I Love My Real Smile

[Guest Post by Emily Maynard] – This is my real smile.

This is what I look like when I’m laughing, before I cover my mouth with my hands, before I wipe away the mascara inevitably melting onto my cheeks.

This is what my friends and family see every time I come alive around them, when I laugh at one of my own jokes or snort over their funny stories.

This is what I look like when I get excited about a puppy or a gluten-free cupcake or a gorgeous pair of shoes or a fresh idea burning in my heart.

This is what I look like when I’m happy.

This is what I couldn’t see for a long time.

I only liked the cool, slightly smiling version of my happiness; the one where my eyes are open the same amount and the funny creases in my cheek look like proper dimples and my gums don’t show amidst all those teeth. I only kept the photos where I looked like I wanted to looked when I’m happy.

Happy and sweet.

Happy and put together.

Happy and pretty.

Happy and in control.

In our technologically advanced world, we’re offered a sense of control over our images.

We can instantly tell that our eyes are closed in a digital photo and try again. We can manipulate the shadows that would hide our faces in photo editing software and smooth out distracting imperfection. We can instantly untag every photo on Facebook that shows that roll around our midsection or highlights a wrinkle or emphasizes the scar on our face.

We can edit ourselves with a click.

I don’t think the power to edit is a problem, nor is technology evil. I love fashion, wear make up most days, and use flattering Instagram filters on my self-portraits. But when we only accept certain parts of ourselves: the prettiest, most publishable, put together parts, we can create a mirror that never celebrates who we actually are.

The real danger isn’t that we’ll portray an enhanced, angled, relit version of ourselves to the world, but that we won’t even see our actual, complex, unique selves.

I didn’t like the way I looked when I was really, truly, genuinely, happy. It shocked me when I’d see my full smile in a photo, because that image rarely fit with the way I wanted to look. If someone complimented me on my big smile, I dismissed it and detached even further from my toothy grin. I’d remove my name–my identity–from any image of the Emily I didn’t want attached to me.

I’d practice my limited, just right smile in the mirror so it would become automatic and I’d never be caught without it.

I spent so much time disassociating from things that reminded me I didn’t look exactly the way I wanted to look.

I didn’t even want to see my real smile, because it might put me face to face with of all my imperfections, all of the things I didn’t like about myself, and I couldn’t handle that. I only wanted to look I the mirror that I could control, that I can manipulate in real time, that I can walk away from when it didn’t show me what I wanted.

I didn’t want evidence of my imperfections frozen in time.

All of that effort to hide my smile was a reflection of a deeper hiding I was practicing. My unwillingness to see myself in photos, see myself portrayed as less than perfect, less than the all-together girl I wanted to show the world, was tied directly to shame.

Shame kept me blind to my beauty.

Shame always keeps us from seeing beauty in the diversity of our bodies and souls and personalities. It sets us up with an impossible standard and constantly berates us for not living up to its illusions. It prevents us from moving forward in any healthy way, trapping us in a cycle of self-abuse. It’s a manipulative, driving force that can’t be overcome alone.

Learning to overcome shame and love our bodies takes work and it takes community.

My friends and family could see me all along. They knew what my real smile looked like even as I was trying to tame those teeth for the image I was creating. They knew what my genuine, head thrown back, open mouth laughter really sounded like.

They loved me like that and they loved me right through the tough process of drawing myself back together.

They stood by me as I worked against shame and integrated my emotional, spiritual, and physical selves.

They reminded me of the God who sees me, all of me, and loves me overwhelmingly.

I still edit my image sometimes.

I pretty much only post the best photos from an event on Facebook. If I have to choose a photo of myself, I usually pick the one where I’m smirking mischievously with both my eyes open and my hair wild like a lion’s mane. I like what that photo reflects about me, and I think it’s an accurate image of me.

But there’s also a lot more to me that I finally adore.

My laugh is loud.

My smile is toothy.

My happiness is digging permanent wrinkles into the skin around my eyes.

My life is amazing because I have the opportunity to look this happy, this loved, this much like me, every single day. I finally feel connected to the girl boldly grinning back at me in the mirror and laughing in photos.

This is my real smile. And I love it.

Emily Maynard is an outgoing introvert from Portland, Oregon. She is a big picture thinker who gets excited about questioning, exploring, and growing alongside great friends. She writes a column called Speaking Up for Prodigal Magazine and loves watching people find their voices. She is not the Emily Maynard from The Bachelorette. You can follow her nonsense and truth on Twitter: @emelina and Tumblr:emilyisspeakingup.