Oh, don't pretend like you don't have one!
I am not a terribly photogenic person.
I know--what? My pictures are awesome! But that’s not from being blessed with such incredible natural beauty that it can’t help but come through in photos. It’s because I’ve worked at it. I know what angles make my face look the best, I know how to hold products to demonstrate how they work, I know how far back to tip my head so that you can better see what I’m doing to my hair. Oh, and I know to never fake a smile. Fake smiles look TERRIFYING in photos.
But my ultimate tip for looking amazing in pictures doesn’t have anything to do with angles or smiles or even good lighting (though that’s really important).
Having good posture is EVERYTHING. It’s essential for looking amazing in photos, and it’s essential for looking amazing in life. It makes the most of the height that you have, makes everyone look longer and more graceful, keeps your neck and back from getting ridiculously sore AND makes you come across as more together and confident.
There’s no point in being falsely modest about it: my posture is exceptional. I used to get made fun of for it, but as with everything that got me bullied as a kid--my long legs, my height, my hair, my lips, being smart, liking things that nobody else liked--it’s proven to be a blessing as an adult. My wonderful posture is one of the first things that people notice about me, and I know that it maximises how fantastic I look.
Plus, let’s be real: having good posture DRAMATICALLY cuts down on the aches and pains that come from living in the world where gravity is constantly pushing down on us. Standing and sitting with your body weight equally distributed means that stress on your joints is reduced. Sitting with correct posture means less chance of the dreaded shoulder, neck and back pain that comes from slouching and slumping in a chair all day.
In short, good posture means that you hurt less in your day-to-day life. What’s not to love about that, right?
Because I can’t go back in time and undo any bad postural habits you may have learned, I’m going to help you improve the ones that you have NOW. And don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you to balance a book on your head. That really doesn't do anything--but I'll get to why not.
Posture and Photography.
You guys mostly only see me in pictures from the boobs up, but even so, an awful lot of you realised that I was tall.
Know how you registered that? Yep, it’s my posture. I get that “looking tall” isn’t exactly a goal for people to have, but you always want to make the most of whatever height you have. Keeping your back straight instead of hunching over, and your shoulders down and back rather than pulled up around your ears, is the best way in the world to do this.
Observe what I mean in the following Goofus and Gallant-style photos here:
Another bonus of great posture? Great looking boobs. If you round your shoulders and slump them forward, your spine pushes back and your chest rolls in, and your rack kind of...caves in. I’m not Chesty LaRue or anything, but I want what I have to look bangin’. And it does--when I pull my shoulders down and back, and lift my ribcage up (take a deep breath, noticing how your chest pulls up--then leave it there as you exhale)
Check out the difference:
The way you carry your head is also crucial in photography. The only feature of mine that was ever “right” for ballet was my long, thin neck. I don’t have any neck-lengthening secrets for you guys, but here’s how to make the most of the one you’ve got.
Taylor’s article about ballerina beauty mentioned imagining a long string attaching your head to the ceiling as a way to keep your head up and elongate your neck. This is excellent advice. One of my teachers always used to say that dancers have such lovely necks because we releve (raise up onto the balls of our feet in half-pointe) and just leave our heads up there.
Again, keep your shoulders down. Scrunched up shoulders are the enemies of long necks! Have a look at what I mean:
Don’t forget about the chin. In ballet, we always have our chins up...but that isn’t always flattering off the stage. Instead, keep your head up as if you’re very confidently looking the world in the face, and then just slightly tip your chin down.
In terms of photos, this means no jutting your chin out like Popeye or leaning it all the way in to your chest (I’ve seen a lot of this on Instagram lately--what’s up with that?). Check it out:
So let’s put this all together and see what it looks like!
Here I am with my spine straight, chest lifted, shoulders back and neck long (chin always up), staring straight into the camera. Dead on is not my face's greatest camera angle, but I super don’t care, because my body looks awesome:
Compare and contrast with a photo in which I am slouching with my shoulders pushed forward and pulling up towards my ears and my neck drooping down.
In the first set of pictures, I look tall and my lines are long. I look poised and confident. My good posture makes my body look especially elegant
In the second set of pictures, I look shorter than I am and slightly dumpy. I look like I want to curl up into myself and disappear. I almost have a double chin. Even though my facial expression is the same, I doubt very much that you’d want to talk to someone standing like this at a party.
The difference in photos is pretty obvious. If I exaggerated that second pose, it could be very awkward-angles-editorial, but for life? My shoulders got sore from standing that way for just a few minutes. Pass.
Improving Posture: An Accidental Expert's Guide.
I’ve only ever mentioned this in passing, but a few years ago I was in a car accident that left me with extensive soft tissue damage in my neck, back and shoulders. The pain for months afterwards was EXCRUCIATING, and my posture was almost totally ruined as a result.
Most of it was how my muscles were holding themselves as a result of the trauma. Instead of being down and back, my shoulders were pulled up around my ears and rounded forwards. My back was hunched. I couldn’t move my neck at all--it hurt too much--so I would rotate from the hips instead. I carried myself like I was going to break, because I thought that I was. I had no idea that injuries that you couldn’t even see could hurt this much.
Thanks to my awesome team of physical therapists, I made a full recovery. They had a hard job, and one of the hardest parts about it was getting my posture back to normal.
Here are some of the exercises that helped me get back my perfect posture. I am not a doctor or a physical therapist, so PLEASE consult your medical professional before you start any kind of workout regimen. I don’t want anyone to get hurt! And if your trainer, physical therapist, doctor or whoever says not to do one (or any) of these exercises for any reason, take their advice. They know your body best!
It’s really important to warm up before you do any kind of exercise. I really, really love this warm up video, both for the excellent instruction that it gives for body positioning, and for how amazing it feels.
Feel loose now? I thought so! Let’s start exercising.
Did you know that good posture mostly comes from your core? I didn’t either! But it’s true: most of the muscles that hold you up nice and straight are in the ab region. That's why the old “balance a book on your head” thing doesn’t correct anything except holding your chin up.
That’s why a lot of this stuff--but not all of it--is going to be ab work. The goal isn’t to get a six pack; it’s to get strong and straight.
1. Doorway stretch
Stand in a doorway with your hands on the frame, slightly higher than your shoulders. One foot is front and one is back, with toes pointing forward.
Lean your weight forward and bend the front knee, feeling the stretch in your chest and shoulderblades. Count to thirty, then step back and rest.
Repeat this stretch with the other leg forward. You should feel pretty great after a couple of these.
Whoever read this and groaned out loud: I heard you, and I feel your pain. Planks are HARD, but they’re really, really good for you.
Start on your hands and knees with your back really straight. Extend both legs back so you’re resting on your toes like you’re going to do a pushup (I hate pushups). Pull your abs in so that you keep your spine really, really straight--don’t let your back droop towards the floor.
Hold this for thirty seconds. Relax for a minute. Then repeat for another thirty seconds. Add more time as you get stronger; I hold my planks for four minutes now, and I do them on my forearms (which is very hard, but I like the challenge).
3. Performing Seal
You caught me--these are really called back extensions. This exercise made me feel like a seal on a ball, though, so I renamed it.
Start out kneeling behind a balance ball appropriate for your height, feet towards the wall. Kind of plank yourself up onto your ball so that your feet are braced against the wall and the balance ball is centered underneath you--not too far up on your chest, not too far down on your legs.
Clasp your hands behind your back, making sure your shoulders are pulling down. Straighten your legs, squeeze your butt muscles (like you’re holding a twenty dollar bill between your cheeks) and curl down around the ball. You should feel your abs engaging. Hold for five seconds, then curl up so that your upper body is lifted. Start off doing this five times, adding repetitions as you get stronger.
The important thing here is to really, really fight the urge to hyperextend your back. I know that it feels good to stretch out as far as you can go, but it isn’t very good for your spine in the long run.
First, let’s all take a moment to think about Henry Cavill, the current Superman. Boy is FIIIIIIIIIIIINE.
Okay. Now let’s get going with the stretch.
Lie face down with your arms up straight against your ears, palms flat against the floor, toes pointed. You should be in a nice, long line. Now raise your arms, chest and legs off the floor all at the same time, like you’re flying. Hold for ten seconds, then relax back onto the floor.
Do this five times. Feel like you could leap tall buildings in a single bound afterwards.
5. Zombie walk
This is an awesome exercise for improving shoulder, upper back and walking posture. When I was at PT there was a special piece of equipment for this (called a halo), but I’ve found that you can get similar results at home with an elastic headband.
Stand up straight; feet shoulder width apart, spine straight, shoulders down and back, neck long. Think upright but relaxed, with your abs pulled in. Now take the headband and loop it over both wrists with your palms facing one another. Straighten your arms in front of you (like a zombie), and pull your hands shoulder-width apart so that the headband is slightly strained.
Now, maintaining your lovely straight posture, walk around your house or apartment or office for three minutes. The headband is going to try to pull your hands together; it’s your job to make sure it doesn’t do that. This sounds easy, but trust me--it really isn’t.
As with all exercise stuff, if you feel undue pain, stop right away and call your doctor. I wouldn’t tell anyone to do stuff that I think would hurt them, but all bodies are different and I want what’s best for yours. Challenging yourself is good; hurting yourself is bad.
Do these five exercises three to five times a week, and you should start to notice a change in how you feel (and look) in a couple of weeks. You're on your way to perfect posture!
So let’s talk, everyone: How is your posture? How do you stave off neck and back pain at work? What exercises have you found the most beneficial for keeping your posture nice and straight? Did anyone walk around with books on their head? We used to have competitions for book-balancing while walking when I was in Brownies. My record was five, and I’m still a little proud of that.