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Kristin Armstrong Sees Herself Clearly — and at 50 Has Nothing to Prove

Armstrong writes about a seeing a photo that gave her freedom, confidence and serenity

It isn’t easy to get a family of college-age kids all in one place at the same time. Between jobs, internships, sports, friends and significant others, a family vacation has to be strategized in advance and then immediately booked, so it’s officially blocked. This summer, my parents, my kids, my son’s girlfriend and I were all together at our house in Santa Barbara, California, and I honestly could not remember the last time we were all there at the same time. This precious time was made even more significant with milestone birthdays just around the bend — my 50th in August and my father’s 80th in October.

One of the most thoughtful people on the planet gifted me with an early birthday present — a photographer to take some family photos on the beach. I was so excited imagining these images captured of my favorite people and freezing this moment in family history. Last year, we couldn’t even hug my parents. Life has thrown a few curveballs, but we made it all the way here.

It was a true family photo, complete with stress about outfits and infighting between siblings. My parents, wise survivalists, packed wine and cheese for sustenance. Our photographer, Laura, was amazing. She took everything in stride and even coaxed smiles out of the dissention in the ranks. Nothing fazed her. She was an expert with light, both capturing it and exuding it. She is a couple years older than I am, with gorgeous skin, bright blue eyes and soft gray hair. She carries herself with the easy confidence and warmth of a stunning, talented grown-ass woman. A woman who fully inhabits herself has nothing to prove. By sunset, I had made a new friend.

Several days after returning home, our large file of photos hit my inbox. Some made me laugh, some made me cry, and all of them made me happy. She captured elements of personality and dynamics of connection that would take years to explain in words.

There was one file called “Kristin” with photographs she took of just me. Normally, that would feel awkward to me, but with her, it just felt like we were hanging out at the beach. Plus, I want to write another book this year and will need an updated author photo. In some, I was wearing a white jumpsuit with a long, sleeveless white sweater as a wrap. In others, I wore black. I brought a few of my favorite hats. In most of the shots, I am either walking along the edge of the waves or sitting on a rock by the cliffs.

I had an epiphany as I was looking through these photos. It’s personal, but I’m going to share it with you because this issue is about style, and style is literally nothing without freedom and confidence.

Here goes.

Today, when I look back at photos of my younger self, I think, “Oh, I look so happy, or fit. Or, look how great my skin looked.” Yet I know that at the time the photo was taken, I would have been on a flaw-finding mission, noticing I had a pimple, needed to get my hair highlighted, needed to lose (or gain — AKA misery skinny) five pounds or something equally critical and pointless. When I looked at these photos Laura took of me, I actually saw myself. This sounds simple, but it absolutely isn’t. Maybe it was seeing myself through her lens, and finally clearing my own.

I wasn’t looking for wrinkles or noticing if my hair was frizzy in the beach air. I wasn’t scrutinizing the angle of my arm or wondering if my smile was too big (it legit probably is most of the time). I wasn’t wishing I were younger, or thinner, or prettier or different somehow. I wasn’t giving a single shit about comparing myself to anyone. I looked at the woman in the photo looking back at me, and thought she was simply beautiful.

This is not 80-year-old me, looking back at 50-year-old me, thinking I was cute or had nice skin. This was me, now, today, appreciating myself right where I am, not in retrospect. If I could bottle this awareness and give it away, or write or speak these words and teach what I discovered, oh, honey, I would. It would save us all so much struggle, so much striving, so much division, so much wasted energy, so much precious time.

By the time this is published, I will be 50 years old. And the gift of seeing myself as I am, as enough, may be one of the finer gifts of my passage into Part Two.