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Photo Anxiety

Photos are everywhere in our modern lives. They are no longer confined to an album, with only the lucky among them graduating to the mantlepiece. Instead, they are ever-present on our social-media feeds and we mindlessly scroll past hundreds of them each day. People we know, people we half know, people we don’t know. It makes us all feel the pressure to keep up and join in.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. If it falls and nobody is around, does it make a sound? If we don’t have any photos of ourselves on the internet, do we even exist? So, for this reason, we take photos and find ourselves evaluating them for their Instagram potential.

Solo selfies, the safest of all photos, are completely within our control. We know our best angles and the best lighting. It’s on our phone and can be deleted quicker than you can say ‘double chin’. In 2020, though, the humble selfie seems to be on the out. Instead, social media is now all about the candid photos or the group shots. You know, the ones where you want everyone to think you are having such a great time with pals that you decided to have a casual picture. No biggie, right? Wrong.

The reality is that they are immediately available to see, to judge and to retake five, ten or twenty times. They could be on your friend’s phone and up on social media in mere seconds. They’re now more than just a memory of a happy moment. Photos are now anxiety inducing, for some and they can even have the power to dictate our mood and our self-worth.

It’s happened to us all. We’ll be having the best time and then we will see a photo we dislike. Suddenly, we begin to spiral into self-loathing. Our irrational inner critic tells us that we look too old, fat or spotty and thereafter we are unable to silence this voice. Suddenly we’re not having a great time any more. The photo has altered our mood and we now wish we hadn’t seen it at all.

I’m not saying that hating a photo of ourselves is a new phenomenon. Quite the opposite. The difference is that now, the instantaneous nature of a photo taking session has an extra level of power over us. There’s suddenly a right and wrong photo and we believe that the perfect shot can be achieved. We simply need to retake it whilst sucking our tummy in a little more, or holding our arm a certain way or angling our chin down a fraction of a degree. It sounds ridiculous but, for many of us, it’s shamefully true.

But, of course, the problem does not lie with the photo. The problem lies entirely within our brains. Rather than entertaining this unhelpful thought process which results in this mood crash, we should reframe it. Photos show us one version of ourselves at one particular moment in time. Sometimes we will like them, sometime we won’t. This is in the same sense that some days we feel disappointed by our reflections in the mirror and sometimes we will, with a little surprise, feel content with the version of ourselves staring back at us. It is just that though, a version of ourselves. Nothing concrete or final. It is created in our brains on any given day, not just by the tangible mirror image that we see.

We know this to be true because if we asked our friends, they’d say we look the same from one day to the next. Everybody else sees you as you: a fully formed (and pretty amazing) human. Not as the spotty faced, bingo-winged creature in the picture that you see. This is why we sometimes feel cross that our friends post photos of us where we feel we look awful. Can they not see it? Are they trying to ruin our lives?

(It’s worth mentioning that everybody has spots and bingo wings because they’re normal parts of being a human. Airbrushing and heavily curated Instagram accounts have led us to believe that our bodies are wrong but I’ll leave that topic for another article…)

Some might say that photo-anxiety is down to the fact that we believe they show us our true selves. The camera never lies, we are told. We are all fearful, deep down, that the image of ourselves we create in our minds (or in the carefully controlled selfies) may not be truly how we appear to others. Perhaps then, it’s better to avoid them altogether. This, though, is a self-perpetuating cycle. The more we avoid the photos, the more they have this dreaded power over us. We then miss out on all of the cherished memories they provide. Photos, after all, are an amazing gift.

Indeed, there’s no good reason to boycott them altogether. Though you may feel photo-anxiety on the day, the funny thing is that they lose their power over time. I’m sure we can all recall a photo we particularly hated in the moment it was snapped. A week later we may still hate it. But, with time, it’s not so bad. In fact, we’re glad we took it. It’s a happy memory of a happy moment. Nothing more, nothing less. So, I implore you to try to resist deleting that photo you hate. You might just be thankful you didn’t.

To conclude, a photo shows us a single moment in time. It is merely one version of our multi-faceted selves. Instead of dwelling on the ‘flaws’ that you see, remember there’s so much that you don’t see. The passionate focus in your face when concentrating on something meaningful, the kindness in your eyes when listening to a friend’s dilemma or the irrepressible smile on your face when you’re laughing so much that you cry. These things capture your beauty and humanity like a photo never could.


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