I grew up in a family where the outside was more important than the inside. It didn’t matter how much sexual, emotion, physical, verbal, spousal, sibling, or narcissistic abuse was in the home. It didn’t matter if incontinence pervaded the family, night terrors prevented us children from getting a good night’s sleep, 20+ dogs barked all night making a peaceful sleep impossible, exotifying of the adopted kids made us feel uncomfortable and took over our lives.
What mattered was what people saw on the outside.
“Say Cheese!” we heard our parents say. Even if we were not feeling it. Even if our lower parts hurt because we were being molested.
It didn’t matter that our ear lobes hurt because our father would pull them super hard if we didn’t listen. It didn’t matter that our noses hurt because we were forced to place our noses on the refrigerator for long periods of time when we misbehaved.
None of that mattered. If the picture didn’t come out beautiful, perfect and us smiling, we were ungrateful, bad, unthankful kids.
Nothing but the outside mattered and though we were told before going to bed that what really was important was our hearts, the actions of our parents were quite different.
“Be faithful to your spouse, don’t cheat, don’t lie” we were told growing up. And yet we lived in a home where my mother had a lover and my father was not loved but only a financial provider. He soon moved 20 minutes away and we were left with this woman and this man we were forced to welcome into our home and into our lives.
“Say Cheese”…how could I feign happiness when my father was not really living with us? How could I pretend everything was wonderful and lovely when this new man tried to make us respect him?
“Say Cheese”…but the night before my sister had been violated by a foster kid living in our home. They tried to have as many as possible because it made them look like amazing missionary people. White saviors…we were all destined for death, and then probably hell if they didn’t take us in.
No, I couldn’t smile knowing what had happened to my sister. Why was she required to smile knowing what had just happened to her?
“Say Cheese” but he stuck his penis down my brother’s throat a week before. How does one smile after knowing that had just happened? How is he expected to be happy after he was forced to give someone oral?
A picture is worth more than a thousand words….of course, especially those who smile out of the feeling of obligation.
Instagram, facebook, twitter, all of those forms of media that allows us to pretend, and pretend, and pretend some more.
You can’t tell me that every single picture that is taken, every single picture you take with a smile is you actually feeling like smiling.
Why do we do this? Why do we feel like we MUST smile in a photo. Who came up with the “smile” aspect of photos. Maybe Cristin Conger can tell you more about the beginnings.
You know? In Haiti, taking a photo is a serious thing. When you go in for a passport picture, you are not encouraged to smile. You are asked to be serious. You are encouraged to treat the photo as a sign of stepping up in the world. You are finally someone in this world and so being serious will help you keep up your new status.
When Haitians take pictures of each other, depending on the location, and the circumstances, you will notice they pose. Posing is important. Some smile, but many participate in pictures just as they are. Whatever it is they are doing, they represent. They don’t have to necessarily stop and smile each time.
When missionaries started visiting super poor countries, they began taking photos of kids in dire situations but then asked them to smile. They then could send those photos back and say “look how bad of a condition this kid is living in and yet he is still happy.” What a huge injustice in that photo. What a violation of how the child may really feel.
Of course some kids will smile. But I feel that missionaries expect to send home a “feel good” story for more donations and more funding. This is problematic. And many of us would call this exploitation.
I’m tired of seeing people smiling every time a picture is taken. I look at the photo of me and my real mom when I was about three years old. I remember hearing my adoptive mother tell me to smile while sitting next to my real mom. Smile….for what? I’ve been taken from my flesh and blood and now you want me to smile?
What exactly does a smile mean? Is it for the one receiving the photo? Is it for the one in the photo? Is it for the one taking the photo? Is it for others to think things are peachy fuzz?
Before I went no contact with my adoptive mother I asked about the photo of me and my mom. Her immediate reply was “look how happy you look with your tummy mummy.” I told her “but I was not happy.” Her response was “well, your face tells another story.”
“Your face tells another story” has stuck with me for the past 8 or so years. It tells another story…a different story. It tells a unique story. It tells the kind of story she was more comfortable seeing, hearing, and being a part of.
My face in that picture told my adoptive mother that I was happy. And yet, there is no way I could have really been happy. I lost everything.
I lost familiarity.
I gained strangers.
I lost hope.
I gained hatred.
I lost connection.
I gained disconnect.
I lost unity.
I gained confusion.
My smile, the smile I had on my face that day I got to see my real mom for the first time in several years, that smile was one that was forced out of me by the people who had trafficked me as a toddler. That smile was truly not genuine. And we haven’t even touched on my mother’s smile.
Her smile…if you look at it, not genuine either. That smile told a different story. That smile my real mom had on her face the day that picture was taken was one that my adoptive mother forced out of her. “You are happy to see each other” type of smile.
Of course my mother was happy to see me. But she was enraged on the inside. She was dying on the inside. She was so mad at this woman for taking her baby from her. She did not and never consented to the adoption and there is so much proof of that.
That smile was my real mom playing my adoptive mother’s game.
My adoptive mother could feel good that she did the “right” thing in reuniting me and my real mom. It left her with a feel good moment. It left her high and mighty.
Both our smiles were staged.
What would have happened if neither of us would have smiled?
I know real well. I would have been pinched or threatened. If my real mom didn’t smile, my adoptive mother would have got so angry and taken my little hands and stormed off.
My adoptive mother would have been scared.
Scared that the child she purchased for 50000 dollars back in the 70s/80s didn’t love her anymore.
How many times did this picture get taken? Of course back then you had to wait for the film to be developed. Are there other pictures out there that were destroyed because my real mom may not have smiled, or I may not have smiled? I don’t know.
All I know is that the picture with the smiles was the one that was saved. The feel good moments can last her a life-time because she has the memento; a reminder of how good she is for bringing us together. The ones without the smiles may reminder her of how problematic of a route she took to make me her own.
Smiles in photos. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of them.
I’d like to see more truth behind the photos. No one knows the day someone has had. No one knows the past and no one knows how someone may feel in the moment.
If there is a genuine desire to smile, then do it. But DO NOT do it out of obligation.
Smiling out of feeling obligated to do so makes our face tell another story. And many times that other story is not for us, but for them.