Say Cheese

The Real Reason I Take So Many Selfies with My Daughter

A mom makes the case for getting in all the family photos.

by Amber Sparks

My mother was beautiful when she was young. She was tall, with long, feathery blonde hair, wide blue eyes, sharp cheekbones. Strangers stopped her on the street; she drew the eye like a John Singer Sargeant. Photos of her with me and my siblings when we were very young look like the pictures that come with the frame, albeit with a cheerful affection that mere models couldn’t fake. We have a lot of photos in our family albums from that time period, and she’s in so many of them. Hugging us, cuddling us, kissing us, clowning with us. My dad was a professional photographer back then, and she didn’t mind when he turned his lens on her.

When she died unexpectedly four years ago, and it fell to my siblings and I to put together a slideshow for her memorial service, we had our pick of photos from those years — and nothing after. Our awkward teenage years, our young adulthoods, and eventually, the early childhood of our children: there is no photographic record of my mother from those years. We struggled to find pictures of her with my daughter, with my nieces. There were just enough carefully posed family photos to fill out the slideshow, sort of. But we were left with the sensation that she’d erased herself from our family history, simply by refusing to be photographed in it.

Almost everyone hates how they look in pictures. For one thing, the camera captures what we really look like, when we’re used to staring back at our mirror image. Seeing a photo of ourselves can be jarring, an uncanny experience. We become our double, a familiar stranger. People are also prone to what psychologists call “self-bias.” This means we tend to believe that we are more attractive than we actually are. So when we see a photo of ourselves, we think we photograph badly, when in fact that’s just … how we look.

I let my daughter take shots of me from below, hulking and ridiculous. But there I am, existing!

I’m not sure why my mother hated photographs, but I can guess. I think she suffered from the idea that women become less worthy of being seen as they age. She always made excuses — her hair was bad that day, she wasn’t wearing enough makeup. Later, she struggled with health issues, taking steroids for an autoimmune condition that made her face puffy. She had bridgework done that changed her smile. We tried so hard to convince her to be in the picture, to tell her that it didn’t matter how she looked, we loved her and wanted to mark her presence. But she couldn’t be coaxed.

They span important years, these missing photos; they contain milestones and holidays and later, grandkids. She died too early, and she missed out on so many years with her grandchildren. And I’m angry that the time they did have with her is not documented anywhere. I’m angry that our society values the work that grandmothers do, but not the way that they look. I’m angry that my daughter has so few pictures of herself with her grandmother.

Now, when someone raises a camera to take a picture of me or my daughter wants a selfie, I always say yes. I try to worry less about how tired I look or how much makeup I’m wearing, and more about just letting somebody take the damn picture. I bought my daughter a camera and yes, I let her take shots of me from below, hulking and ridiculous. But there I am, existing! I even let her include a truly unflattering photo of me in a photography exhibit she put together for her class: she was proud of it, and it was a great candid. I tell myself that I am a writer, not a supermodel; I am not paid to look good. I am in these photos to look like myself.

I take a lot of selfies too, many with my daughter and my husband. (Psychologists even recommend selfies to make yourself feel more attractive.) I’ve spotted crow’s feet around my eyes and my jawline looks soft, even in good photos, but I’m trying to be okay with that. If my husband snaps a photo where my daughter and I are obviously, blazingly happy, I let him put it up on Instagram. (If we’ve learned anything from the last week on the internet, it’s that overthinking a photo will only lead you to dark places. Kate Middleton, if you can hear me, just take a selfie already! We all just want to see that you’re ok!)

Because I’m not 25 and I am not perfect. I’m a woman in my 40s, and I’ve spent years working to earn these weird lines, these wrinkles, this stray gray hair. And this me is the me that my daughter and my husband see every day. I want to capture her for posterity, not some gauzy version ten filters deep. I’ll save that for my author photo.

I wish my mother had allowed us to take more photos of her. I wish she had understood that we thought her beautiful at every age — that the person we knew and loved was worth photographing. I wish more than anything that I could photograph her as an old woman. And I’m making sure my daughter will never have those regrets.

Amber Sparks is the author of two collections of stories, And I Do Not Forgive You and The Unfinished World, and her fiction and essays have appeared in American Short Fiction, Paris Review, Tin House, Granta, and elsewhere. She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, daughter, and two cats. (That is not Amber or her daughter in the artwork at the top of this story, in case you were curious. We thank the woman in this stock photo for her service.)