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