact editing yourself can have on your own identity. More than ever, our sense of self is meshed with how we present ourselves digitally.
I tell my best friend that sometimes it feels like I have gaslit myself and distorted my own memories. She laughs and tells me that she thinks she peaked at 17, coincidentally the time that she first got into Photoshop and invested in a good camera. ‘Maybe we just had lower self-esteem then, and felt the need to be perfect in our pictures,’ she says. ‘We were trying to stand out, I suppose, and Facebook was huge for us. But now I don’t care so much, and I think that comes with age.’
I think she’s right. In the past couple of years, I’ve started to settle into myself a little, and I no longer upload hundreds of pictures after every night out.
Any good therapist will tell you the importance of setting boundaries to heal, and so I have set some for myself. I’m vigilant of how much I alter pictures now and try to just brighten them up, rather than eliminate every imperfection. Plus, the overly edited photos look kind of silly now, a bit like pleading for approval from people I haven’t seen in years. Boundaries keep me grounded, and make my snapshots feel sharp and real.
I’m glad I’ve never used some of the increasingly extreme photo manipulation tools, such as Instagram’s filters and Facetune. There’s nothing wrong with them inherently – I just know that if I started I might not be able to stop, and I don’t want to float away from reality again.
Taking photos will always be the way that I record my life – what I once chronicled in gel pens in my diary, I now store on The Cloud. When I try out a new red lipstick, I still reach for my phone and take a selfie, turning my face just so, to check how it looks.
But the ‘bad’ photos now take their rightful place too – a moment of laughter in blinding sunlight, the kind that makes your skin stretch and your eyes disappear, is something to be treasured.
As for the old, altered pictures? They are a product of their time, when I was still figuring out the shifting frontiers between physical me and digital me. Now I look past the airbrushing to find the experiences and memories behind the photos – because they are the real reason I took them in the first place.
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