The Photographed Body

woman and camera

A few months back, reader K emailed me about posing for photos. She told me that overall, she really loved her body, loved how it looked, and felt confident that it was lovely and strong. But whenever she saw still photos of herself, everything shifted.

I would wager that within the past few years, I’ve been very displeased with about 75% of pictures taken of me. I’ll see the pictures and immediately think, ugh my shoulders look huge, my breasts are too big for my body, my stomach pooches out in an unsightly manner, my arms look doughy and huge, and my thighs look massive. Then, after I see said unflattering pictures, my body confidence takes a huge hit. I’ll wonder, what is the real me that people see? Is it the one who I love to see in the mirror every day?

I’ve written about what it means to be photogenic before, and I feel compelled to lift this marvelous lyric from that post.

“It took me too long to realize that I don’t take good pictures ’cause I have the kind of beauty that moves.”
~ Ani DiFranco, “Evolve”

The first time I heard this phrase, I nearly fell over. It had literally never occurred to me that someone who appeared beautiful in person could look odd in photos, all photos, and that this disconnect could come down to the difference between still beauty and beauty in motion. But it made so much sense. In some cases, what makes us unique and lovely is specific to the nuances of live action. When we’re frozen in time, we just don’t look the same.

But beyond that, I think there is an element of cultural expectation and manipulation at play here. We see photos of people every day. And the VAST majority of those photos have been digitally manipulated in some way. Ridiculously Photoshopped magazine and ad photos may come immediately to mind, but consider the number of “beautification” apps available that can change the shapes, tones, and colors in our simple phone selfies. Truly candid, unretouched, unfiltered photos are relatively rare. And though many of us post images to social media, the ones that include our own images are meticulously selected to show our bodies and faces at their best. At our best.

There are ways to position yourself so you look slimmer in photos – turning your face slightly instead of looking straight into the lens, shifting your body so you’re seen slightly from the side instead of dead-on, good posture, rolled-back shoulders, and more – but if you try these and still loathe the results? There may be something deeper going on. You may be expecting to see a still image that mirrors the photos of digitally perfected women you see all around you. You may have the kind of beauty that moves. Or you may have some buried body image concern or issue that only ever surfaces when you see yourself in photographs.

In the first case, spending some time with old photo albums might be helpful. Immerse yourself in images that are truly candid, truly unretouched, and remind yourself that people can look wacky and soft and ordinary and disproportionate in still photos, and that is completely fine. Photos that include makeup and styling staff, professional lighting and photography, and post-production manipulation look amazing. Photos that were taken at the beach or while sledding or during a birthday party look amazing, too, but in a wholly different way.

In the second case, consider taking some short videos of yourself or asking for help creating some. Seeing yourself photographed but in motion may help things click into place. Some beauty moves. It might not make you feel any better when you get tagged on Facebook, but when someone whips out a camera you can breathe, manage your expectations, and remind yourself that still photos will never accurately represent the real you.

In the third case? Oh, I wish I had some actionable advice that would work for everyone, but I just don’t. I’ve watched as Vivienne McMaster has created and expanded her Be Your Own Beloved offerings, which focus on cultivating self-love through self-portraiture, and cruising through her blog may help shake some things loose. She also has workshops and e-courses that focus on body image and photography. But in some cases, unearthing what’s buried may be deeply personal.

One thing that may be helpful to anyone who dislikes her image in still photos? Remember that photos are not you. Just as your body is not all there is to your self, your image is not all there is to your body, your beauty, your identity. I know this can be tough to swallow since photos are how other people see us, in many cases. But you can’t control what others think of you, be it in person or through the lens. You can only control how you react. And reacting by remembering that your still image captures only a fragment of your unique beauty may help.

Our culture is obsessed with capturing moments on camera, but our lives are lived in motion. Two-dimensional versions will never compare to the living, breathing, thinking, feeling being that is you. Still photos of you are not you. Because more often than not, beauty moves.

Image courtesy Lauren Powell-Smothers

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13 Responses to “The Photographed Body”

  1. Sewing Faille

    Taking up photography has given me a whole new perspective on this. First, I have a better idea of how much of what you look like in the picture has to do with the technical setup– what lens you chose and what lighting you used. I found some comparisons which show how varying the focal length of the lens ( and varying the lighting setup, both in direction ( and lighting quality (, have a huge effect on what someone looks like– and these are just headshots! Imagine the complexity that comes when you factor in posing, background, etc. In person, you can see people as three-dimensional objects, but in photography, you have to render that three-dimensionality through lighting, framing, pose, and so on. Recreating in a photograph what you think you see is hard.

    With the photography books/articles/forums I’ve read, the focus is generally on developing good technique so you can capture someone’s personality or their interactions with the people around them. But, given a choice between good technique and capturing a moving and authentic moment, capturing the moment makes a better photograph every time. There are no bad subjects, just bad photographers, and if you keep getting stiff/bad/uninspiring/unflattering pictures out of someone, it’s your fault for managing the shoot wrong! I’ve run into a few exceptions to that attitude here and there, but in general, it’s really refreshing.

    So now, when I see (or take) a bad picture of myself, I realize that it was probably a case of the photographer not knowing what they were doing, and I try to analyze what about the setup could have been changed to make the picture better. And, also, the beauty of a picture, even to serious photographers, isn’t about how good your various body parts look, it’s about how awesome you are.

  2. Vivienne

    Thanks so much for including me Sally. So honoured and it’s such an amazing post. I LOVE the quote so much. Movement has actually a big key to the healing I’ve found in taking self-portraits. If I move around a bit even if I’m going to pose for the shot (be that taking a deep breath, shaking out the nervousness, doing a silly dance, walking a little bit before pausing to pose) the photo itself is so different…giving ourselves the time to just ground in our bodies, to be the kind of beauty that moves…has really shifted the way I saw myself & I know it is a big aha moment for folks in my classes.

  3. Monica H

    In addition to Sally’s great thoughts above, I’ll add that there is no substitute for a talented photographer, preferably one who sees your beauty.. In our digital Instagram world where we all have a lot of tools at our fingertips, many people seem to think they will get professional results. And while it’s true the technology has made it easier for the average person to take better pictures, talent and training still make a huge difference. When we see the beautiful pictures of Sal on her site, we are not just looking at Sal. We are looking at her through the lens of HM, with his perspective of her beauty and his expertise shaping the final result.

  4. nishaa

    I had a professional photographer say that a still frame adds 20 lbs to your weight and a video about half of that. he should know, he used to do photographs for runway, photo shoots, ads. .

  5. Shawna McComber

    This is such a valid post for me and I really connected with this concept the last time you wrote about it, Sally. I am like the woman who wrote to you. I like the body I see in the mirror but not the one I see in photographs. I know the tricks of how to stand and angle myself but many things that happen with a photo are not in my control. Unless it is a professional photo lighting is quite likely not to be flattering. I am taller than average so there is a good chance the photographer is taking the picture of me at an upward angle which makes me look wider. Also, in living with a chronic illness it is quite true that at any event or gathering, the kind of place where photos are often taken, I will be exhausted and not have wonderful posture. When sitting I can look quite lumpy as my whole body collapses downwards. I am learning just to accept these things but it is a very slow process. I still find my heart sinks at the sight of most candid or semi-candid photos of myself. I am also a person who is quite animated when talking, using a lot of facial expressions and bodily gestures so I am likely to be caught freeze-frame looking quite weird. Learning that most of this is not how people see me as a whole, is an ongoing process.
    I love that quote about being a moving beauty. Thank you for sharing and spreading that idea.

  6. Lisa Wong

    Great post, Sal.

    Sometimes the way we stand and hold ourselves naturally is not what makes for a photogenic result. The boy takes all my outfit photos for the blog. He’s not a trained photographer, but through trial and error he’s learned what I like in photos and will coach me when I’m doing something that might photograph awkwardly (“Shoulders back, chest out, tilt your head this way”). I might feel awkward and uncomfortable as anything in the moment, but the photos look relaxed and natural.

  7. Liz

    I read the same thing a long time ago about Eleanor Roosevelt–her contemporaries all remarked how lovely she was in person but–as we know–she didn’t photograph well.
    And what a truly beautiful human being she was!

  8. Julie Daum

    whooo, this is a tough subject for me. I agree with your above points, and as a spouse of a photographer and a photographer myself, I love the idea of a moving beauty. it has taken me many years to get comfortable with my plus size body, and some days I really (really!) love my body and how I look. I dislike 99% of all photos taken by me, even ones taken by the photographer husband, it caused HUGE issues in our marriage, because I kept thinking, “is that how he sees me?” I kept thinking he loved me despite how I appeared in photos, not because. We spent hours looking at photos, practicing lighting, angles, distance etc etc, and while there are some better results, I have accepted the fact that I am just not photogenic, I have the kind of beauty that resists being captured, most of the time. Having just said that, my current Facebook profile picture is a portrait taken by my husband last fall.

  9. Ros

    Take photos of yourself. A lot. Naked, clothed, half-clothed, at every angle. Learn what your body really looks like in person and on film. Don’t discard the ‘unflattering’ ones. Embrace them. Laugh at them. Love them. That way, you’ll never be surprised by what you look like in photos. You’ll recognise yourself in them and love them, the way other people see you and love you.

  10. 33

    I’ve been using remote to take outfit photos for almost a year, 5 days a week. At first I kept a lot of shots but l learned to be brutal and only kept 5 no matter how much I liked the rest.

    To be honest, it’s hard to see unflattering photos of myself. But I do try to keep a positive attitude that beauty is in the eye of beholder.

    I’ve noticed, from checking fashion bloggers daily that many started out having a chubby body and green in posing. Over time (after a few years), the ones with higher profile all got lean and toned, every. single. one. of. them.. The fact that they must be highly critical of their body must have played a role to prompt them to eat clean and work out.

    Posing technique is also learned for most ppl. Over time I know what poses make me look leaner or hide the bulk better.

    At the end of the day, my fashion blog is only a tool for me to document my outfit and to see what works and what not. As an added benefit, to encourage me to be more diligent in eating well and being active.

    If you are interested in my theory, you can check out my blog at chictopia.
    Look at the ones from last december and then the recent ones. There’s a positive change in how I dress and my body. (BTW, I was using a Canon pocket camera until I bought a Sony Nex 2 months ago.)

  11. disqus_XNoXjKZyrg

    I recently had a boudoir photo session and boy was that an eye-opener. I’m in the process of losing some weight and ended up having the photo session at a time when I was about 10-15 pounds over my “happy weight” (not my ideal weight, just the place my body naturally settles into when I’m being semi-healthy and conscious about it). I would have preferred to do the photoshoot after losing some more weight but I hate the idea of putting off fun things until I reach my weight goal, it feels like a stupid reason to not be living life.

    Anyway, I just looked at the gallery of unretouched photos and it’s amazing how different I look in photos taken in the same lighting, on the same day, in the same outfit. In some of the shots I look like a beached whale. I have a double chin and my fat rolls are all over the place. In other shots I look like I could be a size zero (in reality I’m around a 10). In a lot of them the overall size of my body is pretty clear, but it looks great in some poses and not great in others. It really just hit home how much of a difference the poses and camera angles make.