Mona Lisa was known for her slight ambiguous smile; was she satisfied with her remarkable accomplishments, or was she drowning in the depths of her inner turmoil? The world may never know. The candid picture of 9-year-old me, however, alleviated any general confusion about my feelings — my radiant, toothy grin was a clear indication of my jubilation.
Clustered among my friends sitting on the grass, I was sucking on a cheap, red popsicle. My mother had warned me of the countless chemicals present in the red coloring, but here I was, enjoying what I believed to be a mighty act of rebellion. With my uneven pigtails, oversized jeans and loud "my dog ate my homework" animated shirt, I was the image of the stereotypical elementary schooler except for one thing: my tomboyish qualities.
My white shoes were splattered with mud from countless hours of playing kickball with the boys and my knees were bruised from falling over during tag. I constantly seemed like a Raggedy Ann doll while the other girls preserved their delicate porcelain looks by sitting in a circle and playing pattycake. Looking at myself now, I noticed that over the years, my sun-kissed skin had become overshadowed by a mask — a porcelain mask.
Looking at this photo reminds me of the childhood that I have shed like a snake’s skin.
The muddy sneakers I had once worn to school everyday have become white converse that I take great care to not dirty. My garish t-shirts have been traded for elegant floral blouses. My oversized bootcut jeans transformed into fitted, skinny, ripped denims. I wear my curly hair down everyday, avoiding high ponytails lest I wish to resemble a boy. I have learned to rein in my boisterous laughter — instead, amusing tales only release small, controlled chuckles from my tightly-zipped mouth.
The most concerning change I have observed is my lack of voice. I had begun to restrain my thoughts and comments to fit society’s ideals, even though those ideals clashed with my own. I had scared myself into believing that any step outside the box I had confined myself in would result in a decline of the respect that others have for me.
The girl in the picture and my present self are one person, but we could not be more different. She still has all things I have lost over the years: the passion for music, the time to practice her cursive writing (especially the loopy K’s), the love of reading, the carefree attitude and the disregard for the approval of others. Every time I look into the deep chocolate brown pools centered within her bright eyes, I realize that I have given into conformity — that I have sacrificed my sense of true self.
Though that picture shows me who I used to be and what I have become, it also serves as a reminder to be myself no matter where I am and who I am with. I am persuaded by my younger self to prioritize my own happiness over others’ opinions. In an increasingly mainstream world, the ghost of my old laughter is the distant echo of who I want to be, often hidden among other echoes of insecurity and uncertainty.
W.J.T Mitchell was correct in assuming that we often personify photos — in fact, seeing my younger self influences me to retain my bona fide persona and to break out of the shell I have taken shelter in. My only hope is that one day the porcelain mask obscuring my freedom is destroyed, and I will be able to view the world again through my childlike lens.