I was going through some childhood photos of myself the other day, from ages five to seventeen. In all of them, I am smiling. I found one photo to be more disconcerting and confusing above all the others. In the photo, I am standing beside my brother Kevin who had sexually abused me for five years. I’ve been using his childhood nickname but decided that for his privacy I would change his name in my posts.
In the photo, I am fifteen and he is seventeen. He has his arm around my waist and I am resting my elbow on his shoulder. We look as happy as a married couple on their wedding day. This caused me to wonder if any of the photos of me smiling are true.
I’m sure some of them are, like the one of me with my unwrapped birthday present at age seven – my life wasn’t completely devoid of happy moments, but I know in many of those photos I was miserable. So, was I just “smiling for the camera” the way I was taught? After all, I was raised to be a competitive baton twirler, dancer, and model. It was my job to smile. Even if I was ill with the flu or had just been slapped repeatedly across the face by my mother in a bathroom stall for being “in a mood” when it came time to be in front of the judges or the camera my smile would shine as if everything was wonderful.
Looking at those photos got me thinking about all the masks I have worn throughout my life. Masks that have hidden how I really feel – about myself, about others, about life. I wore a mask of courage when I was terrified. I wore a mask of confidence when I was riddled with self-doubt. I wore a happy mask when I was depressed and a polite mask when I was angry. I wore a mask of pride when I was full of self-loathing and a mask of strength when I was feeling vulnerable. I wore a mask of independence when I was codependent and a mask of having it “all together” when I felt like I was falling apart. I wore a mask of connectedness when I felt isolated and lonely. I wore the mask of an extrovert when all I really wanted to do was run and hide. The list goes on and on.
I still wear some of these masks from time to time, though they have become more transparent and less like they are plastered on my face with epoxy. As I continue to become more and more comfortable with myself I can forgo these masks and allow others to see the real me. Me, with all my flaws and failings, my fears and insecurities, but also my compassion, my empathy, and my strength. For I now know that it is my strength that allows me to be vulnerable, and it is courage that allows me to persevere when afraid.
Photo by William Randles on Unsplash