Q: I’m getting married in six months and I’m freaking out about the photos. I’ve struggled with body image and various levels of disordered eating for most of my life, but have worked really hard to heal my relationship with my body over the past few years. While I’m proud to be in a place where I can confidently say I’m happy with my body most days, the prospect of an entire day of photography where I’m the main focus of attention is really scary. I’ve always been painfully camera-aware, and extra careful to make sure I look like my best self in photos (neck out, chin down, elongate, elongate, elongate). Part of me is worried that I’m going to spend the whole wedding day prioritizing my angles and miss the joy of it, and part of me is worried that if I don’t, I’ll end up hating all of my wedding photos. It feels like a lose/lose situation. How do I look good in photos, without spending my whole day thinking about how to look good in photos?
A: DEAR PHOTO PHOBIC,
First of all, I want to give you a giant, virtual hug of solidarity. Body image anxiety and photography seem to go hand in hand, and our current obsession with social networking and constant documentation doesn’t help. On top of that, weddings can be a huge trigger for anyone with body or food issues. I’ve met so many people with worries just like yours. I think everyone is photogenic given the right coaxing, but I completely understand those feelings.
I’ve always been a little awkward. I was a nerdy, clumsy kid and an early bloomer. I was totally freaked out by my own form, and I let some cruel words stick in my brain for way too long. I spent too many years trying desperately to change my body, doing harm to myself in the process, before finally hitting a breakthrough in my early twenties. I eventually learned to lean in to my awkwardness, because it’s part of what makes me unique, and I learned to have some love for my body and what I can do with it.
Around that time, I started spending more and more time on portrait photography, where those years of body hate and anxiety became an asset. Going through a rough time and coming out on the other side gave me a level of empathy for anyone who felt uncomfortable in their own skin, which is how lots of normal people feel being photographed.
I don’t think anyone needs to do anything to make themselves look “better.” I think real people are interesting and beautiful exactly as they are, and my husband and I built a whole business on that belief. However, over time we’ve learned some tips and tricks to help people feel better about the way they look in photos.
SEPARATE FACT FROM FICTION
I can promise you, none of what you see in any type of produced imagery, whether it’s a fashion magazine, an ad, or a styled wedding, is reality. I’ve worked in fashion photography and retouching, and I’ve seen behind the curtain. I’ve seen the way a person’s appearance can transform after styling, pro photography, beautiful lighting, and a team of retouchers. So much of what we view on a regular basis is completely fabricated. You can easily find sites devoted to laughable photoshop mistakes or quotes from celebrities critiquing the extreme ways their bodies have been distorted in photographs. This isn’t really news to anyone, but it’s easy to forget. When the comparison monster threatens to strike, this is helpful to keep in mind.
The whole point of having photographs of your daily life is to hold on to important memories. If having someone take a photo makes you anxious, don’t focus on the image or the act of being photographed. Instead, turn your attention to the moment, what you’re feeling, or the people around you. One way to help bring the focus away from anxiety and back to people is just talking. You’re likely to feel more nervous if you stay silent, so many photographers encourage telling/hearing jokes, having a normal conversation, and generally ignoring the camera. Drinking champagne and smooching your partner totally fall under this category as well.
Engaging in any kind of activity that makes you move will go a long way to avoid that “What do I do with my hands? What do I normally do with my hands?” feeling. Movement helps your photos look more natural, and when you’re actually enjoying yourself, it shows. This is true for all types of photography, whether it’s engagement or wedding photos, headshots, or photos a friend takes on an iPhone. You don’t need to stage something elaborate just to have portraits taken, though. Movement can be simple—having a snowball fight, going for coffee, or just taking a walk.
It’s been mentioned on APW before, but the beauty of the wedding for introverted, camera-shy, or crowd-average people is that you aren’t really the center of attention. You’re just the center. Your families and friends have gathered to celebrate you and your partner, but there will be plenty of activities to divert attention away from you. Other than an hour or two of couples/family/wedding party portraits, much of the photography at a wedding is candid. Your photographer won’t be expecting you to pose or concern yourself with your “best side.” They will be waiting for you to laugh at an inside joke, cry over a toast, or dance until you start to get dizzy.
NUTS AND BOLTS
If you feel solid on these first three tips, here are a few pragmatic suggestions to tweak your appearance in your photos:
- Start with finding someone you trust: Photography is equal parts technical prowess, people skills, and empathy. So if you’re worried about how you’ll look in photos (or about obsessing over them), find someone who is going to get that, and who will honor those feelings. If having a woman behind the lens, or someone who has experience shooting body types like your own, is going to make you more comfortable, go with that. And if you’re worried about feeling like you need to spend the whole day posing, avoid someone whose portfolio has a lot of staged shots in it, and opt for a photographer who takes a more documentary approach to the day. A lot of looking good in photos is simply working with someone who understands body image issues from an empathetic place, and who is going to do things like… take out the most unflattering images before delivering a final gallery.
- COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PHOTOGRAPHER: Talk to your photographer about your body image concerns before you’re ever in front of their camera. The last thing any photographer wants is for you to miss out on the joy of your wedding day. If you spend all your time worried about your best angles, their job gets exponentially harder, and your day gets exponentially more stressful.
- If at all possible, set up an engagement shoot before the wedding day as a trial run: Many photographers offer it as part of their wedding package already, and it gives you a chance to feel comfortable being photographed in a low pressure setting.
- FASHION IS YOUR FRIEND: Wear clothes that make you feel like a million bucks. There’s plenty of tips out there about what not to wear on camera, but if something makes you feel fantastic, that confidence translates like nothing else. If you aren’t sure what to wear, look for clothes that highlight features you’d like to play up. If you’re going monochromatic, break up your look with a pop of color or two using your accessories, and try to avoid clothes with big letters or logos.
- SMILE: It’s kind of hard to pull of that brooding, serious look. I know when I try it, I just end up looking constipated or petulant, which is never what I’m going for. It’s way easier to look and feel natural if you smile, especially if you’re following tip two and just trying to have a good time.
I can’t stress enough that you don’t need to change yourself in any way just to have your photo taken. You are absolutely enough. You are beautiful. You are unique. And on your wedding day, you will be marrying someone you love, who makes you very happy. Please don’t let worries about pictures distract you from that truth.
Let’s talk! Who had similar fears about photos? Were you able to overcome them and enjoy your wedding day? Do you have any other tips for looking good in photos?
Author’s Note: For anyone who is dealing with body image issues, disordered eating, or anxiety about food, I highly, highly recommend reaching out to a trained professional for help. A great therapist helped me with my own food and body issues, as did supportive family and friends. The NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Helpline is another extremely helpful resource open to you need to talk to someone: 800-931-2237 (M-F 9am-5pm EST).