Why I Stopped Caring How I Look In Photos

July is eminently photographable. The reds, whites, and blues of patriotic clothing pop against lush green lawns. Bright fireworks light up dark night skies. Watery scenes are highlighted by neon bathing suits and flamingo pool floats. Even without filters, my Instagram and Facebook feeds are studies in light and color.

At the center of most of these photos are the people. A whole family of rainbow swimmers dripping with water. Clusters of kids sticky with purple popsicle sweat. A couple in matching sunglasses in front of a rolling gold landscape. And there’s me: in a colorful dress; but still postpartum, a bit too heavy, and struggling to defrizz my hair in the humidity.

A couple of years ago, I made a decision. I was posing for a random group photo with a half dozen others. As for any other iPhone shoot, we posed and smiled. And then, I noticed what happened.

Half the subjects flocked the photographer to see the pictures and weigh in on which was the best. I – and most of my friends – are approaching middle age, so this can take work: not only should eyes be open and smiles be appropriate, but double chins should be hidden, underarm flab smoothed, and bodies at an angle to minimize hip width. There was a quick but important chatter about which of the many versions were acceptable to all parties and permissioning for posting on social media.

Interestingly, the other half of the subjects (and, to be honest, mostly the men), simply walked away from the scene. It was as if nothing happened.

My instinct was to join in the evaluation. For years, I had been a participant in assessing the photos based on my vision of how I thought I looked best. This was an automatic response rather than a conscious one, conditioned by my society – and likely reinforced by pressures put upon my gender. I was supposed to care not only about what I looked like, but also about how that was represented. But in this thing, as in all things, I had a choice. Did I – not as a woman, but as Meredith – actually care about those things?

Not much.

And so, I decided. From that moment forward, I would not evaluate photos of myself. I would simply let them be. I refused to expend intellectual or emotional energy editing the pictures and selecting the most favorable version of the truth. Whether each photo fit my own expectation of what “good” looked like for me really didn’t matter: the picture was represented what I did look like at that moment, whether I liked it or not.

It seems small and trivial. After all, it’s only my behavior in the moment after the flash. But, in this as in everything else, it’s freeing to realize that I get to decide how to be.

Since making that decision, I’ve felt free. I categorically don’t care. I consistently don’t need to engage. Now, when people take pictures of me, they often still ask: “Do you want to see it?” It feels like it’s really me answering when I say “no.” I’m sure it’s fine. Or not fine. It is how it is. And whether I like it or not, it is the truth of how I look in this moment. Then, I go back to my conversation.

This is your chance to choose as well. There is no right answer. You can care or not care. You can look or not look. You can edit or not edit. As long as you make a conscious choice aligned with your own values, it’s perfect.

How do you act when photos are taken?
What does that say about what you value? What does that say about what you fear?
And if you were to consciously choose, how do you want to be in those situations?

Meredith
Like what you’re reading? Find more in my newest book, The Intentional Life: Reflections from Conscious Living, available here from Amazon.

EXHIBIT A:  Most recent mediocre picture of me, from Drag Queen Story Time yesterday (Note to self:  Beyond this article, I will simply never look good enough standing next to a Drag Queen)
mediocre photo 1

 

Does This Outfit Make Me Look Insecure?

Liz and I were walking down the main drag in Westport the other day when we passed a group of high schoolers. We overheard:

“I have my first day outfit figured out, but I still need to buy my second and third day clothes.”

I remember being a version of that high schooler (albeit, one who only planned the first day). Specifically, I remember preparing for ninth grade and my first day of high school with particular care. My mom took me down to Jacobson’s, the Detroit-area department store, to shop, and I put together the best outfit: light blue jeans with more-than-average flare (we were en route to the ‘extra wide leg’ era of the late-90’s), a yellow fitted sweater, and, the best part, a silver necklace with block letter beads spelling M-E-R-E-D-I-T-H.

If only deciding what to wear on the first day could be driven by algorithms, instead of driven by our insecurities.

[For a shout-out to nineties fashion, the stress of outfit matching, and the iconic movie Clueless, click here.]

On that first day of high school, I wanted to be perceived as stylish, grown-up, and desirable to be around. My first day of school fashion efforts faltered quickly. I didn’t have the second and third day outfits planned, nor did I find any joy in doing so. After all, I didn’t value fashion; I only valued the approval it might give me if I crafted my image appropriately. And yet, through my first day outfit — and every comment, action, and homework assignment to follow — I sought the approval of every student, teacher, and administrator in that building.

To my surprise, when I started my new job in April, I was no different from that ninth-grader in the wide pants. I bought a new dress and blazer that struck the right balance of casual and professional. I got a reasonable haircut and even spent a minute considering whether I should wear make-up. While I’m more comfortable with myself in important ways, I could see the instinct of approval-seeking nonetheless playing out.

Opening a new school year and starting a new job are both entryways into new group formation. Our approval-seeking tendencies, which may be more or less activated in the day-to-day, are piqued by this newness. Uncertain about our status and situation, we bring reawakened questions of identity, inclusion, and approval. If I show them who I really am, will I be included? Will the real me be a fit for this role? And, more broadly, who do I have to be for you to approve of me?

When is the last time you picked out your “first day” outfit, designed your Burning Man costume, or dressed to make a particular impression? And what can those choices tell you about how you want others to perceive you? Byron Katie, in her work on thoughts and approval, suggests considering each item you pick out and articulating:

“With this <item of clothing>, I want you to think that <perception of you>.”

Or, alternatively,

“I am hiding this <part of self>, so you won’t think that <perception of you>.”

[From Byron Katie’s I Need Your Love — Is that True?]

What do these seemingly mundane choices about shoes and shirts tell you about yourself? How do you use clothes to manage your desired image? And what if you gave this up and dressed as your authentic self? I’m not suggesting there’s a right answer here, but instead an opportunity to look at something as tangible and seemingly inconsequential as your ‘first day clothes’ and get curious about what you can learn from it.

Meredith


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