Every few years I write a book. As penance for my past snark about aging writers using decades-old photos, I always update the author photo. For the first three books, it was finea lark, even!but I was in my thirties then. I took longer to publish my fourth novel, and now, squinting into the setting sun of my forties, Im being photographed more than ever. (I realize this makes it sound as if the paparazzi are after me, which they are not. I am being photographed by myself and by friends who would prefer to be doing something else). Its a different experience this time around.
The central struggle of seeing your face in a photo only grows more acute with age: until confronted with endless documentation, I was free to assume the face I present to the world looks a lot like it did at 21. I suppose people who are photographed for a living must confront this chasm between belief and reality sooner than the rest of us, who bury the suspicion deep inside ourselves, where we keep the details of bombed job interviews and that time we mispronounced a common word in front of Colson Whitehead. Imagine!
Long ago, when cameras were not ubiquitous, one could go through life without ever confronting ones wonky eye or thinning bangs. Free of constant self-documentation, people just went about their days, contentedly churning butter or fleeing dinosaurs or voting for Coolidge or however daily life looked in the distant past.
We all deserve a photo of ourselves on a momentous day, one we can look at and think, Yes, that was me then.
But ours is not that time. Even someone who cringes at selfies, which I do, has to get in the game for professional or social reasons. And so I have reluctantly learned a few things about being photographedfor social media, a big event, or professional headshotsparticularly as a middle-aged woman with some useful delusions to maintain.
Please note that I am not telling you to commandeer the lighting at baby showers or skitter away from cameras on bad hair days. Crappy photos of wonderful moments exist, and there is no reason to day-drink over it. But if you must be immortalized, a few strategies may help avoid despair.
1. Wear more make-up than you think you should. The camera washes out a smoky eye to natural and a rosy cheek to pallid. Wear a good foundation; youll be glad for the even canvas. Use eyebrow pencil. Feel free to have a professional do this if its not your bailiwick. If youll be looking at these pictures for years, its worth it. Take a selfie or two before you leave the makeup chair and make adjustments.
2. Hair moves around a lotmine is prone to a half-squashed donut vibe so you have to give it a little last-minute attention. Bring a brush, give your curls a shake, but resist the urge to flip it saucily for the camera. I ask a bystander if my hair is doing something bizarre and hope for the best.
3. No one can overcome bad lighting. I once looked in the mirror in one light and felt totally fabulous. Moments later, I was photographed in a place lit like an orange morgue. Everyone looked polished and gorgeous in person and pouchy, spotted, wrinkled and grizzled in the photos. You cant always control lighting, though, so do your best to avoid harsh overhead light and know when to destroy the evidence.
4. If youre not a veteran of Botox or peels or facials, approach with caution. You dont want to show up resembling Cruella DeVille with scarlet fever. Shit has to settle, is all Ill say.
5. When positioned in the front row of a group photo, a cheerleaderish urge to crouch will steal over you. The crouch is an attempt to be gracious and not to block the faces of the people behind you, who are usually me because I elbowed aside an old woman so I could get the hell out of the front row. The problem here lies entirely with the photographer. The only humane way to photograph a multi-row group fronted by crouchers is from the waist up. To capture human beings from a perspective that includes a full-body view of several accomplished grown women crouching protectively over nothing is an act of aggression and possibly sociopathy. You know goddamn well what were doing when we crouch, camera-wielders. Zoom in.
6. Speaking of zooming in, when youre enlisting someone else to take a picture, specify the frame, as in chirping merrily, Just a head and shoulders shot! Not long ago I had someone take a picture of me and an old friend at a reading for Instagram. It started off great, tightly framed around our smiling faces and shiny blowouts, but then the photographer took a step backward. Then several more. Our arms still slung chummily over each others shoulders, my friend and I emitted low simultaneous growls, like dogs sensing erratic behavior in their midst. Later, the photos displeased us.
7. Husbands are particular offenders. Just recently mine took a photo of me from an angle I would describe as hostile, in which my white-clad thigh resembled a grand, expansive vista, like the Badlands. Later, another male friend took a selfie of us together from an expert downward angle, and when I asked how he knew to do so, he said, From my wife berating me. So, they can be taught.
8. There will come a day when you are tempted to buy a peasant blouse. If you are a willowy ingenue whose sticklike limbs poke delicately out from yards of fabric, feel free to be photographed in that blouse, secure in the knowledge that all will be well. If you are a normal-sized person like me, whose very bones fail at being sticklike, do not give in to this desire. I have tried playing off a treasured flowy blouse with tight jeans, or shoving the bunched extra fabric into the back of my waistband. Both failed. I should have solved the conundrum by accepting the truth: Yes, I love to prance around in a peasant blouse like Im beating a tambourine in a sunlit meadow, but in reality, this is not a look that makes anyone say, She is much less delusional than I thought.
9. Similarly: know your angles. For years I tried to rock a lifted chin and imperious downward glance, under the delusion that I was highlighting my cheekbones and jawline. But I dont have the slanted sharp jawline and huge doe eyes that might make that angle work; I have a round face and human-sized eyes and this angle made me look supercilious and marshmallowy. After ten years, I finally retired it.
10. (Deep down, I still think: maybe someday.)
11. Maybe dont flatten your arms against your torso. I put my hands on my hips where possible, but, failing that, Ill just elbow out a couple inches of space, because it makes my arms look less like Dutch baby pancakes and more like my actual arms.
12. Straight-on angles are tough. I learned this from a very talented professional named Nick Wilkes, who has, perhaps unwillingly, developed a sideline as my citys writer-photographer of choice. Put one foot forward, hed correct me, as I lurched monstrously toward the lens with both feet cemented side by side. Hed have me turn my shoulders one way and my hips the other, and it felt psychotic but in the resulting pictures, it looked dynamic and interesting, focusing attention on my face.
Thats the goal, right? We want to look like ourselves, the best version of ourselves. There is some self-acceptance involved in realizing who that self really is. And look, I am all too aware that the bedrock here is a desire to appear youthful and thin, and that this is a problematic desire born of the toxicity of unrealistic expectations.
If I can find a way to unwire the patriarchy from my brain, Ill write about that too. In the meantime, Ill settle for a few photos in which I look not eerily perfect, not 22, but… myself. We all deserve a photo of ourselves on a momentous day, one we can look at and think, Yes, that was me then.