I was both chubby and boy-crazy, giving this advice combination a compelling allure. As a result, nearly every single posed photograph of me between the ages of 9 and 34 shows some variation upon that look. Face slightly tipped down, eyes gazing up, smiling, no teeth.
This gaze works for me as an adult, to a degree, even if I question the "seductive" part of the equation. It certainly didn’t work for me at age 9; I looked as though I were attempting to seduce Pee-Wee Herman. But never mind that: I had a goal (slim, seductive) and a fool-proof way to achieve it (the advice column of my local biweekly newspaper), and it didn’t occur to me to question its efficacy. I practiced the look, goal in mind, and had a blind faith that it would make me appear slim and seductive. I stuck with it for 25 years.
Something else happened over those 25 years: I realized I preferred videos and candid photographs of myself over posed ones. Even if a candid shot caught me unkempt or making a weird face, I was able to laugh it off; I didn’t take it as any sort of statement about how I “actually” looked. But a bad posed photograph seemed an indictment. I resigned myself to not ever having a good posed photograph of myself, and in fact made my preference for candid photographs sort of a semi-feigned quirk about myself, semi-feigned quirks being the saving grace for many an analytical lady.
But early last year, in an online space far less kind than The Beheld, a stranger commented that I looked like I was “sucking on a lemon.” The more I looked at the photograph in question—a photograph I’d selected because I found it to be an artful arranging of my features—the more I realized the commenter was right, if unkind. I couldn’t very well avoid posed photographs all my life, and it was clear my 25-year-old trick wasn’t working for me anymore. I tried a handful of new tips, culled from fashion magazines instead of Dust Bowl newspapers, to become a little more photogenic. I tried gazing at the camera as though it were someone I loved; I tried blinking before the flash went off; I even tried saying prune, advice I picked up from none other than the Olsen twins. None of it worked.
A total stranger could tell my “photo face” wasn’t me, but it took a professional to tell me why. Around the time I started trying to shed my photo face, I interviewed photographer Sophie Elgort. I’d reached out to her for her thoughts on fashion—which were insightful—but it was her thoughts on being photogenic that resonated. “If somebody’s not comfortable—in person or in a photo—it’s pretty obvious,” she told me (while I, of course, was arranging my face so as not to let on that she was talking directly about me). “The difference between somebody who’s photogenic and somebody who’s not is that people who aren’t photogenic are sometimes nervous in front of a camera. They make weird twitches, or they’ll sort of crane their neck or purse their lips or do something that’s obviously not them, because they’re nervous. If you keep shooting, you can get them more into their natural element and you can get a good photo from people who say, ‘Oh, I’m not photogenic.’ You’re not unphotogenic; it’s that you’re usually posing, putting on this ridiculous face that’s not you. How can you expect to look like your best self in a photo if you’re putting on a ridiculous face?”
No wonder I liked candid photographs so much more than posed ones. I was so uncomfortable with how I appeared—face too full, lips too uneven—that I was doing everything I could to control my looks, for we try to control what we find uncomfortable. The result was not only tortured but inaccurate: Like the mirror face, the photo face is an exercise in manipulation, in falsehood. We cannot look like ourselves when we are attempting to manipulate the camera. And, as Sophie says, we cannot look our best when we don’t look like ourselves. In trying to manipulate myself into looking my best, I manipulated my way right out of it.
With every photograph taken of me, I was attempting to control something uncontrollable — my very face. And the thing is, I wasn’t fooling anyone, not even myself. Whenever I’d cringe at a photo, I was cringing not at how I looked, but at my failed manipulation. For the small, constant acts of management were revealing not only a physical truth (that I do have a full face, that my eyes aren’t as Bambi-like as I’d prefer) but a deeper truth that I wanted to keep hidden—that I wasn’t comfortable with how I looked. There was a reason I preferred videos and candid photographs of myself to posed shots—in those images, I’d surrendered control. I wasn’t attempting to slim my face or appear alluring; I wasn’t attempting to do anything other than be myself. And in being my candid, full-cheeked, pointy-toothed self, whatever charm I have was able to shine. As Sophie put it, “There’s no way you can show your charisma if you’re not acting like yourself.”
Of course, it’s hard to “be yourself” on command. And becoming comfortable with oneself is a lifelong process; I wanted to start looking normal in photos now. The solution came when I asked a highly photogenic friend how she did it. She said a few things I’d heard, tried, and discarded, and I started filing away her advice along with other well-meaning words from people to whom certain things come so naturally as to be inexpressible. Then she shrugged. “Or, you know, I heard this once—just give the camera your biggest, toothiest, cheesiest smile, even if you don’t mean it.” I flashed her the cheesy smile she was referring to, thinking she would get that I was poking fun at the idea. She just said, “Yes, like that.”
So I started to smile. Yellowed teeth, uneven lips, wide face be damned, I smile now, in nearly every photograph. I smile big and broad and with teeth. I try to laugh sometimes too, but if nothing genuinely funny comes to mind I skip the laugh and just smile. I don’t tip my head down; I don’t throw my head back; I don’t think about where my head is at all. I just fucking smile.
And as it turns out, there is a reason smiling is the #1 classic photo advice: It works. It works better than tipping your head down and keeping your lips closed; it works better than looking a hair above the photographer to keep the impression of a lofty gaze; it works better than whatever the Olsen twins might tell you.
certainly my smile experiment is helped along by good company
But wait! you say. How is a fake smile any less of a manipulation than tilting your head and lowering your gaze and doing all that jazz you’ve been doing for 25 years that you just told us was some “manipulation of the self”? The answer: It isn’t. But the control of a smile versus other small manipulations takes a different tone. A smile is a signal of openness; it’s an invitation. We smile when we’re nervous or unsure (particularly women), but one reason we reach for a smile in those moments is that it soothes both the person smiling and the person being smiled at. In other words, a smile makes us comfortable. It can be a manipulated comfort, but posing for a photograph is a manipulated situation to begin with. The implied acquiescence of a smile is what can make it troublesome from a feminist perspective (“Hey baby, where’s your smile?”), and it’s also what makes some non-smiling portraits so arresting—it’s a display of resistance. But in the average, run-of-the-mill photo where I just want to look good—or rather, where I just want to look like myself—I’ll call upon the big, fake, cheesy photo smile.
I’m happy to let a photographed smile do its immediate work of making me appear more comfortable with myself. And perhaps seizing the control of a smile is just another roadblock to the goal of actually being comfortable; after all, I’m still not thrilled with my full cheeks and my small, uneven teeth. But here’s the key: The control I’m seizing no longer makes me uncomfortable. Instead of attempting to adjust my face—my face! the face I’ll have all my life!—I’m adjusting the sentiment it wears. I’m controlling my looks by adjusting the emotions I’m telegraphing, not by adjusting my actual features, which I was never able to truly control anyway. Call it something as simple as an attitude adjustment. I suppose, quite literally, that’s exactly what it is.
I try not to overidentify with photographs of myself; I try to see them as the snapshots they are, not as a representation of how I exist in this world. I probably don’t succeed. But if I’m going to fail in that regard, I may as well be overidentifying with someone smiling back at me, someone extending a temporary reprieve from self-consciousness. Someone offering, for a brief yet semi-permanent moment, comfort.