the dad gaze

My Husband Loves Nothing More Than Posting A Carousel Of Unflattering Photos Of Me To Instagram

Lately, though, I’m trying to embrace them. Here’s why.

by Priyanka Mattoo

There’s only one gift your male partner actually wants this Father’s Day, and that’s for you to let him post a carousel of unflattering photos of you online.

I understand why many might hate this idea — ladies’ group chats explode every Mother’s Day over the collective betrayal — and I used to hate it, too. Like many women I know, on every special occasion my husband would carefully select the large array of photos he’d post in an Instagram tribute to my birth, or my maternal spirit. He’s not one to rush a decision, so he’d go pore over them carefully, in another room, as a special surprise for me. And then I’d screech, looking at the post. “Oh my GOD,” I’d say. “WHY THESE? There are so many nicer pictures. Why are you doing this to me?”

Then this year, I looked up at him and saw that his face was bewildered and upset, and realized I was being a monster. “What do you like about these ones?” I finally asked, gently this time, and we went through them, so I could understand.

First up was a shot in which I’m flanked by the kids at a restaurant, and clearly dissociating. How could you possibly like this? I ask. “You look pretty and distracted,” he tells me. “You’re gripping that hand sanitizer and staring into space,” he continues, as if this is objectively a good thing. I wonder sometimes if we speak the same language. He shrugs. “I like a photo that looks the way our life looks.”

What about the one where we are three days into a campervan trip, and our preschooler is climbing my shoulders while I try to scarf down some instant ramen? Food, interrupted, is a recurring motif in his family photography, and while it reminds me of the rarity of a moments’ peace, I wonder how he sees it. “You went camping for me, and you liked it, and you were good at it,” he says. That did mean a lot to him, an outdoor enthusiast. It made me feel good to give myself over to that part of his life, and learn I enjoyed it. “Unfortunately for you,” he continues — turns out he has a lot to say — “it kind of captures the way you generally have a kid growing out of your back. It captures the burden and the joy you carry.” I soften.

In my husband’s saved favorites, I’m often in my rattiest pajamas, actively navigating a mental health crisis, with a half-naked child climbing on my body.

I’m already seeing the rest of his posts in a new light, but then we get to the most puzzling category: a picture of me fast asleep in bed at 8 p.m., in my daytime clothes. I cringe, thinking about the times we are so exhausted from the circus of working parenthood that I can’t even do my evening routine. He just loves these nights, he says, and he can’t explain why. I insist that he must. “You’re just never like this,” he says. Like what? I press. “Like… a nearsighted baby penguin who’s half-asleep. You’ve probably kicked one sock off, and are whining for someone to brush your teeth,” he responds. I laugh, and I see it. That does sound pretty cute.

As an exercise, I scroll through the photos I like of myself, which now look like professional headshots by comparison. I look poised, serene, in control of my surroundings. In short, the exact opposite of my lived experience, and my family’s experience with me. This folder of pre-approved photos is technically perfect, signifying almost nothing except a good hair and makeup day. Each one is ready to upload to a “how does she do it all??” type profile of my own imagining, when the real answer is that I mostly don’t.

In my husband’s saved favorites, I’m often in my rattiest pajamas, actively navigating a mental health crisis, with a half-naked child climbing on my body. There’s a picture where I’m livid that we’ve gotten kicked off a Spanish train. I’m not going to tell you whose fault it was, but I don’t think it was mine. And as I kept scrolling through his choices, I started to understand the through line. To him, this collection represents everything he loves about our life together. It celebrates my steadiness, my warmth, my commitment — sometimes to him, sometimes to a travel itinerary. He doesn’t care, as I do, that I looked frumpy in this one, had a breakout in the other, lanky hair in a third. Each photo captures a memory, and a wave of emotion. And learning to see myself as he sees me has gone a long way in unwinding that critical voice in my head that views my face and body as a collection of flaws to be managed.

The ones that are hardest to make peace with, I think, are the ones we experienced so disparately — some of the newborn collection, where he was floating on a cloud of joy, while I was trying not to get sucked into a whirlpool of postpartum anxiety and depression. Those moments represented, to me, my rage about the unfairness of the enterprise — why should I be photographed at rock bottom, to have my broken brain and body on display? But those photos give us a way to talk about that now too — how two people sharing a life, a room, can experience the same moments so differently. With time and distance, I can now feel his joy, and my pride at having knit myself back together. And in starting to understand how he views these images — filled with awe that I’m some kind of life-giving warrior, brimming with gratitude for the family we get to build together — I appreciate them anew.

They can see what we can’t: what we look like when we’re most alive, and how we make them feel.

For a million reasons, we’re full up on the male gaze. It’s given us one suffocating version of womanhood on screen — young, lithe, decorative — enraging, and a beauty standard we still can’t escape. We talk a big game about body acceptance, about celebrating beauty of all kinds, but that critical inner voice still pops up for me when I look at a candid that anyone else has taken: Is that my real shape, is that my posture, what’s going on with my hair, my skin, my teeth?

Perhaps a partner’s unfiltered loving gaze can be a welcome correction to the occasional cruelty of our own. We only see ourselves in glimpses, after all, while their eyes are trained on us all the time: before coffee, or after midnight. Frazzled and furious, sleepy or strange. They can see what we can’t: what we look like when we’re most alive, and how we make them feel.

It’s taken determination and practice to pull myself up the mountain of self-acceptance, to look back at the photos he’s posted of me in the last few years — most of which I tolerated with a tight smile in the moment — and now enjoy them, because I see a version of what he sees.

I’ve started to shed the idea of polished beauty for the contentment of feeling I’ve lived a full life. I’ve learned to love and appreciate myself a little more through my partner’s eyes. And in doing so I’ve begun to crave something other than the boring, posed, hair-and-makeup static family shot that’s become ubiquitous — pulling an apple pie out of the oven, surrounded by corn-fed children. Give me a break. And give me the real: Show me your tired eyes, filled with love. Hair in disarray. Give me an update on your zit, and pillow drool, and your grumpy-ass kids. I want to see and feel (and like!) all of it.

This year, I say we let them post their favorites, without pre-approval, and (eventually) maybe they’ll be our favorites, too.

Priyanka Mattoo is the author of Bird Milk & Mosquito Bones, an upcoming memoir from Knopf (June 18, 2024). Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vulture, and The Hairpin, and her film work in festivals from Sundance to Cannes. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and kids.