A few nights ago, I e-mailed my best friend TOK to ask for her permission to post a photo of her to an article I was writing.
“Of course you can post it!” she replied. “You do not, however, have permission to post the photo of me that you had hanging in your cubicle a few years ago.”
Naturally, we spent the next hour or so tracking that photo down, along with all of the other abysmal photos of ourselves we could find on social media, and crying with laughter over them. And, oh, there are many.
For a smoking-hot person, TOK can photograph surprisingly poorly (I used to call one of her strained picture-smiles “The Dashing Young Gentleman”), and my chin-to-cheek-to-neck ratio routinely waxes and wanes into newly horrifying combinations like some sort of nightmare moon.
By the time all our friends woke up the next morning, our giant, blotchy faces were all over their newsfeeds. I know, because they all immediately started commenting, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” and, “Pretty sure I had a bag made out of your face-skin once.”
And you know what? I’m totally okay with that.
These days, it’s hard to escape the constant presence of cameras in our lives. I can’t remember the last time I went out to an event without ending up mugging for someone’s phone with my eyes half-closed and food all over my dress. In some ways, it’s kind of lovely -- I have the world’s worst long-term memory, so it’s great to be able to flip back through months of photographs and feel a warm rush of remembered hilarity at the sight of my own stupid grin smooshed up against someone else’s.
At the same time, though, there’s nothing like waking up the night after, say, your 22nd birthday, only to find photos of your karaoke-ing face plastered across the web for all your high school frenemies to see.
I think most people’s first impulse is to try to improve on those pictures. Though you can’t hide what your asshole friends decide to post (and if your friends are like mine, they post everything), it’s tempting to use the available technologies out there to ensure that any photos you do post are perfect. Even if it means setting unrealistically high expectations, anyone stalking your profile will come away believing that you really do have a tiny, flesh-colored Tribble permanently affixed to your chin in the place of the zit that perennially shows up there. (Side note: I am not great at Photoshop.)
Honestly, I’m not one to get judgey about the images that people choose to put of themselves online. If it makes you feel better to nip in and hide that piece of pizza that was sticking to your sweaty pant leg at graduation or take out the red eyes of everyone crying at that all-night "Twin Peaks" marathon, then more power to you.
Some people may argue that this is a form of deception. But considering I know exactly zero people on the Internet who take everything their peers say at face value, I’d rank a little casual Photoshop in the same category as “saying your favorite book is ‘Kafka on the Shore’” in terms of intent to deceive.
In online profiles, we have the chance to create a version of ourselves that we’d previously only fantasized about. For some, that means posting song lyrics in a Romance language to show how Deep they are; for others, it's scooping piranha-bite chunks out of their belly fat. To each her own, right?
I will say, though, that there’s a sick sort of freedom in going in the complete opposite direction -- in highlighting the least attractive aspects of your life for the world.
For one thing, this can be a great way to give yourself the opposite of a backhanded compliment. Every time you repost a Danny Devito-style photo of yourself, you’re automatically inviting onlookers to compare it to your face now. “Look how gross I used to look!” you can squeal, secretly, implicitly adding, “And look how fiiiine I am now.”
This is why I will insist that every person who ever dates me gaze upon the horror of my visage in seventh grade: so that they know that even at my most bratty, my most zitty, and my most desperately in need of corrective eyewear, it could be a thousand times worse –- I could always revert back to my 11-year-old self. Show a photo of yourself in a sleeveless turtleneck and high-waisted shorts to a prospective partner, and everything you do from here on out will make you seem long-limbed and poised by comparison.
In addition to the romantic advantages, it’s also terribly freeing to be able to embrace your worst flaws head-on. It’s like cartoonist Allie Brosh wrote once about depression: once you accept that things will never get better, you feel kind of invincible. The stakes of Facebook photos are nowhere near as high, of course, but it’s a similar feeling.
Lots of people I know expend an incredible amount of mental energy worrying about what people will think of them online. I’ve known friends who have gotten in full-on adult fights because one of them put up a picture the other one thought was “too back-fatty.” And I used to be one of them; I’d compulsively detag every photo that I didn’t like, which was about one out of every three. It takes a lot of work to be that neurotic.
When you allow an unflattering photo to remain on your profile, you leave all that anxiety behind. Sure, there’s the occasionally professional necessity of de-tagging drinking photos or whatever. But who cares if someone takes a picture of you sleeping on Caltrain and tags it so your boss can see? Your boss has also seen a photo of you appearing to have recently killed and eaten a small rodent; a little nap-action’s not gonna do your relationship any harm.
By posting photos of yourself at your aesthetic worst, you’re reminding people that you’re not present to look fetching 100% of the time. For me, it feels like a kind of dare: a casual indicator to viewers that I probably don’t spend my precious free time scribbling in a notebook and wondering what they think of my hair. Of course, I like some of my photos to look pretty, but I’m genuinely okay with presenting the very, very bad alongside the decently attractive.
It’s more realistic, sure, but it’s also just more entertaining. You’d be shocked at the kinds of expressions your face can morph into when you’re not particularly worried about what they'll look like on Facebook the next day.
Send Kate your worst face at @katchatters.