Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Say Cheese: On Smiling, Comfort, and Surrender

In the summer of 1986, a small item ran in the biweekly newspaper of Guymon, Oklahoma, that I am guessing went unremembered by all but one of the town’s 15,000 residents. The item in question was a column about how to look good in photographs, and I will paraphrase the part that stuck with me: If you want your face to look slimmer, tip your chin down when being photographed so that you are looking at the camera from a lowered gaze. And if you want to look seductive, smile faintly, without teeth.

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.

Wholly Unnatural Photo Face: Exhibit A. 

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.

No, but really, I like lemons.

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.

Thanks to the lovely Paige S. and Beth Mann for the photos;
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.


  1. Love this post! Your new photos look great. This is so interesting because I have a totally different "photo face." My face is too thin, so I tip it up, not down. And people say my smile is my best feature, so I do a wide grin, which also plumps my cheeks out. The point is how self-conscious we all are! I hate having my photo taken. It will never matter who or how many people say my photo is nice--I NEVER believe them. Kudos on a great article!

  2. Great post. It's so true about wanting to control how you look so much that you end up taking the 'you' right out of it. It is really interesting way of seeing what kind of person you try to present to the world - whether you want to look slim and alluring, or smart and serious, or look like you are trying to have fun all the time. Now that I think about it, my partner always laughs very hard as soon as you get a camera out because he so wants to be seen as a fun person. Thanks for some great insight.

  3. I understand you 100%. Every time that someone approachs me with a camera on a hand I can feel every single muscle in my face get tensed and what scares me the most is the knowing that tension will be reflected on that photo, so I get more tense!
    So what I do is to breath and think that someone at least 1 person would find my picture atractive! I just focus on that one person and forget the rest
    say Cheese! or Tuesday as I read once!

  4. I recognize myself in this post. One of my college portraits has the "sucking on lemons" thing down pat. And a year or so prior to starting to blog, I read a tip somewhere that I'd get the biggest, cheesiest smile if I pushed my tongue into the back of my front teeth. I still don't think I've grown comfortable with my smile in front of a camera. I know when my husband takes the pics, my expression is far more natural.

    Have you ever read this poem by Linda Pastan?

    The Obligation to Be Happy By Linda Pastan

    It is more onerous
    than the rites of beauty
    or housework, harder than love.
    But you expect it of me casually,
    the way you expect the sun
    to come up, not in spite of rain
    or clouds but because of them.

    And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
    to sadness were a hidden vice—
    that downward tug on my mouth,
    my old suspicion that health
    and love are brief irrelevancies,
    no more than laughter in the warm dark
    strangled at dawn.

    Happiness. I try to hoist it
    on my narrow shoulders again—
    a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
    I stumble around the house,
    bump into things.
    Only Midas himself
    would understand.

  5. "I even tried saying prune, advice I picked up from none other than the Olsen twins."

    AHA! You've explained Every Olsen Photo Ever! I could tell they were up to somethin'...

    "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."

    It's hard, isn't it? I'm uncomfortable with my looks, and twice as uncomfortable with photographic evidence of those looks. I think of every photo of "proof of what I REALLY look like," and that's almost always bad for the soul.

    It surprises me that you often describe your self as having full cheeks or a wide face. I've never perceived your face that way. Clearly, your beauty hang-ups are mere delusions, so feel free to chuck 'em. Mine, of course, are gospel truth.

  6. Terri of Rags told me about this post and I'm glad I popped over to read it. I'll be thinking about this all day now, and will try smiling next time I play with the camera and tripod.

  7. Lori, that's so funny--same problem, different symptoms. Are there any photos of yourself that you do like? I wonder what makes those different.

    ApocalypseBakery, that's interesting that you can witness your partner doing a particular action (laughing) to convey a certain self to the world. It's easier to see in other people than it is ourselves--and perhaps more heartbreaking too. My fellow hates having his picture taken, and sure enough, in many photos of him you see this stiff, uncomfortable person. It makes my heart sing when I see photos of us together where he's the person I know--and he probably feels the same way.

    Romy, I like that--remembering that at least someone will like the way it looks! I think that's what works about a smile--it's the default, yes, but it's a default for a good reason. Most of us look better when we smile.

    Terri, you know full well I'm going to try that tip next time I'm in front of a camera. And thank you for the Linda Pastan poem. I hadn't read it, and upon reading it I felt a stillness, the kind of stillness that nourishes.

    Rebekah, at some point I want to explore the idea of what we "REALLY" look like--I'm guessing it rarely matches up with how we actually look. When I did my mirror fast, at one point I exited an elevator to walk smack-dab into a mirror, and I looked far older in the mirror than I thought I did--that is, I'd been adjusting my age in my head to be younger, just as my "REALLY" also has bigger cheeks than I probably do in real life. Where do these REALLYs come from? Heh, now I want to interview, like, radical honesty people to see if they can share their REALLYs with one another!

    Susan, I'm so pleased to meet you! Terri has now given me story recommendations, book recommendations, a poem, and now another excellent blog to read. I may owe her my firstborn.

  8. This has probably been addressed on this forum (I TRY to keep up with it, I truly do!), but I am so tired of seeing the 'I'm soooooo quirky/cute' photos! Facebook, dang Zooeieiy Deschanel, woodland fairies, etc. You do a quirky smile, putting your mouth askew is a popular choice, and then look up at something amusing in the upper corner. These are meant to look like, "Whoopsie-daisie! You caught me doing something REALLY CUTE!" but they are often the most contrived of all. Hair done just-so, wacky outfit mix of vintage, Anthropologie, and children's clothes... Nothing against the styles, the hair/clothes per se, and often the girls in these pictures truly ARE lil' cuties, it's just the major effort that goes into a perfectly contrived photo. They are trying so hard to be different, but somehow they all turn out looking pretty much interchangeable.

  9. Jessica, YES, absolutely. I haven't actually written explicitly on that but I feel like it's related to this idea of projecting an image instead of projecting ourselves. Or maybe, in the case of the quirky-cutie-pie gal, it's more about projecting this OH MY YOU CAUGHT ME BEING NATURALLY ADORABLE "self" that isn't a self after all. Julie Klausner wrote a great piece about this--she tied it to girlhood vs. womanhood, and that's part of it (as you point out--children's clothes!) but I feel like there's more to it. Anyway, here's the piece; I hope you enjoy it!


    1. Read the Julie Klausner piece.... My sentiments exactly! So we have the 8-year-olds in Cindy Lou's post below wanting to look overly sexy and 'modelesque', and the 28-year-olds have on a playsuit from Urban Outfitters and a lollipop. Personally, I love a whimsical twist to style, in small increments, but the contrived photographs spawned by overdoses of whimsy are exhausting.

    2. The contrived photos are the cousin of what I fell into in my twenties--the taken-overhead-but-looking-sullen-because-I-AM-VERY-SERIOUS look. Oi! I guess I was "finding myself," or something?

  10. i saw a link to this post on already pretty, and i just wanted to comment. i am a school portrait photographer, and i see the "lemon face" over and over again, especially from high school girls who have this preconceived idea of how they want to look. i also see 8 year olds refusing to follow directions about how to pose because they want "to look like a model." now, i know that school portraits are not the be all and end all of professional photos, but we do try to get the most natural smile possible, and many people, my own son, included, are very pleasant looking in portraits even if they don't show their teeth. you are right, however, that the vast majority of people do look more natural and relaxed with a full, toothy grin. what do i do to get them more comfortable in front of the camera? if they are having a hard time giving me the smile that looks most natural, i just have them start repeating random words after me, and after 4 or 5 words, i say "ok, now say pickle!" that usually gets them to smile, even if they don't actually say the word. it is funny that that is the word that works, even on adults. i had one middle school boy who was being difficult (on purpose), so i had him do this. when i told him to say "pickle", he said "PICKLE???" and then gave me the greatest smile. i clicked the shutter and the resulting photo was wonderful. i let him see it and he started yelling "it's perfect! it's perfect!" so remember, when it's time to take a picture, instead of saying "cheese", everybody say "pickle"!!!

    1. Cindy Lou, that is fascinating that you see this "lemon face" in girls, among other expressions. I'd actually love to talk with you further about this as research; if you see this and wouldn't mind sharing a bit more, please drop me a line at the.beheld.blog at gmail.com. You're in a unique position to see the ways people change in front of the camera and I'd love to know more!

      Also, PICKLE! Love.

  11. Thanks for this post! I can totally relate and will try to get over my crooked teeth and just smile.

    It's amazing how the camera can pick up the stiffness and insecurities (or lack thereof). Sometimes it depends who is behind the camera too. When I'm with a stranger or my sister (she has seen it all lol) I am WAY more relaxed because I don't care if the picture is bad and they see it. With other people it makes me way uncomfortable and I tense up, as stupid as it is.

    I noticed that when I take pictures of my boyfriend, I most often get a very soft expression and sweet smile from him. When his friends take pictures he always looks silly on purpose, and when his mom takes pictures he looks bored. LOL.

    1. Anonymous, that's a great point. It totally matters who's behind the camera, and in some ways their own attitude about being photographed can come out too. My friend who told me the big fake cheesy smile story that jump-started my new "photo face" is very comfortable posing for photographed (not so comfortable with candid shots), and whenever she takes pictures of me I inevitably look better if I'm posing. It's like the vibe comes off or something. And that's sweet about your boyfriend being more relaxed/happier with you behind the camera! My boyfriend is the same--inevitably uncomfortable with someone else, but in our portraits together (of the extended-arm-turned-around-snapshot variety) he's got a big smile.

  12. Hey, sorry for the late reply to this one! Thought-provoking insights here. I struggle with very unnatural & uncomfortable photos, too. My biggest, toothiest, most genuine smile causes my face to scrunch up, my gums to show, and my forehead lines to jump. One of my eyes also practically closes. I like these photos from a distance, because they look happy, but when it comes to BIG, up-close outfit photos for the blog.... yikes! But you have me thinking that maybe I should stop fighting it. Could I ever learn to accept these photos? I'm not sure. I hope so.

    1. Anne, I've never found your smiley photos to look weird in the least! Though maybe the smile you're referring to isn't the one you post on your blog? In any case, maybe doing the old laughing trick might work for you--thinking of something that's so funny you can't help but laugh. It'll be a different kind of smile, maybe one you're ultimately more comfortable with? But I suspect that the detractions you see are only detractions for you. Certainly that was the case for me.

  13. I found your blog indirectly through a post on the Style Crone, and really enjoyed this post. As a blogger who posts photos of myself on my blog, and who has never liked how I look in photos (major teeth issues), I've realized that my attempts to arrange my face for photos are often less than successful, and it's better if I just let it go. It's become more of an issue as I age, and see that the jawline is softer, the lines deeper, and I am less than thrilled about it. In the end, our face reflects our life lived, joys and sorrows, and it's better to embrace and accept it instead of fight with it. And perhaps adopt a big cheesy grin once in a while...

    1. Thank you! It's a pleasure to meet you. And utterly agreed about embracing and accepting the changes that come with our age, as tempting as it may be to fight it. Nobody looks good when they're trying to be something they're not...and I'm not 25!

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