The power of a photo (or many photos)

I’ve been using Google Photos to backup all of the terrible cell phone photos I’ve taken since 2012. There’s maybe 50 photos of me before I started transitioning in 2017. Most of the photos are of pets and random things. Now there’s a huge collection of selfies that document my entire transition. At least once a week, usually 3-4 times a week, I’ll take a photo of myself. Either at my desk, in bed, on my couch, or in my car. Wherever the mood strikes me. That’s not something that ever happened before transitioning.

I used to hate photos of myself. I’d avoid them like the plague, and I was never into the whole idea of selfies. I didn’t understand them. My reasoning was misogynic at worst, and naive at best. That all changed when I started transitioning. 

Before transitioning, photos of myself were largely taken as a form of self harm, or a sad attempt to not hate how I looked that almost always failed. Usually before or after a haircut. Most of which are unsmiling and awkward. When it came to family photos I would avoid them as much as I could. Photos with my ex were largely to placate her wanting photos of us together. Regardless of the reasoning for the photo, I’d almost never post them online. I wouldn’t share them with family and friends. 

Photos before I got a haircut were taken as proof that I could never grow my hair out. I wouldn’t have called it denial of being transgender at the time, but it very much was. As my hair got long, it’d just get poofier and grow into a terrible nerd fro. It’d be constantly messy and I’d hate that I couldn’t do anything with it. I basically insisted that it had a mind of its own. After getting a haircut the reasoning was largely to convince myself how much better I looked with a short, neat, guy cut. To be fair to myself, I did look better, but I hated it nonetheless. I couldn’t have possibly told you why, but every selfie at the time was fueled by some form of self-hatred. I did genuinely like pictures of my ex and I together, but that was largely because of liking being with my ex, and not at all because I liked the photos of myself. 

As I got closer to transitioning, the number of selfies I’d take increased, but these were almost certainly self-harm related, as well as to play with those makeup and hair augmented reality apps on my phone. Before I started transitioning, those apps largely made the problem worse. I can’t say whether it was because the technology was vastly inferior 3-4 years ago, or if being pre-transition made those apps just make me look ridiculous. My dysphoria made me want to look like an every day cis woman, and not someone on a pageant stage, and those apps on my pre-transition facial structure just made everything look wrong and exaggerated. I wish I kept some of those photos, but they were so bad and dysphoria inducing at the time that I had to delete them.

Technically my last “guy” haircut was before my wedding, which I guess could be the point that you’d consider me starting to grow my hair out, but the conscious decision happened late December of 2018. Right before I came out for good. A few months later I was in the hair salon trying to explain to my stylist that I was trans and wanted to grow my hair out and get a short but feminine styling/cut while doing so. It was then that I discovered the magic of hair products. Managing my terrible nerd fro became so much easier when I was styling it in a more feminine and purposefully curly style.

This is really the point where my selfie obsession started. I’d take photos of myself trying to catch glimpses of the feminine me. I was desperate at the time to see the woman I would become, and hormone therapy and growing your hair out are such long, slow, and grueling processes. Finally, the idea of the selfie was no longer one of narcissism and self harm. I realized that selfies could be used for good, and I suppose you could say I became obsessed. 

Still, to this day I’m not a big fan of the makeup and hair styling augmented reality apps, or the snapchat filters that are all the rage, and especially not the gender swap filters that became so popular recently. 

When I first started transitioning, the meme was to take photos of yourself with the gender guessing apps. They were stupid phone and web apps that took a photo and used AI to guess the gender of the subject. I used it every once in a while, because transgender communities gotta meme, but it always made me feel kind of gross. The self harm alarm rang in the back of my mind every time the discussion of them would come up. For the transgender members that the AI guessed correctly, it was affirming and great, but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that the opposite was more harmful than the good that the affirmations caused.

As for the snapchat filters and the makeup and hair styling apps, while less flawed from a self-harm standpoint, seemed to hide who I was more than highlight what could be done with makeup and hair styling. I didn’t want some perfectly smooth blur of my face with cat ears, I wanted to see what I actually looked like with makeup and colored hair. I wanted to color my hair pretty much for the past decade, if not longer, but could never do it because of a combination of work and fear of coming off too not-cishet.

I had a reputation of the only straight guy in my circle of friends to uphold, okay? Closeted trans girls gotta protect that closet with their lives.

Now that I’ve been transitioning for coming up on three years, my some aspects of my relationship with old photos has changed, while other aspects have stayed the same or have gotten worse. 

First, I will admit, that more recently I’ve gotten back into the app game, and there’s at least a couple out there now that do a pretty good job. Once again, it’s hard to say if that’s because I’m actually somewhat passing as a woman, or I see myself as a woman more so than before, or what the reasoning might be, but I like the results more than I used to. Still, I don’t often share those photos, because they’re not me, but rather a possibility of what I could be if I make some changes. I guess I’d just rather be sharing actual photos of me in makeup. Which is a thing I can actually do now!

All is not great though, because now more than I ever I find myself using my old photos for mental self harm. Sometimes it’s fine to look back and see how much I have changed, but the problem comes when I dwell on those old photos too much. Especially when I dwell on engagement photos or wedding photos. No good can come of those, but I also can’t bring myself to delete them. 

The great aspects of keeping old photos, is that now Google has started matching me with photos of me from 2-3 years ago and that allows me to see how far I’ve come. It’s a great feeling to look back on early transition photos, and compare them to today, and realize how much difference hormone therapy has made. It’s honestly remarkable. 

It’s also nice now that when my family wants to take pictures, I don’t feel like I have to hide away in a corner or dodge the camera. One of my favorite photos is of my niece and I, with me reading to her on my parents’ couch. Great photos like that would never have been possible pre-transition. The dysphoria was just too strong.

I can’t tell you how freeing it is to not be afraid of the camera anymore. It’s one of the many aspects of my transition that keeps me from ever wanting to go back to how I used to be. 

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