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?

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


Try to Stop Trying

I’ve realized that I’m always trying.  Trying to do, trying to be.  Trying, trying, trying.

The whole idea of ‘trying’ has value to me because I believe that I have agency – a lot of agency.  When I work towards my goals with enthusiasm, intelligence, and emotional-awareness, my efforts are typically correlated with results.  All my experience supports this:  I send emails, stuff happens.  I make slides, stuff happens.  I talk to someone on the phone, stuff happens.  It’s a pretty straightforward view of the world.  Further, it’s a view of the world that has allowed me to be happy and successful to date (since I’m so good at trying).  Keep trying, and there will be success.

But what happens when I don’t try?

When a friend asked me that question last weekend, it leashed an avalanche of defensiveness and self-justification.  “Not trying?!  That’s inconceivable!” huffed The Defensive One in my head.  (I imagine him wearing an old-school British barrister outfit as he argues each point.)  “That’s an incredible betrayal!  It controverts the very idea of intentionality, one of your core values!”  He gets only more flustered and riled as he continues.  “For heaven’s sake, why invite the Queen to tea if you’re not going to show up?!”

It’s true; after observing the effort/result correlation enough times, I’ve been duped into believing that voice.  I’ve come to see that the world moves forward when I try – and therefore, I have convinced myself that I must keep trying.

So what happens when I don’t try?  With this worldview, presumably nothing.  And yet, I increasingly observe that’s in fact the case.

This Wednesday was a good case in point.  I worked all day developing a new piece of training content, figuring out the flow of the module and tailoring each exercise so it would serve the learning goal.  I sat in front of my computer, revising text, swapping slides, changing pictures.  As I finished the day, I had the sense that something was mildly off.  I decided to step back, take a break, and go for a pedicure.

Thus I found myself an hour later, sitting in the pedicure chair, feet in a shallow pool of water and journal on my lap.  I was writing about whatever craziness I typically journal on.  And I was giving myself a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back for creating time for self-care.  But then, with three of ten toes bright orange, I realized:  “Ahh!  I know exactly what needs to change in that module!  I see how to reformulate the question to really make it sing.”

I’ve worked for so long under the belief that my efforts, directly exerted upon the task at hand, will create the most movement.  But I’m learning that sometimes there’s more movement when you stop trying and let things be effortless.  This isn’t just true because the subconscious parts of my brain get a chance to process the information (as in this example), but also because things external to me seem to work in a different way when I stop trying as well.  People line up to support a new idea.  Someone sends an email with the information I need.  A new offer comes to the table.  It sounds crazy and semi-magical, but something happens when I stop trying.  And much of the time, that force moves the world forward more powerfully than my trying ever could.

So here’s my challenge:  I am going to try to stop trying.  Or, phrased more positively, I am going to see if I can relax and let go.  That way, I may just find my way to that productive and elusive place where trying and not trying meet.