First, you need to know about the hand-me-downs. I was the younger of two girls, three years apart, so I inherited my sister’s clothes, which were immaculate and pristine when passed down to me, but not necessarily clothes I would have chosen and, given our age difference, never in style.
In third grade, I either had a growth spurt or I wasn’t tall enough. At any rate, I got to buy a whole new wardrobe for school, instead of just a few pieces. There was a rust-colored corduroy jumper that I believe was my first-day-of-school outfit. But my favorite was a boat-necked green paisley dress. I wore it for school picture day, which happened to fall after I had been out of school with the flu. So, in the resulting photo, what appears to be three yards of sickly white, skinny neck rises from a paisley green base, leading to a game grin in the middle of a pinched “I’ve been throwing up for five days” face. The crowning glory was my crowning glory — an Alfalfa-like cowlick.
My mother loved it. “So natural!”
Other school photos come back to me. Sixth-grade, where I’m a dead-ringer for the Partridge-Family era Susan Dey, only with a faint mustard moustache. A candid from seventh grade, where my utterly square, waistless body has been encased in a horizontally-striped sweater dress and I’m scratching my bedhead of hair with a pencil. First or second-grade, where I look utterly adorable for once. Of course, I’m missing a front tooth.
Yesterday, I spent three hours in a New York photographer’s studio, having a new author photo taken at my publisher’s behest. (In the eternal battle between my vanity and my laziness, laziness always wins.) On the one hand, I had the good sense to be amused that a “hard day” consisted of getting up, taking a train to New York, being made up and coiffed, then posing in various permutations of my own clothes for three hours, taking the train home and hustling to a family dinner.
But in this brave new world, digitization means one can instantly see all the results of a photo shoot. So there I was, expertly made up, expertly lit and, damn, if I didn’t look like myself, but actually worse than the image I carry around in my head. There’s the beginning of the neck thing, which has made Nora Ephron a #1 bestseller. There’s the slight Elvis sneer on the left side of my face when I try to smile “pretty.” There’s the uneveness of all my features and the size 10 body that photographs more like a plus-size model’s. (The Project Runway fans who come here will remember that size 6 is “zaftig” for a runway model, and that’s according to the always-generous Tim Gunn.) (About whom I have had one dream to date.)
There were some wonderful photos, thanks to the photographer, Jann Cobb, Richard, the art director from HarperCollins and — I’m not sure of the spelling — Roanna, who did my face. They did the best with what they were given. But all I can say is, bring back the skinny-necked, cow-licked geek in the paisley. She was, I see in hindsight, adorable. Even against that fuzzy blue backdrop.
Memories of school pictures, painful or pleasant, or about photographs in general and how they mess with the images we carry of ourselves.