The Problem with Self-Portraits

“Today’s project is called ‘Express Yourself,’” Ms. Eng announced to her fifth-grade class. “You are all going to create a self-portrait that represents the artist—that’s you! I want you to tell us something about yourself through the image you create, and then add a phrase or sentence to go with it. This is a great opportunity for everyone in class to learn more about each of you, so let’s get started!”

Marites groaned, slumped in her seat, and stared at her blank sheet of paper. Self-portraits are the worst, she thought. First of all, I never like drawing myself because the pictures always came out badly. How do you even draw a nose, anyway? Nostrils look ridiculous. On top of that, we’re supposed to tell something about ourselves? The only thing worse than drawing yourself is talking about yourself!

Marites picked up her pencil, looked up, and glanced around the classroom. To her surprise, everyone else seemed to be working already. To her right, Nora had gathered her supplies, placing a watercolor palette in front of her and mixing a pale purple. Nora’s favorite color was purple: her backpack was purple and her sneakers were purple. She even had a purple streak in her hair. Across from Marites, Theo had drawn a large oval with thick Sharpie marker and was starting to add his dark brown curly hair. He didn’t even sketch it out in pencil first, Marites noticed.

How does anyone know how to begin? Marites wondered. She hadn’t even picked out which art supplies she was going to use! What colors “represent” me—black for my long black hair or green for my ‘Save the Earth’ backpack? My stuff comes in all different colors—my jacket is blue, my shoes are red, my sweatshirts are pink and orange. I don’t even have a favorite color!

“Class, I can’t wait to see what you are going to share with us about yourselves,” Ms. Eng chirped. “Show some of your favorite things. What’s exciting to you these days? What are you doing when you feel happiest or most like yourself?”

Ms. Eng moved over to Ana’s desk. “Wow, Ana,” she said, “I see you’re drawing yourself in some kind of spotlight. Is that background a stage? I wonder if you like acting or singing.” Then the teacher glanced at the creation of one of the boys. “Lionel, it looks like you’ve pictured yourself wearing huge headphones, which makes me wonder what kind of music you like to listen to.”

Marites felt a knot in her stomach as Ms. Eng stopped and looked over her shoulder. It was her blank piece of paper that seemed in a spotlight now.

“Hey there, Marites, it looks like you’re still figuring out your piece.”

“I…just…I can’t do it,” Marites muttered and slammed her pencil down on the table. “I don’t know what to draw, I don’t have any good ideas, it’s…it’s… just too hard!”

Marites felt her shoulders rise and stiffen and figured that she was about to get reprimanded. A second passed, then another. She glanced up nervously at Ms. Eng. But Ms. Eng didn’t seem mad at all—in fact, she was nodding her head.

“Self-portraits are hard for a lot of people,” her teacher said. “They’re hard for me too! Tell me, Marites, what is one part of this project that seems extra hard to you?”

Marites’s eyes swept around the classroom. “I just…don’t know what to choose—or how to start. I can’t think of one thing that represents me… I don’t even have a favorite food!” she exclaimed. “When I’m sick, my favorite food is my Lolo’s arroz caldo, you know, like a thick rice and chicken soup. At picnics, my favorite food is a mango sliced and dotted with salt. And on my birthday, my favorite food is apple pie—never, ever cake. That’s why it is impossible for me to pick one favorite,” Marites said in a shaky voice. “And I definitely can’t pick one thing that represents me,” she added, letting out a big breath of air.

“That makes all the sense in the world to me, Marites,” said Ms. Eng, “and there’s nothing wrong with not having one favorite thing. In fact, I bet most people are like that, if you really ask them. And you know what? The fact that you have different ‘favorites’ is really intriguing,” Ms. Eng went on. “I would love to know more about them. What if you use this project to share many parts of yourself—the things you’re interested in, the feelings you have, even the foods you like to eat sometimes?”

Marites’s eyebrows scrunched together, as they always did when she was thinking extra hard. After a few moments, she began to nod her head. “I think I can do that, Ms. Eng. I have an idea.”

She gathered up a batch of different colored pencils, finally picking a bright orange that looked like a ripe juicy mango. Next, she decided upon a brown pencil to make a bowl of warm arroz caldo, and then grabbed a black pencil to draw her straight long black hair. Finally, she filled her sheet of paper with different sized and different colored oval shapes to be her faces.

Marites wouldn’t draw just one image of herself—she would draw several. And each one would represent what she liked… sometimes.