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Photography and Self-criticism

July 9, 2009

In The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg discusses the role that mirrors and scales have played in the body image of American women. One hundred years ago, most people didn’t have mirrors in their homes, so personal scrutiny wasn’t a big issue. However, as the prevalence of mirrors increased, so did the now common-place activities of picking at the face, and obsessing over hair and clothing.

At a recent formal event, it occurred to me that the increasing availability of photography may have had a similar (or related) effect on the way we scrutinize and criticize ourselves. When photography was in its infancy, only the wealthy had personal or family photographs taken, and even then, they would not have had very many photographic images of themselves or loved ones. Nowadays most people have hundreds if not thousands of photos of themselves and every minor event, curious sight, or silliness is cause for a photo. Photographs have become a primary vehicle for remembering our lives and have become a mainstay of the modern world.

But they have also become another opportunity for scrutiny. We always want to “look our best” for photos, and are annoyed/distressed/angered when we look too fat/pale/drunk/silly/tired/old etc. in a picture. Photos also give us the chance to directly compare how we look now to how we used to look. How many middle-aged women look longingly at photos and wish they could have the figure they had at 20 (for instance, Kirstie Alley).

Not to mention that photos are presented as the clear and absolute truth. If you look fat in that picture, it’s because you are. The camera doesn’t lie.

But it does lie, and photographers and editors can play all kinds of tricks with images. Between lighting, angles, different kinds of lenses, and of course computer editing, the reality of a person can be wildly distorted to the point where it bears almost no relationship to reality. Check out this video from Dove to see just how much images for ad campaigns are edited before being used.

The increased availability of our own image both in mirrors and photographs has directly affected how we think about our bodies, and how we treat them. Photographs have allowed us to capture, pore-over, categorize, and scrutinize every aspect of our body (and other people’s bodies) in ways not even imagined a century ago.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn permalink
    July 9, 2009 7:21 PM

    As an amateur photographer, I admit that I also alter my photos before putting them up online. Since I have a Mac (and therefore use iPhoto) I tend to play with exposure and brightness, just in case my subject gets too washed out in my pictures. I also boost the color in order to make the photos appear more lifelike.

    Another great video about the photo alteration process can be found here:

    In this video, a photographer and a designer show in detail how far some people go to make their pictures ad-worthy. It isn’t as beauty-oriented as the Dove video is, but it also provokes thought.

  2. July 12, 2009 2:45 PM

    this is an excellent post. as i was reading it i was thinking about how i decide what pictures i post of myself online for friends and family to see. my fiance is often hanging over my shoulder saying how cute they all look as i delete this one or that one for a pimple showing, or my forehead looking too large, or even some inkling that my round face looks fat to me. even as i am aware of the impossible beauty standards i and other women are set up against, i still find myself scrutinizing my face in the mirror and in photos.

  3. July 12, 2009 5:56 PM

    I wonder how the widespread availability of user-friendly photo-editing software plays into this. It would seem at least to have the potential to make people more aware of how manipulable the photographic image is (and really has always been).

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