Why is so hard for women to love photos of themselves?
I have always hated having my photo taken. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have hated having my photo taken since I started school.
Pictorial evidence from my early years in the wilderness — before societal norms were imposed on me via the education system — shows me to be happy, and even comfortable, in front of a camera.
I remember moments from before school started, but none of them relate to my appearance or how it was perceived by others.
And yet, some of my earliest memories of school are linked to photographs. I can vividly remember the trauma of school photo day when I was very little, which was always preceded by a screaming match as my mum tried to get a brush through my curly (and extremely knotted) hair to look ‘smart’. I remember queueing up alongside the other girls in my class and being acutely aware of our differences — their beauty felt like an absence of my own.
My best friend and I still joke about the one photo day when she was jealous because the photographer called me ‘Goldilocks’ — I’m not sure I ever told her of the burning inadequacy I felt when I heard them say she was ‘pretty’, and didn’t say the same to me.
It’s a feeling that has stayed with me since, building in a steady crescendo. It followed me into my awkward teenage years, my university days and then young adulthood, and most recently resurfaced last week when I had my headshots taken for this column.
As I stood awkwardly in front of the photographer, I scanned through a mental list of my flaws and recited the list of well-rehearsed instructions I’ve compiled to hide them over the years: stand up straight, shoulders back, tilt head slightly to the left (my good side), tummy in, lift chin, open eyes wide, smile. Look happy but not too happy, confident but not smug, smart but not intimidatingly so, sexy but not overtly, cool but relatable, serious but not boring.
And it will come as no surprise to anyone that all of this thinking — this obsessing about the way I looked or appeared — contrived to make me look and feel awkward and self-conscious.
When the photos came back my instinct was a sharp shock that eventually simmered to shame. ‘Do I really look like that?’ I thought. ‘God, I’ve let myself go, I look bloated and overweight, my features are drowning in excess fat on my face…. And oh god I’m such a failure, who on earth would want to read something written by someone who looks like that?’
As my thoughts began to spiral, the vocabulary only got more cruel. My plummet into a well of shame was accelerated by worries about being a ‘bad feminist’ for even caring how I looked in the first place. The experience — though maddeningly familiar — left me dizzy.
I shared the images with my friend, after she asked me how the shoot went. ‘They’re gorgeous. I’m jealous – headshots so rarely come out well,’ she replied.
I looked at my phone, perplexed. Was she seeing what I was seeing? ‘But I look awful!’ I shot back, ‘look at how many chins I have!’
We continued in this conversational dance for a while until I concluded that we must be seeing different things. She saw a picture of a person whose thoughts and ideas she respected. I saw a canvas of all of my perceived failures laid out in front of me. But how could one photo provide two such wildly different interpretations?
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Alice walks through a mirror and enters a different world, one where everything is surreal and distorted. I often think that seeing a photo of yourself provokes a similar emotional experience. Instead of seeing the version of yourself that you’ve become accustomed to seeing in the mirror, you see someone else’s perspective of you — one in which your features are the opposite way round, and where they receive an equal amount of focus, and without the intense analysis of self-criticism.
The experience can be jarring, because it reveals the chasm between how others see you and how you see yourself — something we, as humans, are wilfully accustomed to ignoring.
And so you try to narrow the gap by manipulating the way you look on your side of the lens. You pose in ways that highlight the parts of yourself you’re more comfortable with. You try to hide those parts that you believe decrease your value.
It’s something that social media and smartphones have only exacerbated. For one thing, the selfie function on our phones has made the act of taking photographs of ourselves much more regular. For many of us, the majority of photos we see of ourselves are those we’ve taken — we have become our own personal photographers. This, in turn, has increased the time we spend looking and considering photos of ourselves, judging their value. And it’s given us the power to edit and manipulate the way we appear to others.
As women, we’re often told to change parts of ourselves, to file our sharp edges into something more blunted and homogenous — the ultimate goal presumably being that we all end up looking the same. We label things as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and use this binary way of thinking to judge each other, and ourselves. Selfies let us accentuate the ‘good’ and hide the ‘bad’.
By passing the camera to someone else, we surrender control over how we will look. We also give up our power to edit away elements of ourselves or hide them from view. We see another version of ourselves, and it often jars. And our instinct is to hate it.
But it can be empowering too. It’s an invitation to step out of our own fixed way of looking at our appearance, and to accept another perspective. It’s an opportunity to see ourselves as complex, multi-dimensional beings — and to understand that our deeply held beliefs and how we look are really just one opinion that is no more true or accurate than anyone else’s.
And not just that, but each and every picture tells a story, the context of which plays a critical role in our emotional response to them. There are photos of me looking unkempt and wild, but they make me feel warm because of the memories they evoke. Because they make me remember fond moments. The inverse is true of posed pictures in full hair and make up where I look unnatural, uncomfortable or forced.
Photographs have the power to capture so much more than just two dimensions. They’re small fragments of the thoughts, feelings, successes, failures, friendships and experiences that shape our lives. In that sense, if we only let ourselves appreciate those that adhere to our own prescriptive guidelines about acceptability, we are losing so much of the magic of what they represent.
Understanding this has helped me gain enough perspective to be able to consider that other, more positive interpretations of my headshots might carry as much value as my own, and accept that the truth is probably somewhere in between: that they’re not the best photos of me ever, or even the worst. But they’re alright, and maybe that’s enough.