I hate having my picture taken. Bad photos have documented my entire life. Me frowning. Me looking mad. Me looking sad. Me looking bored. I’m that person who’s always blinking. I guess the photos weren’t all bad, necessarily, but they were never as good as they could have been. They never seemed to look like who I felt I was. One out of a hundred would catch it—a glimpse into the personality I longed to be—and that would be the photo I’d use for profiles, avatars, and bios.
It didn’t help to grow up with two photogenic sisters. Cameras eat up their beautiful smiles, and when I’m not wasting my life being envious of them, I feel like being related to them elevates my own cachet. My brother didn’t help matters—he married a woman that could be mistaken for a model, one who’d actually done some modeling! I don’t hold this against her, however, and as with my sisters, I’m happy to catch some of the beauty karma whenever I’m in her airspace. Beauty by association works for me.
But physical beauty only scratches the surface of what a person actually ‘looks like’. Since passing the half-century mark, I’m all too willing to accept the beauty-is-only-skin-deep adage. These days I find myself instead searching out beautiful souls, and I’m discovering that this is in fact the beauty that is ending up in their photographs.
A few weeks ago I met my sister-in-law and my mother in New York for a girls’ weekend. I arrived by train and had a half-hour to kill before they landed at JFK. It was a picture-perfect September morning, so I tried to take a selfie or two on the street outside of Penn Station, one with the Empire State Building in the background. Over and over I posed and clicked for the front-facing camera on my smartphone, trying to get the light and my smile right—as usual, with substandard results. Two people volunteered to take one for me, and I had to say no, not wanting to waste their time. At the end of my half-hour, I sighed and posted the best of the mediocre on Facebook—evidence of how lucky I was to be in New York on a fabulous autumn morning.
The three of us did the normal New York City tourist stuff: a Broadway musical, the Statue of Liberty, and—it being Fashion Week—a fashion show. Awesome, I thought. Photo-op city. Around a bunch of models. My favorite thing. Somewhere over the course of trying to force loveliness onto my face for about the millionth time, however, Amy stopped mid-click to address the problem.
Now, although my sister-in-law is 16 years my junior, she sometimes feels more to me like an older sister rather than one practically a generation younger. She twisted my trunk, made me jut out my knee like Angelina Jolie at the Oscars, put my hand on my hip, and flipped my hair in front of my shoulder. She snapped/tapped a few more photos on my phone, but I could tell by her face that they weren’t cutting it. While most people might have said, “Oh, they’re fine! You look great!”—Amy wouldn’t. Not because she’s not a nice person, but because she knows what I look like—on the inside—and she knew that it wasn’t making it onto the photos.
For only a split second did I wonder what she meant. If you google “smile with your eyes”, there’s a wikiHow telling you how to do it in 7 steps and a 9-second YouTube video of Tyra Banks demonstrating the magic, but all it took was Amy planting the idea in my head. My eyes knew what to do, along with the rest of my face. And with that, we had a few pictures—not supermodel material, but me the way I imagine myself to be. It has since occurred to me that every one of my favorite photos of myself have been taken when I’ve been smiling with my eyes (even the ones with sunglasses—you can tell!), and it’s likely they’ve been taken by someone I love.
I’m reading The House of the Seven Gables at the moment, and I find myself relating to poor Hepzibah, her face marked with a perpetual scowl, so wrinkled by nearsightedness that she appears to be unhappy or grouchy all the time when actually she’s not. I’ve seen a similarly crabby face for years showing up in my photos and ever more frequently in the mirror now that real wrinkles are making their appearance. In reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s disturbing New England classic, I wish I could tell Hepzibah to just smile with her eyes. It seems to be working for me now—not only in the photos and in the mirror, but hopefully to anyone who runs into me on the street. Maybe when I smile with my eyes, people will see into my happy soul instead of seeing the sad crow’s feet of an aging woman. I guess it’s not that I mind looking older so much—it’s inevitable and I can accept it—but I hate giving the impression that I’m unhappy or angry.
But that takes me to one other thought: maybe if I just smile with my eyes in general—even if I am a little crabby—maybe it won’t be just for a camera or for another person, but it’ll reflect back and actually make me more happy—a positive feedback loop in more ways than one.