If you’re a person who has never much liked the way your body looks, seeing photos of yourself–especially the ones you didn’t carefully control or curate–can send up a flare of self-hatred and panic. It’s a uniquely painful experience to come across a photo of yourself and immediately take yourself to Judgement Town. For many of us, it’s an exquisite opportunity to be extraordinarily cruel to ourselves.
Here are 6 strategies for handling a photo-related meltdown.
In the immediate moment:
- Remember that photos lie. We all know this, but we all conveniently forget it in moments of panicked self-hatred: photos do not actually accurately capture what we look like to the human eye.
That’s because angles and perspective and other weirdnesses can really distort what we actually look like.
I have honestly concluded that many of us don’t actually know what we look like, including me, and I have decided to just be ok with that. So when you see a photo of yourself and you silently wail, “Is that what I really look like?” know that the answer is “sorta? not really.”
- Use the eyes of love. When you see a photo of someone you love, you’re apt to think things like, “Oh, remember when we went to that party?” or “We looked so young!” But the person pictured in the photo, of course, might think entirely different thoughts from you, including horribly disparaging things about herself. Same photo, different thoughts.
This is because the eyes of love and hate deeply shape our experience of the images we see.
When we see look at ourselves in photos the way we look at our loved ones in photos, we can transform our thoughts and feelings surprisingly quickly. Remembering that you are a human being worthy of love can take the ragged edges off any photo-induced panic.
- Warm up your selfie stick. Another way of handling seeing a photo you don’t like is create one you do. This might not be a strategy to use in the hottest heat of the moment, when you’re feeling extra vulnerable. But you can always pick up your phone after you’ve taken a break and, with the eyes of love, snap a few selfies.
For some people, the selfie era has been another way of healing one’s relationship with the camera. Vivienne McMaster is a photographer who teaches people how to use selfies to transform body image and to connect to the self with compassion (if you want to know more, my girl Summer Innanen interviewed Vivienne about her process).
Advanced bitchcraft move:
This might be difficult if you are new to being your own advocate, but if you’ve had some experience with practicing that kind of bitchcraft, you could give this one a try:
You can stop making pictures of yourself mean anything.
Clearly this is a deeply counter-cultural strategy; after all, we live in a world where surface image means EVERYTHING. So making the decision for your image to not signify anything can be kind of trippy.
But for me personally, it’s what I find most effective.
Once I’d gotten far enough in my recovery, I decided in advance that any pictures of myself–ones taken long ago when my body looked very different than now, ones I’d happen to stumble across when looking for a file on my computer–just don’t intrinsically mean anything. They have no bearing on my worth as a person, they didn’t signify what kind of person I was in the world, and they definitely didn’t point to how smart or how capable or how loving I was.
They were just pixels on a screen or dots on a film negative. That’s it.
So when I see myself in a mirror, clothed or unclothed, or I see a picture of myself, either taken today or 30 years ago, I just don’t make it mean anything beyond the experience I was having in that moment.
For example, the first time I took Zumba, I had an absolute fuckin’ blast. I had so much fun just givin’ ‘er, prancing around to Whitney Houston and all these awesome songs, doing all these awesome moves. And at the end of the class, our teacher posted a group photo to Instagram. Well, I will be honest and tell you that my first reaction was to quickly search the group, looking for me, and when I saw what I looked like, I had a very mean sentence ready to go in my mind about myself. I had fallen back on that well-worn neural pathway of self-criticism.
And then, because of this work, my next thought was, “I had mega fun at this Zumba class, no one cares what I look like, and I’m moving on.” And that’s it. I move the hell on. I don’t torture myself or beat myself up a) because I know now what an absolute waste of time it is, b) it’s not productive–I’m not about to start dieting or trying to manipulate my body, c) I know that I can still take a good picture. I can manipulate the CAMERA, not my body, to create an image of myself that I find pleasing, and d) this body right here? Is a a HUMAN BODY. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, and in fact, there is everything right with it because this is the instrument that allows me to be alive and to experience things like a mega fun Zumba class in the first place.
Over the long term:
- Make a point of looking at pictures of people of all different shapes and sizes.
I first got on Instagram for this sole purpose. I only followed profiles of people who were my size or bigger. This practice allowed my brain to create a neural pathway to see plus size bodies as capable and beautiful. I was able to look at these images and form neutral thoughts about them, like, “This person is a human being.” “She has a human stomach.” “This is what a human stomach looks like.” This helped tremendously for me to then see myself in pictures, and go, “Oh, that’s a human stomach, that’s a human chin,” etc.
Practicing those thoughts, wiring that thought deliberately in my brain, crowds out or gives those thoughts a chance in the times when you see an image of yourself and your well-grooved, very, very OLD thought is, “oh, look at me, I look XYZ” or “I look like a…” and you say something cutting and cruel to yourself.
- Try out some mirror work. In a moment of calm, where you’ve got privacy and you’re feeling grounded, take some time to spend in front of a mirror. You can start by focussing on one body part–it could be your lips, your cuticles, your cute little toes, your strong legs–and dive down deep into the love you have for this body part. Admire it. Caress it. Let yourself feel the love, and observe the admiring thoughts that come to mind when you bask that body part in love. Then practice transferring that love to other parts of your body.
These practices above–all different forms of what you could call “exposure therapy”–demonstrate that we can choose our thoughts and even practice thoughts we deliberately want to have about ourselves or others. Knowing this, and knowing that different thoughts about ourselves can produce entirely different feelings about ourselves, forms a powerful platform for future body image work.