A weekly column published in the Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer
By Francesca Serritella
As many of you know, for the last ten years I’ve been working on a novel. I’ve done many drafts and much growing up during that time, and at long last, my book is being published by Random House this May 5th.
I should avoid cliché, but I can’t say it better, it’s a dream come true.
There was just one easy step left to do: my author photo.
That was a nightmare.
You imagine a photoshoot like in the movies: upbeat music playing, a fan blowing back your hair, and the photographer shouting compliments at you.
The vibe in this photographer’s studio was monastic.
For me, it was the Temple of Doom.
The photographer spoke very little. “Turn slightly to the left.”
“No, no. Too far.”
We repeated this exchange countless times, with me trying to make increasingly tiny adjustments but somehow still throwing everything off. I began to feel like there was a very narrow margin in which I could look attractive.
About a half-inch’s width.
When we eventually found a good angle, she’d say, “Now don’t move. Stare at the lens.”
Growing up watching America’s Next Top Model had prepared me for this moment. I do my best smize.
A minute passes while the photographer twists the lens, I can see the aperture expand and contract like a pupil. Then she asks her assistant to move something behind me. Do I keep smizing, I wonder?
More adjustments to the lens. Our staring contest continues.
My eyes are watering, my smile begins to twitch.
Finally, the photographer pushes back from the camera and looks away, and I instantly relax.
“Oh.” She scrunched her nose at the screen. “You blinked.”
I felt so out of my element, I was relieved when she came over to physically move me into place like a mannequin, saying, “I’m going to chiropract you.”
She positions me so that I am kneeling on the couch, butt out, hovering over my heels. Then she pushes my torso forward so I’m leaning over the couch arm and twisting toward the camera. It feels like some combination of a sorority squat and a yoga half-bind. I hold it until my body trembles like a Chihuahua.
I ask for a break.
“Of course. If you don’t feel comfortable, you’re not going to look comfortable.”
Now you tell me.
Toward the end of the session, the photographer complimented me. “This exasperated look you’re giving me is actually working.”
I deflated. I’d been trying so hard to please her, and that was not the look I was going for.
But I knew it wasn’t the photographer I was exasperated with. It was myself.
In the end, I thanked the photographer, took a smiley photo with her, left the studio, and, when I hit the sidewalk outside, I cried.
I felt stupid to be emotional. I felt simultaneously too ugly and too vain. Wasn’t I supposed to feel…different?
I had done the hard part, wasn’t this supposed to be easy?
We get the message that everything is supposed to be effortless. Be beautiful without knowing it. Be thin without dieting. Be confident without encouragement. Be happy without sweating the small stuff.
As if the only way to deserve good things is to not want them too much.
But goals take effort. A lot. I put more effort into writing this book than I have anything in my entire life, and I’m about to share it with the world. There’s no getting around how vulnerable that feels.
When you strive so long for a certain goal, you expect the accomplishment to be transformative. When I accomplish X, I’ll feel better, my insecurities will disappear, my self-love will bloom. I thought when I got this book published, I would be transformed into someone different. But I’m still the same old me.
The imperfect me who sometimes frustrates and disappoints myself. The me who struggles to feel comfortable in front of a camera, snacks late at night, gets too shy on the dating apps, and worries too much about what people think.
But also, the me that wrote a book.
I thought the fact that this photo was going on the back of a book jacket was going to make me love it.
Or make me love myself.
But it isn’t that easy.
Maybe that’s the accomplishment. That I achieved my goal despite my flaws and insecurities. I didn’t have to transform to make it happen.
Self-improvement and self-love take time, figuring out which of those two you actually need takes even longer.
But you don’t have to be your perfect self to make your dreams come true. You can do it, just as you are.
So when I look at that author photo and can’t help but zero in on my flaws, I’ll remind myself to lay off.
Show some respect.
She did it.
Copyright Francesca Serritella 2020