Thursday, July 19, 2012

Say Cheese: How I Learned to Love Bad Photos of Myself

One of the hardest things growing up for me was school pictures. Inevitably, I would wake up late on picture day and drop jelly on my shirt at breakfast, or some well-meaning teacher would decide to "smooth" my hair with one of those black plastic combs-- much more suited to Donald Trump's hair than a girl with thick, coarse, wavy locks. I hated sitting on that stool and posing for the photo, but even more so, I dreaded the day the pictures came in. I always begged my teachers to allow me to pass them out so I could snatch mine and that 8x10 clear envelope could be immediately turned over, hidden, and stuffed in my backpack. Being teacher's pet can come in handy, but of course, a couple of times Rusty* or Kyle* was selected to pass out photos and, knowing that it would get under my skin, they would tease me by holding up my picture envelope and making silly comments about the oversized bow in my hair, the growing gap between my teeth or my "fat" chin. Don't get me wrong, these kids were not intentionally trying to bully me, and I was fortunate to grow up in the supportive and caring environment I did.  But, the lifelong dread and anxiety I felt around photography grew based on small experiences like school pictures.

As I got older, I avoided getting in group shots as a teenager. My friends and I, like most teenage girls, just loved dressing up in prom dresses at department stores and taking pictures, or putting on makeup at sleepovers and having fashion shows, and plastering our lockers with scrapbook-worthy photo creations. I hated my photos so much that I would always try to stay out of them or worse, stage a poorly planned "distraction" in the photo. I have tons of pictures where I've "casually" made sure my chin was covered up: playing cards fanned over my face, scarves wrapped up beyond my neck, books in front of my face ... you get the idea. 

Let's all just take a minute to laugh at how ill advised these plans were. 

Haha, I love old photos!

Now, I will attempt to explain how I overcame my photo phobia. 
  1. Let Time Pass. If you're a teen reading this, you just have to trust me on this one: nothing can explain how looking back at your younger self erases all flaws. When you see a photo of yourself now, in the present, you always focus on the negatives. Your flaws jump out first. But looking back, I see myself so differently. I see youth, silliness and sweetness and I remember the person that I was at that age. I see awkwardness, too, but it is much more endearing now than embarrassing.
  2. Reframe the purpose of the photo. Since time and age don't help you in the present, when you take photos now, try to remember that you're not selling a product, convincing someone to fall in love with you or making your Facebook friends jealous (okay, maybe that last one just a little). You are capturing a memory. When you reframe what a photo is for, you can look it at with less critical eyes. You can understand that you don't need your photos to be perfect; you want them to tell a story and how you look is part of your story. I think this peace with photography came to me around my late high school and college years. Being in clubs and organizations required a lot of posing for group shots and I told myself, "Sure, I don't look perfect, but I want to remember the activities I did! I want a record of my participation!" I want to be able to peek back into "the best years of my life" with some level of reality. I stopped covering my face or insisting on being the one behind the camera. I relaxed. I realized that I may not love how I look in every photo, but I still wanted those memories. And the funny thing is, when I realized a tangible record of a memory was what I was after, the overly critical eye to how I looked in the photos faded.
  3. Take a lot of pictures, so you have a lot to choose from. This is pretty simple. When you're taking pictures, take an abundance! I could never figure out why I really liked how I looked in some photos but felt like others were a complete misrepresentation of me. So, I just started taking more of the same shot when I was taking pictures. Sadly, I didn't end up taking pictures more often but I did manage to take more pictures of each "Kodak moment."
  4. After you start taking more photos of yourself and actually getting in front of the camera, you learn what angles flatter your features (or minimize your perceived flaws) best. Examine photos that you like of yourself and take note of the way you stand and position your head. I am not a diva, but I do have a "good side" that I actively try to position myself in when someone whips out a camera or phone. I try to be nonchalant and avoid inconveniencing a crowd, but subtle movements, like holding my shoulders back or raising my chin to a certain level, improves my photos and my reaction to them significantly. Also, I'm fortunate to have a husband who is not afraid to say, "Hey, let's switch sides," when posing with friends and family. Tell a family member or a friend about your "good side" and let them remind you to get in position when the paparazzi lights are flashing. A good photo buddy helps you speak up when you feel insecure. The way I see it, it is all about confidence. When you look good in photos, you feel proud and a little smizing never hurts, amirite Tyra fans?
  5. Let it go! In the end, you just have to be willing to say, "This is me. I love me." It is a process for sure because every time an unflattering picture of me is tagged on Facebook or (even worse) printed in a professional directory, I cringe a little in the moment. Then, I try to I realize the feeling is just disappointment and then I let it go. I have found that as time goes by, it is just not that important. Most people looking at the photos are probably looking for their picture and the ones that aren't, well, they don't matter. I know that beyond the picture is a person; beyond the face is a heart. A bad picture here and there is a part of life. And if you're able to let the expectations of how you "should" look go, you'll be much happier and less anxious about photography.
I was inspired to write this post after recently being in two weddings. OMG, I am just now recovering from strained smile muscles! When the photos came out, was I happy with all of them? No, of course not. But, I took myself through the steps above and then walked away from the photos. When I returned to them for another look, I saw a much different story. I didn't see umpteen unflattering pictures of myself ... I saw a love story, a wedding, a celebration of friends that I was honored to play a role in. Photo anxiety is real for everyone with insecurities, so what strategies have you developed to cope with the camera?


*Names changed. 

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