How do you pick one single photo to represent everything that you are? Whether you know it or not, you’ve done it. And so have I, but not without a giant struggle first.
I’ve tested lots of different photos over the last year as my new potential profile photo for my Instagram. But I’ve never clicked save.
The glaringly obvious reason for this is my ADHD. Executive dysfunction, difficulty making decisions, people-pleasing, and perfectionism are just a few things that come with my ADHD. They’ve always been there, it’s just that now I’m diagnosed I have a name and understanding for these parts of me, which helps me work through them!
What took me by surprise though, as I settled on the photo that was going to be my new profile picture, was the realisation that there are two other elements at play here, and both are actually about how I look.
I’ve done a lot of work on self-image over the last few years, so that’s why it took me by surprise. I’ve come to be known as the person who loves being in front of the camera. I revel in pulling ridiculous faces in photos, and genuinely adore photos that capture me candidly in ‘a moment’ — whatever that may be.
But as I was flicking through my photo options, I realised two things that were getting in my way.
1. Who Is That?
The first thing is that I look different from how I’m used to seeing myself in photos.
This is relatively obvious, considering my gender exploration over the last year or so, but specifically, I realised that I’m now seeing myself exuding an aesthetic I’ve always loved but had never considered as a possibility for myself.
I experimented with style across the years — emo, flower child, goth, grunge, scene kid, and vintage to name a few, but I always tried to “dress for my body”.
I never thought I felt disconnected from my body/appearance. I didn’t hate how I looked. In fact, I have plenty of photos where I see myself and think wow — I look awesome!
But I have realised recently that I’ve often (usually? …always…?) seen my body as a tool.
I know what mainstream society deems ‘attractive’, or ‘professional’, or ‘fun’, and where those descriptors intersect and diverge. I also know how to exploit my appearance to palpably slot into those descriptors when required. As an adult, I have taken pride in being able to ‘transform’ myself from ‘sleepyhead’ to ‘super glam’. I certainly reveled in the attention it brought too.
I thought that’s what loving your body/appearance meant.
But if you’ve never experienced something, how can you know that you’re not feeling it?
If the clothes that give you gender euphoria don’t sit on your body in the way that makes that little light bulb go off, how can you know you’re wearing what you need?
If your upbringing was so cishet that it took you until you were 30 to realise that sexual attraction doesn’t mean thinking “that person looks nice, I wish I could pull that off”, how are you going to be able to recognise the difference between knowing you look good to other people, and feeling like yourself?
And now, I’m scared.
Not a frozen-in-fear kind of scared.
More an “I was told these were the rules, and now I’m breaking them, and I’m going to be told I’m wrong” scared.
I’m feeling this for so many reasons, but specifically relating to how I look, I’m scared because my whole life I’ve been told how lucky I am for my looks. My hair, my face, my body.
I’ve had people lamenting over me straightening my “gorgeous curly hair”.
I’ve been asked many times by many people (with real concern in their voice) “but why would you want to cut off all those lovely locks?!”
I’ve been told: “people would pay a lot to have your figure”.
I’ve been called cute, pretty, beautiful — as though they are the most important things in the world.
And in all those supposed compliments, over and over again is the implicit message — ‘don’t change how you look’, often along with the other person putting themselves down.
I realised recently that I’ve often felt my smile in photos was out of place. But the times it most looks out of place, are the times I’ve liked how I looked the best.
And now, as I’ve been exploring my gender and my style, I’m seeing the person that I now know I’ve glimpsed over the years without realising.
They are the person that my smile belongs on, and they were there all along.
I just didn’t know how to see them.
2. What Even is ‘Professional’?
The other thing I realised as I looked over the photo I finally chose for at least the 50th time before pressing save, was that this goes against what I (in the past) believed to be ‘professional’.
It’s a fun photo, for sure. Maybe to be used for talking about/promoting something specific. Maybe kids theatre? Something fun for the contact page on my website?
But it’s not a ‘business’ profile photo.
It doesn’t ‘show what I do’.
It could be misinterpreted.
As I looked at it again I realised:
It shows my neurodivergency.
It shows me in all my ‘too muchness’.
Being ‘too much’ is something I’ve explored and unpicked a lot over the last year or so.
Too ‘out there’.
These are all things I’ve written when journaling over the past year, as things I’ve been told in one way or another throughout my life.
They all stem from my neurodivergency in some way. And I’ve shamed myself for every single one.
But I love this photo. I love my joy in it. I love the fun I feel when I look at it. I love the story it tells. So why shouldn’t I use it as my ‘professional’ profile photo?
Figuring Out Who I Am
Since getting my ADHD diagnosis I have started learning to ‘unmask’. It’s bringing up lots of emotions for me, but gradually I am letting myself fully emerge from the cocoon I wasn’t aware I had spun myself.
Recently in an online singing lesson, a student told me that the person sitting in the same room but off-screen (who I knew was there) had indicated that they loved seeing me flap my arms around so much as I talk. It made them feel validated, because they are neurodivergent, and do that too. We all had a moment of happiness and appreciation for flappy hands together.
I got an email from a parent of a teenage student straight after her first lesson a few weeks ago, telling me they had seen a lift in her mood immediately after the lesson, and it was because she had finally seen an adult — and a professional — who she saw traits of herself in, who was working with her, and not trying to force her to fit into a standardised template.
A little while ago I had a phone call with the parent of a student I have been teaching for years, where she told me that she’s so glad I am a part of their child’s support circle because I am one of the few people they feel able to open up to, and that my support and mentorship is invaluable.
I have had students, friends and followers message me since I started sharing about my ADHD and mental health to say thank you, and that I’ve made them feel not so alone.
In the last year or so, I’ve found new ways of existing and communicating that make me happier, and less anxious.
I’m learning that if I let all my ‘too muchness’ out, I can actually do my job better.
It’s obvious when I think about it.
I’m able to be me, without having to fight against the limits I put on myself because society told me certain things were and weren’t ‘professional’.
I’m still struggling. ADHD isn’t all fun and games. But I refuse to let anyone label me as ‘too’ anything anymore.