No Filter


I was talking recently with some people who joked, all in good fun, that my life on Instagram looks like Super Magic Happy Fun Land. I had to agree. A lot of my photos are taken by the beach, have a light-and-bright filter applied, and showcase the moments and angles I found most beautiful. Worth sharing.

The next day, we gathered at WordCamp Portland to talk about the subject of Permanence. Keynote speaker Jen Mylo explored the idea of being able to see blog posts in the context of their original design, with the author’s original Gravatar. It’s an interesting concept, but can you imagine how some of us might react to that feature? These days, our online selves are carefully curated. We’re writing, and constantly revising, history.

This type of carefully curated perfection isn’t so new to me, though. I grew up in The Midwest: Land of always looking your best, sitting in the front row at church each Sunday, and not telling anyone what you really think. Or maybe that was just my family. And every family we knew.

An equal and opposite reaction

I’m having kind of a flat design moment in my life. Not because it’s a trend, per se, but because I think it’s kind of the natural, cleansing reaction to having worked with textured, layered designs for so long. Or to having lived in this social media fishbowl from Friendster to MySpace to now.

For instance, I live in a normal house on the edge of a wild canyon, and it is largely undecorated except for a heavy farmhouse table with an orange felt bench in the center of the dining room. A few pieces of art are hung on the walls, but we’ve gotten rid of almost everything we don’t use on a daily basis. It’s flooded with natural light, and I mop the tile floors almost daily. Clean, well-lit, and smelling like Pine-Sol–just like Hemingway would have wanted. I drink plain espresso or black coffee. Most days, when I’m home, I wear the same white v-neck t-shirt and black jeans.

I want less of everything. I want more real things. I want to say what I’m thinking. I want to stop worrying about what you’re thinking.

I am fascinated, obsessed really, with the simple, straightforward, and honest. In design trends, in clothing, and especially in people. I spend far more time than you’d imagine observing and thinking about the handful of people I know who fall into this category. When they talk, they have clear, bright eyes. No filter. They have a talent for the uncomplicated presentation of what are often uncomfortable observations. Their words aren’t wrapped in their own insecurities or selfish agendas, and as a result they often get more accomplished and in more a pleasant way. When you meet someone like this, you know immediately. It’s invigorating. Liberating. This is my code hero, and I’m lucky as hell to be married to one.

And yet, in almost direct contrast, I’ve spent nearly 10 years seeking the approval of others–for a living. Enthusiastic approval if I can get it, and boy do I try. It works for me, because I’m wired that way. I have people-pleasing DNA, and years of professional training/enabling. (So, quick note: I do believe the success of a design often has nothing to do with how a client feels about it, but who among us doesn’t want them to love it anyway?)

In other words, I have quite a filter. Valencia, usually.

The balance in between

While I spend a lot of time thinking about and observing authenticity, I’ve been focusing hard on intentional gratitude for the things I have. I don’t go to the beach with my son and put him on a swing by the ocean just to take a photo to share. I take the photo so I can see, over time, how much I have to be thankful for. A little collection of my blessings.

I don’t take a photo of the tantrum my son has when we’re leaving because that’s not my focus in the moment, or the way I want to remember my life. I capture the moment I want to focus on, remember 20 years from now, and be grateful for. I collect pictures of beautiful sunsets, things I do with my family, my almost-10-year-old chocolate lab, things I see around town that inspire me, or make me laugh (<– really, click that one). I’m just a visual processor, by design.

I look back on the photos as a whole and I’m forced to think, “my life looks really beautiful.” Then doubt creeps in, or maybe it’s guilt, and I think, “it’s just the filter” or, “it’s just the good moments.” But the truth is, my life is really beautiful. Yours is, too. Maybe it’s not Heidi Klum beautiful, maybe it’s a gap-toothed Calvin Klein beautiful, but it’s beautiful.

We want (to define) reality

I often hear from my friends about how annoyed they are with their perfect Facebook friends’ pages. One of my funnier friends is particularly vocal about this, and I sent her this picture I took of something I saw at Nordstrom. It’s a thing now, feeling this way.

While we roll our eyes at the perfect people, we’re giddy about the posts with honest confessions of imperfection–so long as they are funny (for example, Dooce, The Honest Toddler, etc). In contrast to bloggers and Instagrammers who appear to have it all together, the self-sacrificing real people make us feel better about ourselves. They are human: their houses are dirty, they microwaved dinner last night, they suck at Pinterest, they struggle with design. We find their candid failures charming. We can relate.

We’ve made relating to people our priority, and their responsibility. We need and demand it from them, as though they exist to validate us.

Comparison is the thief of joy

When I was 6 years old, my mother married us into a family of 4. From the beginning, my stepdad always wanted to put me in my place. He worked tirelessly at that, and for a long, long time it worked. So, you could say it resonates with me when people want others to hide their light, have less confidence, or less success.

Instead, I believe in exploring and viewing people through a clear lens that has nothing to do with me. I can see people better that way, when I’m not connecting it all back to myself, or how it makes me feel. Not everything is about me. A long time ago, that was a very startling, liberating realization for an anxious, young me. Not everything is about me. If someone’s in a bad mood, or short with me, it doesn’t mean I did something wrong. I try to assume they had a bad day, and hope it gets better. If I see someone’s life is amazing on Instagram, it doesn’t mean mine isn’t. I want that for them, whoever they are. And why not?

I’m saying, when you see some girl’s Instagram full of ‘selfies,’ don’t wish she had less confidence or self-love. In fact, don’t assume she has any at all. I’m saying, stop judging others for what they share. Stop judging yourself as less. (And blaming the internet for those feelings.)

Simply put, Instagram does not make you feel bad about your life. Supermodels don’t make you feel fat. Video games don’t make you violent.

I accept these terms

Lives have always flashed before our eyes–memories, photo albums, yearbooks, wedding slideshows, funeral eulogies–always with a filter. It’s not a new thing, our lives being distilled to happy highlight reels. It’s simply that it’s happening in real-time now, not just in retrospect. It’s real-time, and we’re the authors. We’re writing our own stories, but that doesn’t make it fiction.

I accept that reality is not only what I see, but the way I see it. I accept that something can be authentic, and honest, without being completely stripped down.

I accept that strings of beautiful moments, even edited to be so, are not lies. They exist to remind us that life, while human and full of regular, ordinary shit, is still incredibly beautiful.


  1. John Locke says:

    It’s the great failing of civilization that we ever got away from being anything but real and genuine. I think all value comes from authenticity and being transparent. There’s hope for us all if we can remember that all the time, and worry about making ourselves happy first and foremost.

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