Writers, Photos, Fear, and Me: Getting Back in the Picture

In the waning (pre-Internet) days of my senior year in college, I mused with friends about hidden side benefits of our career choices. The chemist was glad she wouldn't be expected to wear make-up in the lab. The physical therapist could show up every day in sweats. The advertising major had an excuse to binge on magazines and prime time TV.

And I said it was nice that no one would ever care what a writer looked like.

Within a year, I needed a black-and-white photo to accompany a column in a regional publication; but it was only an inch square. Next, I had to do the riding in a series of how-to articles for an equestrian magazine, but at least the main focus was the horse. Another column, and this time, a color photo. Still, I was in my 20s and 30s, fit, trim.

When I started writing more personal essays, some editors wanted a photo of the main character: me. At various times, I was pregnant, postpartum, depressed, overweight, frumpy. This photo business was beginning to matter, and I didn't like it.

Then came the Internet. And profile pictures. A blog. Social media. A website. Guest posts. Platform. Writers became people whose images had to stand up in front of their words. I wanted to hide, and tried to. In my personal life too, I began ducking out of pictures. So much that my sons may one day look through family photos and ask, "Where was Mom?"

Seven years ago, I had the good luck to be coiffed, styled, made-up, and photographed to accompany an essay for O, The Oprah Magazine. I asked the photographer if he could provide me with a headshot for future professional use, but his price was beyond my budget. He did however gift me a small format image which I relied on for every online need, and I joked that I'd use it until I was 90. Its size and low resolution limited its uses though.

More recently, when asked for photos to accompany essays from my memoir manuscript, about the relationship I formed with my father after he died, I persuaded each editor that something else would be more interesting--me and Dad on my wedding day; him holding me as a toddler; an image of Las Vegas (where he'd retired).

But I was delaying the inevitable. A month ago, an editor of a print magazine insisted. She suggested I stand in front of a leafy tree and snap a selfie, and while that appealed to my budget (one son in college, another heading that way), I knew I needed help to get camera-ready, a village, and that costs. Photography sitting fee. Make-up artist. A decent  haircut, coloring, style. Then, paying for the actual images.

Then there were the emotional costs: Age, more weight gain, a neglected appearance, and a bitterness that a writer's physical appearance mattered. That my story might be judged, maybe before the words are even read, based on the size of my chins, my age, the fleshy contour of my cheeks, the width of my nose, the wrinkles around and the bags under my eyes. What did any of that have to do with the words, story, with writing?

But pictures do tell stories. And the one I joked I'd use until I was 90 suddenly struck me as telling the wrong story.

That woman no longer exists, in ways that please and pain me. A few days after it was taken, my father died. That woman was just beginning an MFA program, had elementary-age children, was in her mid-40s. Now, my mother is also gone, my children are older, my husband and I just marked our 25th anniversary.

I have gained weight almost steadily since leaving the photographer's edgy Manhattan studio that day. I'm older, maybe wiser, certainly different. If my writing is to be judged, even a little, based on my photo, then at least the image alongside my words ought to be accurate.

I decided to spend most of my limited funds on my thick, full head of hair. It was neglected, sure; I'd been using drugstore haircolor and cut my own bangs--but handled professionally, I knew it was my best feature. The hairstylist I see only for special occasions is a dear man who owns a small salon. We first met 18 months ago, hours before my mother's wake, when my house was full of sad, bickering relatives, and I bolted for air. I chose his salon because it looked quiet, and staffed by real people, not glamazons. I cried in his chair and ever since, he's taken care of my hair, wallet, and spirits. He agreed to do color, highlights, cut, and blowout for a lot less than normal.

For makeup, I asked a saleswoman at a department store make-up counter to do her magic, budgeting a reasonable amount to spend on makeup items so she'd earn her commission. I needed them anyway, having only a pile of poorly selected drugstore brands I'd occasionally buy on a whim while waiting for a prescription.

On photo day, I went from salon to makeup counter to a hotel, where my friend met me with her tricked-out camera. We moved some lobby furniture around (the front desk workers seemed amused rather than alarmed), I ducked into the luxurious restroom for wardrobe changes, and she took about 50 pictures. At first, I tried not to smile (my default), but realized I could stop overlaying this experience with memories of being forced to smile for grade school pictures when I had, at various times, an overbite, braces, a broken tooth, a scar.

I smiled. I let her direct me. I even laughed a few times.

Later, I slipped the SD card into my computer, clicked through images, and cried. First, reflexively, because I was dismayed that the hair and makeup ablutions hadn't camouflaged all the extra flesh nor lifted my droopy eyelids. But then the tears were about something else: a release, and a sense of gratitude. I'd needed help, support, a way to work within my budget. I'd asked, and I'd been held up, supported, helped, by understanding professionals, by a friend, by a sense that even something uncomfortable could be transformed by community and a willingness to accept what is.

My husband liked four images, another friend chose her favorite five, and three of their selections overlapped mine. I picked one, dragged it into PicMonkey for a bit of trimming and contrast correction, sent it off to the magazine editor, then surprised myself by posting it on Facebook.

Now, it's me smiling back from my computer screen, not a woman I hardly remember. Now, I'll no longer be tempted to squirm out of providing a photo, or send a format I know won't work and feign ignorance ("I can't imagine what went wrong!").

This is me--flesh, chins, wrinkles, heavy eyelids, and oh yes, fabulous hair; silky, lush, bouncy, cocoa-colored with honeyed highlights (sure, there's a whole lotta grey underneath, but let's not get carried away with this reality thing; dye is good!).

I'm still not keen that writers' physical appearance matters. But if it does, I am disproportionately pleased that my new photo looks like a slightly spiffed-up version of the current-day, imperfect me. When I posted my new photo on Facebook, the rush of kind and lovely comments warmed me, but also reminded me how sadly pervasive the feelings of trepidation and discomfort are among women of a certain age (that is, no longer in our 20s or 30s), when we contemplate having a more up-to-date picture taken.

A few days later, I included a version of this story in my email newsletter, which reaches hundreds of writers, and within a few hours, notes began dropping into my email inbox—dozens and dozens, all telling some version of the same story: Me too. Stories of women who avoid scheduling a new author photo, who think up new ways to be photographed that preclude full frontal faces; stories of creatively angled hats, pensive profiles, cuddling dogs, eye-catching backgrounds, and attention-grabbing foregrounds.

As I read each one, I wanted to hug my fellow writers, and I certainly felt them hugging me. I was glad we were talking about this. And I wanted to follow up with each one in a few days, weeks, months, and learn if they'd had that new photo taken yet, and what it felt like to them. Because I know what it felt like to me: freedom.

I wonder about all the other stories out there, women writers who are normal looking and perhaps not so young anymore, and their relationship to image, how they feel about leading with our faces. 

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Comment by Brooke Warner on December 19, 2013 at 7:56am

Thanks for sharing this, Lisa. I'm going to share it with the authors we sign. Oftentimes we get photos from women from the 1970s and it presents an issue. I get it—you think you look better then than you do now—but it's not the woman you are today, with all of the wisdom and life lived and expressiveness! One of my authors told me I had to get a new author photo done about two years ago because I looked too "collegiate" in my previous one. I realized it was true. She was basically saying I looked too young, and I did. My face had changed a lot in those 7 or so years since my fresh-faced late-twenties photo. I want to be on board for doing a new headshot every two years now and be okay with how I look as I travel through the decades. :)

Sharing your process is super valuable. Thank you. It's a big deal and we dedicate a full page to it in our author handbook at She Writes Press.

Comment by Leanna James Blackwell on December 19, 2013 at 6:06am

So many layers, as you say!  And so relevant to all of us.  I love the idea of hundreds of women writers being inspired by your post to face the camera with confidence, with full self-acceptance.  That freedom is ours to have, if we'll take it.  I will!  I'm already thinking differently about the news that my employer - Bay Path College - wants to take a new professional photo of me.  Thank you again for being a wayshower, and for writing about such a charged issue with wit and grace. 

Comment by Lisa Romeo on December 19, 2013 at 5:28am

Thank you all for the comments and sharing your stories, too. A part of this too was probably about remembering how my mother, who died in 2012, had avoided photos for many years because she had gained weight. I'm sure this had some effect on my feelings and behavior as well, though I didn't realize it until just the other day. So many layers! 

Lisa Romeo

Lisa Romeo Writes (blog)


Comment by Patti Hall on December 18, 2013 at 7:26am

Lisa, love your photo and your story. 

Comment by Diane McElwain on December 18, 2013 at 6:57am

If we could avoid advertising and watching television, women might be able to accept themselves for who they really are.  The models we see certainly did not hop out of the shower and look like they do, it's hours of makeup!  And those facelifts.

I love this article!  Thanks so much.

Comment by Ann Hedreen on December 17, 2013 at 6:44pm

Lisa, I love your photo. Why ARE we women so hard on ourselves? Because of experiences like this: I was a TV news producer for five years, back in my 20s. The exec producer told me I "needed to lose ten pounds" if I wanted to be on-air, even though a) I didn't need to--I wasn't teeny but I was not overweight and b) there were PLENTY of overweight guys on the air. Also balding, wrinkled, goofy-looking guys. But women? Forget it! 

At the time, it stung. But that was a long time ago. And over the years, I've learned to be a lot kinder to myself. And to be grateful I didn't have a career that would have been all about how I looked. I became a documentary film maker and writer, and I'll never make a lot of money, but life is rich and good. 

Comment by B. Lynn Goodwin on December 17, 2013 at 1:58pm

The best photo of me was taken with my boyfriend (later husband) in Yosemite in the summer of 2011. Until I saw that photo I didn't realize I was happy and in love. I had to look at myself from the outside to see it. Hmmm. Maybe that's one more thing that memoir is supposed to do.

Comment by Pamela Olson on December 17, 2013 at 1:56pm

I'm in my early 30s (my profile pic is from 2006, I'm just too lazy to change it), and I rarely like more than one out of 100 photos taken of me. My poor husband had to take well over 100 pictures of me to get the one I eventually used on my website and in my book: http://pamolson.org

I think women in this society (myself included), no matter how strong or grounded, are bombarded with unrealistic images of beauty and romance and so many other things -- it sets us up to feel like failures before we even get started. No matter what we accomplish. Because no one can measure up to the photoshopped versions of feminity, nor can we afford personal trainers, macrobiotic chefs, and haute couture.

Meanwhile, there are a thousand easy ways to dismiss women. Too young and inexperienced (not that being older really helps). Too pretty to be taken seriously, or not conventionally attractive enough. Too pushy and annoying, too timid and shy. The game is rigged, dude.

I guess that's obvious and has been said many times before. But it rears its head at moments like these, when we become ashamed of our reality instead of embracing it. I'm hoping to have kids soon, and there's a part of me that's terrified of having utilitarian lady parts and a squishy middle. As if, if I'm not a solely sexual object, I'm worthless and might be discarded. It's not something I believe consciously, of course. But it's somewhere there in the back of my mind. It's pretty tough to escape a lifetime of messages. (I have the sweetest husband in the world; he's not the problem.)

But it is just brainwashing in the end (hey, we're healthy, thoughtful women -- what's the problem?), and hopefully together, and with honest and searching articles like this one, we can get past it... inch by inch if we have to.

Cute pic, by the way. I have droopy eyelids, too, I think from my Cherokee great-great-grandmother. :)

Comment by Rebecca M. Douglass on December 17, 2013 at 1:31pm
I have been very cowardly--I took a page from Lemony Snickett and have used author photos that are from hiking trips and don't actually show me close enough to spot me on the street. It doesn't help that I've hated almost every headshot I've had done (for ID cards, or recently for a campaign mailer). Maybe, even though I don't normally use makeup I should let someone make me up and do my ha air, just for a shot.
Comment by Karen Sosnoski on December 17, 2013 at 1:17pm

I think you look warm, relaxed and friendly. Seeing your face might not make me like your book or article (although I liked the one above) but it would make me want to like it. I prefer realistic fiction and honest, even raw memoirs and I'll confess that as a reader I sometimes feel disappointed or distrustful or just plain bored when the author's face looks too beautiful, polished, thin, and wrinkle free. I share your fear as someone nearing fifty (but feeling much younger!) about publishers or agents not wanting the real deal, but I suspect that readers do. Our experiences good and bad show on our faces. I like seeing your real, current face! And your hair rocks! Thank you for sharing your story. 


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