I have never been very photogenic. In celluloid, my face has a bilious, pie-eating quality. My eye bags look like deflated hot water bottles, my teeth a sallow color like a dog’s. In real life, I feel like I don’t look like this. No one has ever said to me, “You have dog teeth,” except one time.
The fact that I was not photogenic never really bothered me until recently; I just didn’t ever look at any photos of myself. I didn’t even really want a photographer at my wedding because why? I have a memory, and in my memory my face is not quite as swollen. When photos were a physical entity, it was very easy to avoid them. I didn’t have a camera, I never made scrapbooks, and when order forms came around for yearbooks, I pretended I was looking in my bag for something and then left the room. Even in the early days of Facebook and Instagram, photos were not omnipresent. They were on your computer. In Facebook photos, everyone looked like shit, and Instagram was for sunsets. There were no dating apps. People still met other people in physical places. You could charm using your wit or your dog teeth!
But now, we are in a different age entirely. Photos are everywhere. I see new photos of my friends on Instagram much more than I see my actual friends. I am often surprised at how likely I am to think of a photo of someone before I think about what they actually look like. When someone says “Gerald,” for example, I will think of my friend Gerald apple-picking, even though I have never once seen him pick an apple in real life. I have only seen many photos of him doing it because he really likes to catalog things like that, ye olde whimsical Gerald.
I honestly think the worst of it all is that photos are the driver of dating, the most looks-based thing we unfortunately do in life. (And I’m sorry, Pollyanna, but looks are important in Western society. It sucks, but it’s true. Grow up, Peter Pan!!!) All my friends are doing it — and it’s horrible! Entire relationships take place in a netherworld between texting, Instagram and Snapchat before there is an actual face-to-face meeting. Because of this, photos have a much more important social role: They define what you look like to whoever you are hoping to attract, plus, even after you meet, they create an impression of you that is almost more durable than your physical self. It’s the same as with olde Gerald, except on steroids. If a person you met is thinking of the physical you and, at the same time, the digital you, it turns what was a private physical connection into a semi-public interaction. You have a metaphysical self that exists beyond you and with you at all times.
To put this in concrete terms, if you fall in love with the photo, isn’t that what you always see? And isn’t it somewhat embarrassing now to date someone who looks bad in photos because it is possible to share pictures with friends long before they even meet the person? Doesn’t it sort of trump your physical impression of the person (or at least bolster it) if your friend thinks the photo of your hypothetical significant other is attractive?
The real issue is, if you can now preserve yourself online forever, then the photogenic have major advantages. And for those among us who look like a worse version of ourselves on film, this is a horror show! Maybe you’ll suggest using Photoshop “to even the playing field,” but Photoshop can’t really make up for being broadly unphotogenic. It just can’t! When I mess around with filters, I still look like a potato except I now have big doe eyes.
So what should we do in this new reality? There is no point in being hot in person — so why even try? Wear sweatpants to work! And someone should really get the unphotogenic together so we can commiserate. Even though we look better in real life (hopefully), we’re still fun and nice!
Rebecca Harrington is a writer who lives in New York City. Check out her newest book, Sociable, a hilarious look at weird stuff people do on social media.
Photo by Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images.