I’m just going to say this bluntly: my eighth grade photo was made into an AIM icon. My neighbor took the time to scan our yearbook, crop my photo out, and post it as the virtual image that would represent him to his “buddies.” Seeing the humor in this several others copied him and for several weeks the ugliest version of myself circulated. Now, for you to understand the implications of this I need you to do two things: 1) think about yourself in eighth grade (I’m sure your picture isn’t nearly as terrifying as mine) 2) think about what it would be like for that version of yourself to be the one that is most dearly remembered by your hometown, by your family.
It was 2003 and I was nearing the end of my time with braces. I had typical metal ones with colored rubber bands. Now, I’m not going to say that the braces made me smile more awkwardly but I will say that they made it more difficult. I’d just gotten glasses and had picked black, thick rimmed ones without really discerning whether they looked good. But neither of those things really made that photo special. Oh no. Neither did the acne, or the hair shaped like a yield sign, or the fact that I’d tried to pluck my own eyebrows. Not even the terrible shirt choice or my awful tiny gold hoops. What makes this picture memorable is the double chin, the deep crease that accentuated every other flaw.
When our prints came back they were distributed in homeroom. I looked at it that morning and after peaking into the package promptly moved it into my backpack without showing anyone. The worst photo ever taken of yourself isn’t something you’re keen about sharing, nor is it something you’d want printed in the yearbook and it definitely isn’t something you’d want most of your middle school to have as an AIM icon.
My parents were the first people to find humor in it. When I got home that afternoon I opened with, “Can I get re-takes? Please!” Only to hear a joyful, bounding, full-belly laugh come out as they started commenting to each other about the photo.
“Please!” I begged. When they’d finally finished, taking gasps of air in heavily, they started to ask questions.
“Would we have to pay again?”
No, not if we returned the prints.
“We’d have to give these back?”
“Oh no, we can’t return these. No, no.”
Don’t get the wrong impression. My parents aren’t cruel. They both just have a dark sense of humor and maybe it was that puberty had been so hard on their daughter and they thought I needed to grow a thicker skin about it. Or, more likely, they didn’t think about it beyond the sheer entertainment value. And, they never thought my neighbor would start a trend of using it as an AIM icon.
The gap between when we’d gotten the prints and when our yearbook was slated to be released was a blur. I’d nearly forgotten about the photo though I knew I’d be embarrassed and have to explain the chin to my friends. I’ve always been slender and there was no physical need for the roll underneath my jaw. I knew I’d have to lie. How do you explain that? At the time I’d never thought such little hyperbole would have to be repeated so, so many times. To set the record straight: there is no real reason for my expression, no rubber ducky or weird photographer. My face just went that way momentarily.
When our yearbook came out we’d all gathered to look it over and sign each other’s books with some stilted, un-memorable quote about having an “awesome!” summer. In all honesty I barely remember that day now. That embarrassment was nothing compared to what I felt later. I remember laughter and coming up with the lie but anything else is unclear. It was a couple of weeks later, when the yearbook had been out for a while that the shame really started to creep out. That’s when I’d noticed Tim’s icon and then Lee’s and then Teddy’s or Kayla’s or the long list of names that used my picture for theirs.
It was never someone’s icon for more than a few days but the way that it cycled around the Internet seemed to last forever. Someone would have it up. I’d be IMed about it. And then a couple of days later it’d be down and on to the next person.
But it’s this damn picture’s longevity that really gnaws at me. After the AIM icons I’d thought I’d be done with it. But, for some damn reason, people loved to talk to me about it.
The next picture day (high school!) I was worried: what if it happens again? While we were in line that day I’d heard a couple of people talking about it. That was the first in what became an annual discussion of my embarrassment. It was as if people thought, “You’re being photographed! Let’s talk about eighth grade again!”
A couple of years later when we were graduating high school and putting together a photo collage of all the “memorable” moments we’d shared together for the yearbook I began to feel that same dread I’d felt before our middle school one was released. And, yes, several copies of that photo were submitted but somehow they weren’t included in the senior collage. They disappeared miraculously and even though I was on the yearbook committee I’d never deface our “memorable” moments for my own benefit.
I’m not going to end this by saying that this made me a better person. Oh, you’ve experience being ridiculed? You must’ve grown from that experience. Uh, yeah, I know that middle school kids are can be cruel and that some of the funniest stuff comes from the most shameful. But this shit is downright embarrassing to this day! I showed my college friends recently to finally display to them my deepest source of humiliation, thinking, “We’re adults. We can handle this.” What did they do? They e-mailed it around, made it the background of their phones, and gave this photo yet another round on the Internet.
So why, you may ask, would I knowingly submit this photo for yet another lap around? Well, in the vain hope that one final round will release me from the embarrassment and shame that has lingered for almost a decade. I doubt it but here’s hoping.