How Old Were You When You Stopped Smiling in Pictures?

Wednesday Journal Entry, Week 23

January 18th 2023 – Karina Lafayette

I always smiled in pictures. Anytime someone would walk into the room with a camera, prepared or not, I was ready for action. Be it a hand on the hip, a pose, or even just sticking my tongue out, I almost always smiled and meant it.

Then something happened around kindergarten. The girl who always smiled suddenly had mugshots for class photos. At first, there was still a slight smile, but it became forced, and slowly faded by high school. My Uncle Joe, who had photography as a hobby, would constantly ask me to smile for him, and while I had no issue with that as a toddler, I did for awhile. Family members often made fun of my face in pictures, probably assuming it had to do with the awkwardness all kids go through, but deep down, I knew it was something else. I was being bullied. At school, it just seemed like other kids would constantly single me out for any reason they could think of. One time during a class party, a girl started calling me names just because I didn’t like the music she has chosen. While our teacher had stepped out for a few minutes, the girl had the entire class chanting names at me. When my teacher finally came back, I was balling, humiliated.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. At another class party in fifth grade, classmates were trying to pick music, I sheepishly suggested 50 Cent just because other kids thought that would make me cool. A boy turned to me with a surprisd look, “50 Cent?” He knew I couldn’t kid anyone. I never liked 50 Cent.

After a few years in school, I learned the best way to not get bullied was to make myself invisible. For neurodivergent types such as myself, this is what therapists call masking. I figured as long as I didn’t do anything to draw people’s attention, I couldn’t completely stop the bullying, but I could minimize it. So I buried my nose in books, didn’t join kids on their games, and I would try to dodge doing class presentations or raising my hand like no one’s business.

Still, people noticed me anyway, because despite learning to mask and blend in, I still didn’t dress like other kids. My mother and I didn’t have enough money to keep up with trends, and it’s not as if trends made sense to me anyway. In sixth grade, I specifically got teased for wearing a Kiss T-shirt. There was just no winning these kids over.

And as usual, anytime we went to my uncles’ house, Uncle Joe wanted me to smile for the camera, and as much as I adored this man, I couldn’t bring myself to perform.

By the time social media became popular, I finally noticed how each selfie looked almost the same, and began wondering whatever happened to that bright expressive girl. She had to be around here somewhere, eager to come and play. She wasn’t interested in putting on a show or cared what others thought of her. There was a period where being happy just came naturally. I missed being her.

Now that I’m thirty, I kind of laugh when someone remembers their school years fondly. It’s most likely because they were privileged enough to be the kind of kid who was socially acceptable, got the best grades, and made friends easily. I on the other hand was never seen as good enough. I was socially awkward, only got good grades in classes that actually made me happy like English, History, and fine arts, and I only spent time with other socially awkward and possibly also neurodivergent kids. In fact, my only friends in school were the labeled “weirdos”, “nerds”, and “emos”, or as my mom sarcastically called them, “the leftovers”.

It’s been since the emergence of Tiktok that I started to really get a clear understanding of myself. What any professional should’ve been able to figure out years ago, my algorithm learned for me in the span of the first few months that I had joined, like a lot of neurodivergent adults. I learned that not wanting food to touch, hating certain clothing fabrics, struggling to make eye contact, bluntness, struggle with motivation, the inability to hide emotion, oversharing, social anxiety, hyperfixation, and a number of other things I thought everyone else did, were in fact the product of autism. That there wasn’t ever anything wrong with me, it’s just that as a kid, society wasn’t willing to acknowledge someone like me being worthy of acceptance.

When it comes to facial expressions, I know that some neurodivergent people tend to often come across as serious or feel awkward about having to smile at all, but I also wanted to emphasize the fact that some of us can be the opposite. We can be a bit more of the bubbly neurodivergent who says the wrong thing at the wrong time, or laughs for no reason. No two people are built the same. Anytime I’m at home, I’ll randomly sing when I’m happy, and discovered in the past few years what my laugh sounds like when I don’t hold back.

And now that I think about it, it isn’t exactly considered normal that I taught myself how to write poems at age twelve, and learned how to write scripts after reading Shakespeare in the seventh grade. It’s also not considered normal that even at a young age, I was already concerned about social justice, when I should’ve probably been going to parties and playing games. No one forced any of these interests on me, my brain is just wired different.

In hindsight, it also makes sense as to why I stopped smiling in pictures. Along the way, I was led to believe that it was safer to fit in, and while as a kid I did that in order to survive, as an adult, my body is learning that it’s safe to be myself and to smile again._If you’re someone who used to smile in pictures, at what age did that change? How old were you when society started telling you who you can and can’t be?

To check out my books, social media and more, scroll to the menu. And be sure to watch my short documentary series on the Saturn Return! If you support my work, consider buying me a coffee. If you liked this article, you’ll probably enjoy The Girl I Used to Be.

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