Questions for Roxane Gay’s “Once, I was pretty”

Questions for Roxane Gay’s “Once, I was pretty”

What do you make of the sentence: “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair.” Is this just a nice image, or are there deeper implications suggested here? If so, what are they?

What comes first—the memory or the picture? Does this essay imply that if the picture did not exist in a family albums, she would not have a memory of the event? Take note of the curious brackets in the first paragraph: “[insert significant family moment].”

It seems that for Gay pictures works as proxies—objects that stand in for “the why”—or do erase the why—what are your thoughts—how do you think family pictures—or Facebook albums work. What purpose do they serve in the relationships with our family and friends? Do they explain things that are “complicated and slippery” or do they do away with things that are so? Image

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16 thoughts on “Questions for Roxane Gay’s “Once, I was pretty”

  1. scasey68

    “Once I was Pretty” ~ Roxane Gay
    Pictures are visual representations that hold time still. They allow us to look back and reflect. Pictures can also fill in a missing void in our memory. A void we may have purposely chosen to forget because it was long ago and our memory just isn’t what it used to be or perhaps it was a painful reminder of a time we would like to forget.
    “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair” is a creative use of imagery. Gay interprets the many sides of her mother through her hairstyles. Gay is able to recognize the two different roles her mother plays; one as a wife and one as a mother. She refers to her hair in regard to motherhood as long and cascading down her back while in a thick ponytail. However, she compares her parents love for one another with hair that is wild and hanging loosely.
    Roxane Gay relies on pictures to ignite her memory. In her essay, Gay reflects on the importance of these pictures to help her remember. Pictures are significant for her to see how happy and loved she was as a child. The pictures remind her of relationships with her siblings as well as other members of her family. As she looks back fondly, she is able to chronologically follow her path of memories of a happy childhood through to a time period she chose to erase. Gay lets the reader know her time of darkness and despair started in her teenage years as this is evident in pictures from that time. She references the time period of darkness with short hair and hollow eyes and grapples with the questions of Why? Why did it happen? Why didn’t anyone notice? Why? To Gay ~ the evidence is right there in the picture.
    Pictures not only remind us of a time, place and/or memory, they can be interpreted differently by each individual. The same exact picture can bring a significantly different response and emotion from each individual. Personally, I feel pictures cannot answer or explain the Why of “complicated and slippery” because each response is done on an individual and personal basis. What may be an answer for one may not be the same answer for another even thought they were both there at the same moment. Our interactions are individual of ourselves and therefore each reaction cannot be the same. For example, Gay uses the picture of her baptism picture with her cousin. She explains how she is squirming, almost uncomfortable. Gay then alludes to the fact that she was a smart baby and she and her cousin are not close. Gay is clearly uncomfortable looking at this picture; it seems to spark animosity in her. Gay’s cousin may look at this same picture and not share the same emotions. Gay makes it obvious in her writing that a significant event threw her into despair and darkness. She questions why nobody in her family saw it when the hollow in her eyes are so evident to her. She writes about the bonds of family and how they are all tied together yet at this crucial time she was all alone. Perhaps it was Gay’s relationship with the cousin that took her to such a lonely place. In hindsight, the picture may be the starting point to addressing the forgotten memory and healing may start from that moment on.

    Reply
  2. timmyrooney

    Roxanne Gay, discusses her memories in the essay, Once I Was Pretty. Throughout the essay, Gay, discusses how her mother always took pictures of every moment of her early life, from an adorable child, to her start as a rebellious teenager. “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair.” Roxanne, writes this early on in the essay, shortly after she suggests how she forgets many things her siblings talk about. Many people need a spark to help them remember something. One remembers an ex-lover, when you hear “your song,” yet that song contains none of the things you did. Much is the same with the pictures; the pictures do not hold all of her memories, but allow her to access them. For instance, during the essay she writes of her Doctoral Thesis, and she remembers her mom taking pictures of her every few minutes. Presumably, there was no one taking pictures of her mom, yet she still remembers it, because the picture provides the spark necessary to grasp the entire thing.
    When we see a Photo, of a memory whether on Photobucket, or an old album, that picture cannot hold the Terabyte of information, we have on the event. However, that picture allows us to remember the entire thing. A picture’s relationship with a memory is akin to an URL and a website; the URL does not have much power by itself, however coupled with a domain it opens up a massive amount of information.

    -Timothy Rooney

    Reply
    1. scasey68

      Pictures are visual representations that hold time still. They allow us to look back and reflect. Pictures can also fill in a missing void in our memory. A void we may have purposely chosen to forget because it was long ago and our memory just isn’t what it used to be or perhaps it was a painful reminder of a time we would like to forget.
      “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair” is a creative use of imagery. Gay interprets the many sides of her mother through her hairstyles. Gay is able to recognize the two different roles her mother plays; one as a wife and one as a mother. She refers to her hair in regard to motherhood as long and cascading down her back while in a thick ponytail. However, she compares her parents love for one another with hair that is wild and hanging loosely.
      Roxane Gay relies on pictures to ignite her memory. In her essay, Gay reflects on the importance of these pictures to help her remember. Pictures are significant for her to see how happy and loved she was as a child. The pictures remind her of relationships with her siblings as well as other members of her family. As she looks back fondly, she is able to chronologically follow her path of memories of a happy childhood through to a time period she chose to erase. Gay lets the reader know her time of darkness and despair started in her teenage years as this is evident in pictures from that time. She references the time period of darkness with short hair and hollow eyes and grapples with the questions of Why? Why did it happen? Why didn’t anyone notice? Why? To Gay ~ the evidence is right there in the picture.
      Pictures not only remind us of a time, place and/or memory, they can be interpreted differently by each individual. The same exact picture can bring a significantly different response and emotion from each individual. Personally, I feel pictures cannot answer or explain the Why of “complicated and slippery” because each response is done on an individual and personal basis. What may be an answer for one may not be the same answer for another even thought they were both there at the same moment. Our interactions are individual of ourselves and therefore each reaction cannot be the same. For example, Gay uses the picture of her baptism picture with her cousin. She explains how she is squirming, almost uncomfortable. Gay then alludes to the fact that she was a smart baby and she and her cousin are not close. Gay is clearly uncomfortable looking at this picture; it seems to spark animosity in her. Gay’s cousin may look at this same picture and not share the same emotions. Gay makes it obvious in her writing that a significant event threw her into despair and darkness. She questions why nobody in her family saw it when the hollow in her eyes are so evident to her. She writes about the bonds of family and how they are all tied together yet at this crucial time she was all alone. Perhaps it was Gay’s relationship with the cousin that took her to such a lonely place. In hindsight, the picture may be the starting point to addressing the forgotten memory and healing may start from that moment on.

      Reply
  3. williamaviles2

    Roxane Gay’s “Once, I Was Pretty” is an insightful account of her family memories through photos. Gay writes in vivid details how her mother’s photo albums are a gateway to memories that were once forgotten, memories that allude to a time of childhood innocence. For many, photos of family and friends may spark recollections of a happier time. The images captured in our family photos may often represent pinnacle moments of love and joy, which in turn may distort our memories of the past. Through the photographic mirage of nostalgic smiling faces, one may omit the harsh memories that come with one’s personal history. Family photos and pictures on websites, such as Facebook, are too often a false depiction of the human experience. There are benefits in utilizing photos and social media to stay connected with family and friends, this is because it acts as a conduit to an idealized time. However, within this bubble of joyful memories, one can easily overlook the positive and negative intricate dynamics that are involved in close relationships. Photos can be a powerful medium into the past, which may often evoke emotions of happiness, however they are not always true representations of the journey through life. Photos are merely a caption that one chooses to illustrate.

    Will Aviles

    Reply
  4. scasey68

    Pictures are visual representations that hold time still. They allow us to look back and reflect. Pictures can also fill in a missing void in our memory. A void we may have purposely chosen to forget because it was long ago and our memory just isn’t what it used to be or perhaps it was a painful reminder of a time we would like to forget.
    “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair” is a creative use of imagery. Gay interprets the many sides of her mother through her hairstyles. Gay is able to recognize the two different roles her mother plays; one as a wife and one as a mother. She refers to her hair in regard to motherhood as long and cascading down her back while in a thick ponytail. However, she compares her parents love for one another with hair that is wild and hanging loosely.
    Roxane Gay relies on pictures to ignite her memory. In her essay, Gay reflects on the importance of these pictures to help her remember. Pictures are significant for her to see how happy and loved she was as a child. The pictures remind her of relationships with her siblings as well as other members of her family. As she looks back fondly, she is able to chronologically follow her path of memories of a happy childhood through to a time period she chose to erase. Gay lets the reader know her time of darkness and despair started in her teenage years as this is evident in pictures from that time. She references the time period of darkness with short hair and hollow eyes and grapples with the questions of Why? Why did it happen? Why didn’t anyone notice? Why? To Gay ~ the evidence is right there in the picture.
    Pictures not only remind us of a time, place and/or memory, they can be interpreted differently by each individual. The same exact picture can bring a significantly different response and emotion from each individual. Personally, I feel pictures cannot answer or explain the Why of “complicated and slippery” because each response is done on an individual and personal basis. What may be an answer for one may not be the same answer for another even thought they were both there at the same moment. Our interactions are individual of ourselves and therefore each reaction cannot be the same. For example, Gay uses the picture of her baptism picture with her cousin. She explains how she is squirming, almost uncomfortable. Gay then alludes to the fact that she was a smart baby and she and her cousin are not close. Gay is clearly uncomfortable looking at this picture; it seems to spark animosity in her. Gay’s cousin may look at this same picture and not share the same emotions. Gay makes it obvious in her writing that a significant event threw her into despair and darkness. She questions why nobody in her family saw it when the hollow in her eyes are so evident to her. She writes about the bonds of family and how they are all tied together yet at this crucial time she was all alone. Perhaps it was Gay’s relationship with the cousin that took her to such a lonely place. In hindsight, the picture may be the starting point to addressing the forgotten memory and healing may start from that moment on.

    Reply
  5. Andrea Hardalo

    Throughout Roxane Gay’s “Once, I Was Pretty,” I felt that Gray was trying to find “herself” through these photographs and memories. A lot of the beginning of the essay describes how her mother is the one making these memories for her, which makes sense considering as babies our minds aren’t stable enough to remember those events. For example there are numerous pictures of myself at my first birthday party, but do I actually remember what happened at that first birthday party? Absolutely not…As a baby, Gray’s mother is the one savoring these memories and as we see in the end of the essay Gray begans to transition into her own person, could it be because her mother isn’t the one documenting her memories for her anymore? I think the sentence “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair,” is a metaphor for the implication that her mother was the one “controlling” or making her childhood memories. On our own we have our own memories, but with our families there are collective memories. I think that in most cases the memory comes before the photo and in a sense the photo is there to document the memory, but with Gray’s memories I find it hard to tell which came first. In the beginning she can’t remember family memories, but in the second paragraph she claims that she has a good memory. It seems that in Gray’s case the photo comes first and then the memory (or her mother’s memory since they are documented through her mother’s photos). I believe that photo albums help us remember specific events, not our memories. I don’t think they always positively show the relationship between our family and friends. Photos of certain memories can help one remember what happened at that time, but I believe what we mentally remember can be different than what is documented. To clear up my last statement I mean that a photo can document one thing/event, but when seeing that picture it can probably trigger a bunch of memories from that event.

    Reply
  6. Jeff Manalo

    It could be a nice image, but I’m not sure the author intends it to be ‘nice.’ The feeling of disenchantment seems to pervade in her piece. I think the idea of things woven together here suggest a manufactured permanence. Her memories are both linked to and stuck in the image of her mother’s hair. She remarks in the beginning that her mother tried to “fill in some of the blanks” of her missing memories. “She remembers everything or that’s how it seems or that’s how it was until I went away to boarding school at thirteen, and then there was no one there to hold on to my memories for me.” It suggests memories not just of her mother, but through the lens of her mother’s experiences, rather than the author’s own.
    I think, for the author, the memory comes first, despite the fact that she begins her thoughts with pictures. She claims to have purged memories, but REMEMBERS the series of events surrounding every picture. I think, if there was no memory attached to a picture, it would be difficult to have any feelings toward it. She can’t ‘insert’ certain memories because they were likely not her own. Maybe if there was a picture she’d remember what her family members did, but that still requires the memory having been there all along. The author does nice job creating the illusion that the pictures retained the memories, but without the author’s own recollections those photos would be empty.
    In general, photos are just a captured moment in time. In art and media, a photograph captures a moment that frames what the photographer wishes to convey to their audience. Family pictures are rarely of the same species. They usually capture some forced, or rather, contrived moment in a family’s history. It’s also usually meant to portray a sense of idealized or idyllic event. I think Facebook pictures are somewhere in-between. All of a sudden, everyone’s an artist, but really they are contrived moments meant to capture what the photographer wishes to have the onlooker perceive.They are meant to show friends and family that a certain individual is having experiences outside of the their usual bonds and bounds. I think that any photo can contribute to the complications or the slipperiness of of memory. A happy moment in family album could be a gold mine of complication, if say, a family is divided or generally unhappy. A picture of a member of the U.S. military pointing his rifle at a captured civilian could convey many ideas that hinge on the photographer’s perspective. A Facebook picture could hint at experiences seemingly uncharacteristic of the individual. I picture could mean everything or nothing at all.

    Reply
  7. Mirzet Kolenovic

    In Roxane Gray’s essay “Once, I was pretty”, she reminisces about her childhood by looking through old photo albums. As she’s flipping through the album she sees herself smiling in numerous pictures with her family but yet doesn’t actually remember these moments. Her mother always took photos of her as a baby growing up and noted all the great moments under the photos. In the essay Gray said, “many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair.” While this sentence shows a great deal of imagery I think there is meaning behind it. I think her mother was very influential growing up and was apart of everything. Being the first born in the family I could understand the amount of love her mother expressed to her and always being smothered growing up.
    Memories stay with you forever and they are more valuable than pictures. When a person recalls a memory a lot could run through their head, Who was there? When was this? What was being said? Etc. With that being said pictures are the second best thing, it helps trigger the mind back to the day that memory happened. Even though Gray said in the first paragraph that she doesn’t recollect moments in her childhood, she does. She claimed growing up she had a bad tendency of ‘erasure’, stripping her memories away. I think it’s really hard to erase memories on your own and after she starting looking through the album I bet her mind was flooding with memories.
    Photo albums are very important in my opinion, it helps preserve your memories and help you remember them in an instant. For example just recently my family and I came back from a summer in Europe, we took a ton of pictures. The first thing my mom did when we got back home…. Put them on Facebook ! Haha. The purpose of these photos is for you to look at them whenever you want to recollect and say I’ve been there. Putting them on Facebook so your family and friends to see can also show them what kind of person you are. People looking at them can see emotion and tell how you felt at that moment.

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  8. n.otte

    Every child develops a specific breed of obsession with its mother. A mother is not only caregiver, but also a model of how a person ought to be in a child’s eyes – an example of what they will become. This is a very physical and visual essay, not only as it is built around pictures of the past, but speech almost entirely is ignored. The author mentions early on that she can remember conversation almost word for word, yet doesn’t transcribe conversations she had with her mother but instead provides snapshots that remain meaningful to her. To say that her memories are woven with her mothers hair is not only an attractive turn of phrase but also carries some truth. Her childhood memories are elusive, tangled, and romanticized. It seems necessary to note that the author references her own hair in the final paragraph, that she cuts it off in particular is akin to severing ties with her past self.

    I think there is a lot of truth to the statement the author makes on the third page, “We try to reframe the past to better explain the present.” That entire paragraph alludes to the way memories will inevitably change with us as we grow and change ourselves. What was once fact becomes something pliable, and we change what was true into fiction as it suits us. Pictures, on the other hand, do not change. They are immutable and are proof of the moment as it was, as apposed to the way our minds have shaped it over time for whatever reasons there might be. The pictures in her mother’s albums simply allow her to better remember things the way the actually were, rather than the way she might have had them be if it were up to her.

    I find that pictures, especially when viewed after a long time from when they were taken, have a certain honesty about them that is distinctly inhuman. Looking at a picture of yourself from the past is as close to objective self-assessment as we may ever get (though the eye of the photographer does have the ability to color a moment with their perspective). You might find you have decided who you were despite what may have been, but a picture can do away with that fiction in an instant. Pictures tell a constant truth as we are perhaps incapable of maintaining.
    I wouldn’t say that this simplifies, but rather that it offers an antidote to the mind’s ability to change events that are far in the rearview. Seeing things as they actually were may even complicate things further – waking old demons and so forth. However, a life made up of pictures would be incomplete, because pictures cannot show precisely what that moment meant, and what it has meant differently as time passes. To show pictures of a person growing is not enough to explain a life, it is how the moments that were captured have changed that person and have changed within that person. There is a sort of truth to that mutation as well. Memories often become something different than the truth, but that does not necessarily make them less valuable.

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  9. Brandan Schumacher

    When reading Roxane Gay’s “Once, I was Pretty” the sentence “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair” is written. I believe that this is an image that Roxane truly wants to keep within her memories that would represent all the good things that happened before the bad. When Roxane explains that she cannot remember a lot of years within her life in the first paragraph, it would seem as the image of her mother being young is a nice experience that she is able to witness within the picture. While looking at that same picture, it would seem Roxane may have felt at that point of time she was innocent and had nothing to worry about which would represent her having a nostalgic memory. When it come to the idea of “What comes first – the memory or the picture” there is a complicated idea that one can view within this essay. Seeing that in order to keep a memory, you would need to want it. With a picture, memories are created and also stored; for example, when Roxane was talking about her mother and how young and beautiful she was in the picture, this brought new specific memory into existence which technically, in some cases, could mean the picture comes before the memory. When reading, there are some thoughts I have about family pictures and how online albums work. In order to provide the future generations with ideas of what happened in the past, we are able to provide them with pictures in order for them to grasp knowledge. Even bad pictures serve a purpose, whether it’s to provide someone of the rough patches in life, or to show an example of what not to do. While we want our families to last forever, everyone has to die, so I also believe pictures, whether they are real or on facebook, allows us to keep traditions and educates us about our past whether it was complicated or good.

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  10. fgattie100

    I believe Roxane’s association with her mother’s hair is similar to the family photos. It’s not just a reminder, but a door to the floodgates of her mind. Not only opening up the memories related to the particular photo, but all the wonderful moments she and her mother shared.

    Gay’s first sentence states “There have been years and years of my life I can’t remember a thing about”. This implies that there’s just certain things she would never recall without the photos. It doesn’t mean the memories aren’t there, but photos provide that extra push into her consciousness.

    Photo albums are fun, sentimental, and an important part of our social lives. That being said, we also have to remember photos rarely tell the whole truth. They’re great for clues and insights into the pictured situation, but the camera lens can often skew the facts. I’m sure a photo can help clear up “complicated and slippery things”, but only if the parties stay honest and grounded in reality.

    -Frank Gattie

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  11. Drea Kreth

    The picture comes first. When we are at an event usually the pictures we take we do not even know are significant till after we look them over when the event is done. This is not always the case, obviously if the proud poppa snaps when the son is getting his diploma that is a memory. However, more often than not the pictures we take help to shape the memories we create. This can be especially true if the pictures taken are pictures of the candid variety. This essay does allude to the fact that the narrator has lost part of her past. That her memories are gone and if were not for family stories and pictures they would indeed totally be gone. The reader can infer that something happened to her around the age of 12. Since it causes her to stop dressing girly or making herself “pretty” it was probably a sexual assault. The bracketed insert family moment, shows the fluidity of her losing herself in the jumble of family and emotion and memory. After a while, events from the past can get jumbled together. This is where pictures can help to sort out what happened when.

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  12. Zion Gasilan

    Gay has done a great job with this essay. There is great imagery and the story itself is composed really well. And that sentence about her childhood memories being compared to her mother’s hair is one great example. It is simple and nice, but also shows something deeper. It simply mean that her childhood days were influenced greatly by her mother. Her mother has a huge during her younger years. The memories and experiences she had was greatly affected by the one who gave birth to her. It was not mentioned why, but assuming that she grew more with her mom and formed a closer bond with her than her father. Gay even said it herself, that “the ways in which I am my mother’s daughter are infinite.” Meaning, there are many similarities with the two of them. She looked up to her beautiful mom growing up, and became just like her. 

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  13. Sarah Abdalla

    Almost every single person in the society we live in has a smart phone and/or a digtal camera and almost every single person uses their device to photograph things and people that amuse them wheather it be in a postive of negative matter. I have over 2000 pictures on my cellphone alone, most of the pictures are of food and outfits I wore I never really look back at the pictures unless I want to show them to someone else to futher emphasise to them how good something looked or did not look.

    Gay beigins by describing pictures where she looked pretty, she was simply happy, and pictures that showed how loved she was. However towards the end it seemed that even though the pitures still illustrated a happy family she did not seem pleased with the way she looked in the pictures. It seemed like the reminded her of how unhappy she was with her apperance and how much she wanted to go back to being a girly girl but does not seem to know how to get there.

    I dont think pictures do much explaining as to why things happen or why they turn out a certin way because “things arent always what they seem” I smile in every single picture but that defintly does not mean I’m always happy.

    I believe that Gay only enjoied looking at the pictures that reminded of herself happy because the rest were not a reminder of a memory instead they were how she felt right now. She is searching for an answer in pictures that cant speak instead looking into herself to find the girly girl she wants to go back to being.

    -Sarah Abdalla

    Reply
  14. krod910

    to Roxane Gay, it seems as pictures always her to take time and almost bottle the moment up so she can never lose it because she seems to have lost herself through out her life. it seems as leaving for boarding school took everything away from Roxane because she was away from from everything that mattered to her which was he brothers and parents. Roxane feels as if being “Pretty” was when she was happy and surrounded by loved ones to keep track of all the memories they shared. it seems as maybe her mother grew ill and this is why Roxane says “Many of my childhood memories are woven with my mother’s hair.”, which may also explain why she was sent to boarding school and had nobody to share memories with. Roxane’s maybe allows herself to forget certain memories because they associate with pain that she does not want to allow to crawl into her skin.

    Reply
  15. matthewpine1

    Roxanne gay uses pictures as a metaphor for memories and the triggered emotions that often accompany them. The title of the piece “Once, I was Pretty” seems to express the author’s lack of self-esteem in both her physical appearance and current ability to attract others– an ability not limited to looks. Her mother seemed to form a foundation to her initial happiness, and it seems that as her mother got worse Gay’s own emotional structure began to crumble as she cared less about how she looked. The photos seem to represent a gradual destruction of her confidence; she eventually just wears things regardless of how pretty she thinks she looks in them. I believe that her appearance and mother’s health were linked and can be tracked through the photographs, and perhaps Roxanne Gay relives those gaps in happiness as she reminisces about the past when taking a look at her old photo album.

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