It was September 2012 and we were standing at the literal edge of a French town built in stone on a hillside. He had taken a photo of me that I didn't like because it didn't represent how I perceived myself, and this dissonance disturbed me. During the three years we had been together, he had seen all the iterations that a 25-pound fluctuation of weight had given my body. I had built up and shed and clung to again this layer of insulation to protect me from the world after I was sexually assaulted months before we started dating. He had witnessed my discomfort with my body, from its smallest to its biggest size, and heard my critiques of how light and pixels represented me. And he had countless times reassured me that I was beautiful, because this is how we're culturally conditioned to respond when someone is uncomfortable with her body or appearance.
But after my assault, I didn't necessarily want to be seen as beautiful. I believed that my smaller size that had then aligned with conventional standards of beauty had possibly played a part in my becoming a target. As flawed as this thinking is--since people of all sizes and shapes can be, and are, assaulted-- believing I was in control of my own safety was the self-protection I needed at the time. Even though, of course, I wanted my partner to find me attractive, I didn't really want to believe him if he said I was. So this time, perhaps a little fatigued from my negations of and discomfort with the word, he didn't tell me I was beautiful. Instead, he said,
"I don't know what to tell you, babe. That's what you look like."
"Huh," I thought, pushing my head back to look at the photo with new eyes. What he'd said so matter-of-factly was more thought-provoking than a reassurance of any perceived beauty would have been. Instead of dismissing my concerns with his own subjective opinion, he (intentionally or not) encouraged something that our consumer culture tends to discourage: self-acceptance.
Four years later, I love the photo he took because of the memory it captured and because I recognize myself in it now more than I did then. This is what I look like, in love, days after he asked me to be his partner in life, wearing his mother's engagement ring on a chain around my neck, traveling with him and his parents through beautiful and ancient places I had never been before, feeling a little shy and inadequate and embarrassingly lucky to be surrounded by such romance.