On Smiling

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On Saturday I held another portrait session day and afterwards Katie and I discussed how taking portraits is an interesting and often sad look at how women perceive themselves. I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I started taking more photos of other people, noticing this knee-jerk reaction to having our photos taken that so many women exhibit once the camera is on them. They immediately point out a physical quality about themselves that they hate and hope the photographer can correct for, a look of shame and disgust washing over their faces while they say it. And 99.9% of the time I can never see what they’re talking about. Never. I get that when you spend a lot of time looking at yourself in the mirror – whether you want to or not – you find flaws and you compare and you notice things. But I’ve also noticed a consistent pattern that this quality was once (or more then once) pointed out to them by another woman in their lives – very often their mothers or grandmothers. Often a classmate at school. Which bums me out because I know that while classmates could be doing it to feed their own insecurities, usually our mom only means well while leaving us with this wounded ego that follows us around our whole lives.

I also notice that so many of us can’t stand photos of ourselves smiling big. Katie and I debated on whether this was just a stylistic trend right now – the moody, artsy photos being more popular (I take part in this often) or if it’s more psychological than that. That photos of yourself grinning ear to ear are sort of a display of bragging or just seen as obnoxious? When I edit photos I’m drawn to the ones where people look genuinely happy and full of joy, but my clients almost never use those photos because they’re give a similar reaction “yuck, I hate photos of my smiling, my face looks weird!” Are we not used to seeing ourselves smiling in the mirror? I myself have very crooked teeth and feel like it’s always been a point of shame for me, so I have to work hard at not being ashamed by my smile.

But we both agreed we’ve been taught a lesson in all of this – to quiet that stupid voice in our head that spits out insults about ourselves to others, to embrace being joyous in photos more often, to be more comfortable in front of the camera. That being said, when someone comments on a photo of me and say I need to smile and look happier, I reject that kind of commentary as it’s just as unhelpful and photos of people not smiling are beautiful as well!

have a beautiful day, friends!


  1. says

    This is a beautiful post. So many good points! My first reaction was ‘yeah i hate my weird nose’ then hey wait actually i don’t, what am I thinking about. I think any instance that involves watching people can make you think about things like this, which i love about watching people.

    Because i’m a creepy stalker.

    *stalks off*

    • says

      Yes, I love people watching and making up stories about who strangers are. I also have a thing about my nose I really grew into it and was made fun of for it being so chubby my whole life. I guess noses are more of a “I was born this way” feature than crooked teeth, so I’ve learned to totally be ok with mine? It’s interesting…

  2. says


    you are a joy!
    a gem!
    so lovely and bright and candid!

    i love this post! i know i am not alone in sharing your observations, feeling like they hit home, but i can only speak from my own experience of having my photo taken (by you even! :) it really makes me cringe and yet i have found myself in front of the camera often lately, still saying yes to the offer, because i love the site it’s going to, or i love the idea or believe in the creative force behind it and want to be supportive, but more often than not it’s because i love the person taking the photos. and all of those reasons have nothing to do with me, until i SEE the actual photos and then it becomes ALL about me. me hating the way i look and being SO judgmental and hard on myself. it’s a very upsetting quality and thing i am going through at the moment. but i wonder that given the amount of times i find myself in front of the camera if it’s not the universes way to forcing me to face some of my issues with being so critical of myself. i wonder. hummm…
    anyway – this is something i am right smack in the middle with struggling with – the constant comparisons and wishing so many things were different and just being unkind to myself in general. i thank you for posting this. and for starting an open conversation about it as i think it is something we all do. sorry for my long ranting, but i feel better just outing myself about it ;)

    and on another note, i love smiley photos! they are my favorite – the ones that make me cringe the least. there is something genuine about them, like a moment captured where i’m responding to something, totally unaware of the camera. it’s a moment that isn’t a pose, and could never be one. i am on the side of SMILEY PHOTOS! if we are choosing sides ;)

    and you inspired me to try to work on being more kind to myself when i see my photo! :) maybe this means trying to find something i like about it – instead of going to all the things i dislike.
    thank you!


    • says

      Lauren, I love you! I love your point about liking see photos of yourself captured in a moment where you’re responding to something and unaware of the moment. I think I like those too, though I was just about to respond to someone else’s comment down below that I hate seeing photos of myself where I’m super focused and unaware of the camera and look so angry. Like, oh great my resting face looks angry and unapproachable. HA! It makes me aware of the fact that I need to project happiness more!

  3. says

    I identify with this so much! I, too, have teeth that I consider weird–extra pointy incisors and a small gap in the front–so I rarely smile in pictures, and never ever with teeth showing. It was a huge source of insecurity for me basically from youth through college, and only in the last few years have I begun to come to terms with it–sadly, I’ll admit, mostly because my current boyfriend who’s really attractive (and whose ex-gf looks like a model) likes them. I know that’s terrible, but it’s true.

    But on the flipside, getting compliments on your looks from other girls is so wonderful and positive, and it really stays with you. So I think it’s really great that you take smiling portraits and encourage women to use them! In my experience, having a beautiful portrait of yourself done is one of the best ways to gain self-confidence.

  4. Brooke says

    Ugg. I know this feeling all too well. The cringe in my stomach when I see my picture. My reaction can be so bad that I have a stomach cringe when I see a picture and for a brief moment think it is me in the picture. But then when I focus and see it is someone else, I feel relieved. All growing up my mom would very visibly negatively react to seeing pictures of herself and even go as far as tearing herself out of the picture. I think that had an impact on me more than she’ll ever realize.

    I feel I have the opposite problem of you. I hate pictures where I’m not smiling. I really hate my face when it’s just “resting” face. So I compulsively smile whenever I’m in an event where someone is taking candid photos. I probably look like a crazy person. I am working on loving my face more and all of its expressions but it’s really hard.

    • says

      I think most of the women in my family are that way! Always saying back handed compliments after seeing photos of themselves “ugh, you look so great but I’m so fat. I hate you!” and almost creating a sense that loving a photo of you is conceited.

      I also cringe sometimes when I see resting face photos of myself as I always look really angry, and I have to remind myself to not frown so much, ha. But I think a smirky photo is what I always go for instead of big smiles.

  5. says

    perfectly expressed! as a photographer, i often have clients that only want their face shot when facing a certain side.. they’re sensitive about smiles, or not smiling.. they easily freeze up. i too feel very unnatural when in front of the lens and have been doing more self-portraits lately to try and understand others’ feelings as well as get more comfortable myself. maybe we need to practice more (even just in the mirror) and instead of focusing on all of our awkward quirks, feel confident about what angles we know look best and own it! xxo

    • says

      Yes, that’s another thing I see a lot of, people’s “good sides”, which is kind of a thing but probably mostly because of their hair cut looking odd from a certain angle or they have it in their heads it looks bad so they project that. Projection is everything!

  6. says

    This is a lovely post. I often smirk instead of smile because of what you just said…there is something weird and naked about grinning from ear to ear in a photo, and I only do it when I am really happy. I am trying more and more to love my smile and my appearance, but Lord knows how hard it is. Thank you for such an insightful post.

  7. Christie says

    I love this. I know exactly what you mean. I’m often the one behind the camera, and to step out from behind and face the lens is so difficult. I don’t like smiling while showing my teeth because I have a gap (HATEHATEHATE). I’ve had a few folks tell me they think gaps are cute or like the way mine looks (for whatever reason). It’s funny because I happen to like the way your teeth look.

    • says

      +1 for loving people with a teeth gap, but people often tell me they love a snaggletooth and I’m like, shut up you liar. So, I get that. :) I’m kind of a cheater here as good ol’ VSCO filter makes my crooked teeth less noticeable, but I also know I’m being unfairly hard on myself.

  8. Joanna says

    First of all, I have to say: Is there anything more boring than perfectly straight, glaringly white teeth? I love teeth with character! I myself have a bit of a gap and I love that on people. Kate, your smile is beamingly fantastic.

    I definitely struggle with smiling big in photos and yes, it is based on an interaction with my mother. (love you, Mom, but wth?)
    I was in my early 20s, and my mom says: What are you eating? Smiling, I said: nothing. But she insisted: What is in your mouth?! “No, really, Mom. Nothing!” After going back and forth and showing her the inside of my mouth, it turned out she just didn’t realize how fat my cheeks were… ugh.

    Last thing: Maybe women are tired of feeling like you have to smile all the time,(resting bitch face phenom) and they just want to be portrayed more without a fake smile?? idk. Anyhow, I always enjoy your insights on behavior.

    • says

      I really love your last point! That’s what I was trying to say at the end but threw it together. There’s no reason we should ever feel like we HAVE to smile, totally. And then there’s that whole “give me a smile” cat call from creepy dudes that makes my stomach turn. But I guess somewhere along the way a lot of us turned that into not smiling ever, not feeling so naked in our emotions and facial expressions.

    • says

      Straight teeth aren’t boring! They’re interesting too. If it’s genetics, that’s cool and weird, generations of humans making your teeth that way, and if it’s science or braces, that’s interesting too because NO DOUBT you have an experience (or years of them) tied to getting those straight teeth.

      Sorry to be that person but let’s remember that we can be positive about a type of feature/physical attribute without putting down the opposite one. :)

      For the record I have crooked teeth too, haha.

      • Joanna says


        You are right, I shouldn’t have been negative in celebrating flaws. I was being dramatic and boring was probably the wrong word. My reaction was based on the current trend of so many people getting extreme whitening or veneers to fit the Hollywood idea of beauty. But if that is what it takes to make people happy and smile more, than all the power to them!

  9. says

    I’ve struggled all my life with having a set of chompers that do not live up in any shape, way or form to ridiculous American standards of beauty. My teeth are crooked, uneven shapes, and stained from years of coffee and tea. I absolutely loathe seeing photos of me smiling (often times, if my mouth is open *just so* mid-laugh, all you can see is the top of one single tooth. I call that my troll tooth). Only recently did I decide to say “Screw it!” and start wearing red lipstick… But only when I go out at night.

    Having said that, I’m a total hypocrite. I can relate to all who hate their smiles, and scrunch up my face at people that insist “perfect smiles are boring.” (Sorry, I know another commenter said this, not a personal attack!). BUT… When I see OTHER people’s crooked smiles? I love them. I love them so much and I always get so sad when yet another adult friend gets braces.

    But for some reason, for myself, I can’t let go of my negative self-talk. I always try that smirk-instead-of-smile technique and my husband tells me I just got +5 to Bitch Face. Haha. There’s no winning, I know. I just need to accept who I am and love myself.

    Thanks for writing this, Kate.

  10. says

    I have been dealing with so much teeth-consciousness lately. When I was a kid two people made fun of me for my teeth and it was as though 200 people made comments it affected me so much. Then I got braces and didn’t even THINK of my teeth for years. Except in a good way! People actually complimented me on my smile! “I guess it must be nice,” was the thought process I didn’t ever actually consciously realize I was having. And then a few years ago I started to loooooooooathe my teeth. I’d see pictures that I posted of myself on fb during college with my typical BIGGEST GRIN EVER and I’d be filled with self-disgust: at the large amount of gum-ness that shows when I smile, at how my front teeth cross a tiny little bit, just at the general non-perfection of them. “Why did you ever think you looked good in this picture?” I’d ask myself and I actually went through and deleted a bunch of shots I used to love solely because I didn’t like the way my teeth looked. Now a lot of the time I’m really un-natural when I smile in pictures because I’m so cognizant of the way I want my teeth to look in the resulting picture – trying to make sure I move my lips in JUST SUCH A WAY that a ton of gum won’t show. I know it’s ridiculous but I can’t help it. I just had to get my wisdom teeth out – without dental insurance – so obviously that involved spending tons of $$$$ i just don’t have and even still I find myself thinking – “Now I can save up to get my teeth straightened / fixed.” Which maybe I will do – that would be great, and one of them is a little bit chipped.. and if it makes me more confident, then there you go. Good for me. But I shouldn’t be SO DAMN WORRIED about it or focused on it. Very long story short – I connected with this post & I’m glad you wrote it.

  11. says

    I love this post, that you want to have this conversation, that you see the beauty in the women you photograph. And I love your smile.

    When I was a little girl, my mom (bless her heart – she has a lot of *interesting ideas* about beauty) would tell me not to smile too big. As a result, there are a lot of photos of me as a kid looking pissed off.

    I am grateful that I had friends as I grew older who encouraged smiling and laughter in photos because that’s what I want to see most when I look through old photos: Me, in the moment, not anxious or aware, just incredibly happy.

    • says

      It’s interesting how the most wonderful moms can do such damage with the littlest comments! I think it’s probably because they see themselves in you, so they’re projecting their ideas about how they see themselves and things they wish they could correct or attempt to correct – and it’s (usually) so well meaning. And also probably a part of them that wants to protect you from judgement of others as it would break their heart. I’d like to think if I ever had a daughter I’d refrain from that, but I’m betting it’s pretty damn hard to.

  12. says

    What a great post! Recently I needed to find a photo of myself for another website. The one I chose was all professional and arty with a 3/4 profile and a small smile. My friends said it didn’t look like me, so I ended up using my normal flip-top-head smile. After all, it needs to represent me, right? Not my idea of me in my own head. The real person who smiles wide and trips over random stuff.

  13. says

    I wholeheartedly agree with all of the above. I will say this, though: more than anything, it was less of the smile and more of the laughing issue that made me sad (and that I find myself being guilty of). I think it’s because I’m used to seeing myself smile/have a resting face in the mirror, or even in more stage-y photos, but I never see myself straight out guffaw. I’m trying to tell myself that recognizing that other women look amazing when they are in a moment of laughter will convince me that I do too!

  14. says

    So true. I’ve been taking some self-portraits of myself lately for some online posts, not something I normally do. It was really hard to get a natural looking smile sitting all by myself in a room so I generally liked the photos that where ‘moody’ face. But the one I like the most is a slightly blurry one of me looking like I am genuinely having fun (although by that stage it was probably laughing at the idea of how ridiculous I must look).

    As a child my father (as a keen amateur) also took lots of photos of me and I wonder if that made me hate my photographed face less. Don’t get me wrong when people take a shot from a ‘bad angle’ I’m the first to recognise my flaws. And I can certainly point out those extra pounds I need to loose but I am generally happy with how I look in photos. I kind of feel like a photo represents how other people see us, rather than how we see ourselves in the mirror, and perhaps we should listen to them when they say you have a beautiful smile, etc.

  15. Alice says

    This is a really interesting topic and while I love all the positivity in your post, it’s still a tough subject for me because, yes, no one should feel ashamed about their appearance ever, but I have an objectively large nose (and have been told so many times) and find it hard to brush it off as just a self-constructed insecurity. How does one deal with something like that where it’s not just a matter of smiling or not to hide crooked teeth but it’s something smack dab in the middle of your face and cannot be masked?

  16. kristen - marginamia says

    I’ve been thinking about this so much over the last few days…more the general discomfort of seeing myself in photos and in having them taken. I recently started a pinterest folder called, mother – “inspiring” photos of mothers with their children. It was a week or so of kind of uncomfortable aching feelings looking at them, regretting that I don’t have similar photos of me with my young daughters, before I really got exactly what/why that feeling was. I thought I was regretting a lack of proper setting for such inspiring, beautiful, maternal photos…perhaps feeling embarrassed that my kids might not look back on photos of our life and remember it as exciting and glamorous (remember *me* as exciting/admirable/put-together). But I think I was actually feeling sad and regretful for my own discomfort with being captured behind the lens…. in *our* life, exactly as it is the vast majority of days, as I really look (often laughing and being a dork). I don’t have more photos with my girls b/c I’ve opted out of being in them so often, rejecting capturing what is. What a shame! I am this person, and they love me just the way I am and will want to remember and treasure me in all the imperfect images i’ve been so reluctant to create with them. I don’t want this for myself, and I don’t want it for them – neither for them to have the same discomfort within themselves nor grow up lacking photographs with their mother … as she truthfully was, loving them, smiling from her “bad side”, in her dirty t shirt, in their imperfect house, relinquishing control over the moment and how she looked in it. I’m just so ready to move on from this hang up. At the same time, I do really feel compassion for myself for having this discomfort, for the sweet little girl who developed it and took it into adulthood – it’s certainly easy to see how this forms in so many girls in our culture! Anyway, accepting the way we look in photos or otherwise is a pretty huge part of the self-acceptance most of us are after. I’m ready! Thank you for putting this out here.

  17. skye says

    Really love this post. I don’t have anything to say except I agree and I love that picture of you! Your smile is beautiful.

  18. says

    I just came across your blog, and ohhhh did I come across a wonderful post to instantly become a fan. I’m sad to admit that I’m guilty of what you describe here. I can’t stand most photos of me laughing, and I’m fully aware that there’s a problem with that. And I think you’re right – we’re too used to seeing moody photos of women pouting or even scowling, so laughing photos aren’t the norm.

    So nice to meet another Los Angeles blogger!

  19. says

    Great post. We are all so critical of ourselves. I hate seeing pictures of myself but wish that instead of immediately focusing on the flaws I could remember the occasion and see the bigger picture. And your teeth are great! I’m not just saying that. I love teeth that aren’t perfect. When I was a kid I wanted a retainer so badly that I used to unbend paperclips and wear them on my teeth like a retainer, cursing my straight teeth the whole time. Go figure…

  20. Jill says

    Fantastic post! Yes we are so self-critical. I wonder sometimes though if it’s almost like a defense mechanism – I’m going to point out my weird nose before the other person can point it out to me!

    Funny, how perceptions differ – the first thing I thought about this photo was “wow, she has great teeth!” :-)

  21. says

    Oh how I love this post. I have a thing about my teeth…I have severe fluorosis, which causes dark spots to show up on my teeth (though they are perfectly healthy in reality, they don’t look it). I’m saving all of my extra money to be able to get myself crowns, and it’s taking years. It doesn’t stop me from smiling big, though. I’ll love my new teeth when I get em, but as a happy person I’m not letting my fear of people judging my teeth hold me back from showing it!

  22. says

    I seriously cannot tell that you have crooked teeth in the above photo. You look amazing and have a very natural beauty that I admire. I think this is an interesting topic and I agree that it is a shame that sometimes those that are closest to you are the ones who create the deepest wounds, even if they mean well. I’ve been trying more recently to just be me as much as possible. Whether the camera is on me or not. I am who I am and I’ll never be more or less than that. Take it or leave it!

  23. Bron says

    Well I am coming out of lurking to say that is an absolutely stunning picture of you! Maybe you should smile like that more often ;)

  24. says

    This is SO TRUE. I did some very low budget head shots for friends years ago and this was definitely true of most of the awesome people I shot. I was surprised how confidence can go out the window so quickly!

    A good catch on how our mothers point out our flaws. This is also true in my family and I will never forget the day my grandma called me out in front of my whole family for having a new mole. I carried that shame with me for years.

    Thanks for your lovely insight!

  25. says

    That’s an interesting observation. I pretty much hate all photos of me where I’m not smiling big. I think I look crabby. I can’t take a moody photo. Mind you. When my face is relaxed and I’m walking down the street I’ve had strangers say to me “smile it’s not that bad!”

    When I’m taking my photos I almost try to laugh to get the look of a big genuine smile.

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