I love taking photos. Love it. I always have, though not of myself. I love seeing those amazing character portraits of people. You know the ones—black and white, sharp and shadowed, no hint of vasoline on the lens or skin smoothing in Photoshop? Usually they are of old men, and “we” collectively delight in the crevasses and gullies of their weathered skin, the wirey-grey hair and wide-open pores that (validated by the sharp glint of the specular highlights in their eyes) indicate and yell to the world that this is a person who has had a life well lived.
The closest equivalent for women are the photos of red-heads that draw out and glorify (rightly so) the exotic beauty of their fair skin and contrasting freckles. Instead, photographs of women do the opposite. They don’t double-down on the lives, the scars, the shadows but instead surreptitiously wipe them away. The whole process is designed to leave us with a woman shaped impression of the person on the other side of the lens.
From the very beginning we work to obliterate the things that make the woman we are photographing uniquely her and instead produce a pleasing, socially acceptable homogenisation in which our subject becomes “her best” version of the duck-faced, pouty-lipped, hopelessly flawless (and by this I mean lifeless) women in magazines, on instagram and on television.
We choose a 50mm lens because its more flattering to a non-model body. We bend the light around their faces to obscure their width, we overexpose ever so slightly to blitz out wrinkles and flaws. Make-up is essential, and more is less. Don’t forget to wax your upper lip ladies, because no one likes to see peach-fuzz and it will save so much editing time later on. Then there’s Photoshop. Cinch here, plump there, sharpen here, a whole lot of blur there, dodge, burn, overlay, crank up the exposure, wind down the contrast. No wonder I hate having my picture taken, because the raw image through the camera is so far from what is deemed as publicly acceptable that its hard to reconcile the final image with the person it’s supposed to represent.
I love taking pictures of my children because they are perfect. It’s okay for them to smile, stand naturally, laugh, be moving in an image. They provide an exciting and dynamic subject that isn’t concerned about the angle, the exposure or the editing to come.
So about six months ago I was practising with overlays and macros in Photoshop and as I’m alone at home much of the time the only subject I had to photograph for this particular experiment was myself. I over-layed an image from my garden across my skin, mostly my face just for fun. I liked it even though I didn’t have any make-up on, my hair was messy and I hadn’t waxed my upper lip. I felt like it was an image that reflected me. So, all excited, I posted it on instagram. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trolled or derided (I don’t have enough followers for that), instead my knockdown came from somewhere else entirely. I was at a friend’s house for dinner when he told me that the picture was “not good”, and grimacing he said that it made me look like a “burn victim”.
I was gutted. I cried. I took the post down and buried the image amongst thousands of other files on my computer. But the thing is. I still like it. I’m not beautiful in a traditional or fashionable sense. I’m a woman pushing 40, a mother, an introvert, and a person who has always placed physical appearance down the list of priorities (I often forget to brush or style my hair, I hardly ever wear makeup and I NEVER do my nails—I’m not against those things, just prefer to spend my time elsewhere). But this photo took a lot of courage to place in the public realm. And anyway, why did I care so much?
If a female friend had said the same thing, would it have hit so hard? Probably not. So what does that say about me? For all my feminist pride, my willingness to see the beauty in other women of all shapes and sizes, my rejection of beauty restrictions, I still fell prey to the male gaze, to the wish to be seen as beautiful, even in art. I obviously have a long way to go.
But what does it mean if we can’t share images of ourselves or each other that aren’t “perfect” or even our own version of perfect? The ongoing aspiration for beauty devalues the beauty that already exists. The beauty that we see in the male subject, precisely for its character, its history and its story. Women’s images, of all types, should no more be silenced or mediated than their histories, their experiences, or their stories. As I navigate my way through the next stage of my life, I want to clutch the other women around me. Perhaps if we cling together we can save each other from disappearing altogether.