Cameras make me nervous. When I’m in front of one, my body floods with cortisol as I engage several unpracticed muscles group in an effort to look better than I do in real life. Ideally, the results surprise and delight me — reveal some side of me I didn’t know existed: my nostrils are rounder, my hair is evenly poofed, a symmetrical smile comes easily.
But if you confirm that I’ve achieved this by calling me “photogenic,” my eyes will narrow and my chin will point north to communicate my distrust. Because my pursuit of being photogenic is rivaled only by my desire not to be seen as such. I’d much rather look nice in real life.
I’m not paid this compliment often — and avoid paying it myself — but on the occasions I have been, I’ve been suspicious. What does it mean, exactly, to be photogenic? Most simply it means to look attractive in photographs, but the term is imbued with subtle shade. If you think someone is nice looking, why qualify “in photographs” at all? Wouldn’t such a clarification imply you think the camera has flattered them unexpectedly? It feels like the complimentary equivalent of, “Look at you all dressed up!” It’s got tone.
I recently ran a poll on my Instagram to see if people agreed with me, and only 22% of the 6,000-ish voters did. Many dissenters DMed me claiming that to call someone photogenic is tantamount to calling them attractive. So much so that their features translate well to digital screen — a medium that can be harsh and unforgiving. But surely such a person can just be called attractive. Surely!
Here’s something interesting: Most replies I received in agreement were from people who are often called photogenic and find it bothersome. Most replies I received in disagreement were from people who do not consider themselves photogenic, and wish they were. Some even said they’re told the opposite — that they’re “much prettier” in real life, which I would be thrilled to hear, but which they took to be rude. Have I been misguided in assuming most people would prefer to appear more attractive in real life? Perhaps, in a digital age, Instagram is real life. Shudder.
Maybe the matter can be chalked up to the tiredest truism in the book: It’s not really about you. Photogenic people are worried you think they’re ugly; non-photogenic people wish they looked better in photos. We’re all self-conscious in our own special way, which is kind of sweet, if you think about it.
One promising development, at least in my own case, is that, the older I get and the lazier my little flattering muscles groups become, the more I’m starting to look like myself in photographs. A snake-like nostril here, a greasy bang there — I’m slowly coming out as my 80% symmetrical self. And I have to say, it feels nice. I call it the anti-photogenic approach, where I only surprise and delight in real life.
What do you think? Is “you’re so photogenic” an insult? Are you photogenic? (No shade.)