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Tough day and a gender puzzle

October 1, 2005

Our university and a number of corporations sponsor an annual event where pre-teen girls learn about careers in high tech – a good thing.  Our department has a popular station where we make each participant a commemorative button with her picture in it.  I am one of the two guys taking the pictures.

This falls to me for a couple reasons.  First, I set up the portable network, computers and printer where we print out the buttons, where other volunteers skillfully photoshop them by the hundreds into the event logo, print them out, and buttonize them.  Second, I have a lot of experience taking pictures of people.

It is not about the camera, it’s about the subject.  You have twenty seconds, tops, to get a good facial expression for the picture.  This is easy enough to do if you sincerely compliment and amuse your subject at the same time.  Do this a couple hundred times and you will be tired, I promise.  But here’s the puzzle:

Why do women of all ages feel the need to denigrate their own appearance before stepping in front of the camera?  I photographed 11-year-old girls and 50-year-old volunteers and everything in between:

“Oh, I’m getting fat.”
“I’ll break your camera.”
“I need braces” (40-year-old with beautiful smile)
Here’s one that broke my heart: a young girl who hung her head and said; “I have a pig-face.”

She did not!  And somewhere out there is a person who made her internalize that thought about herself so she’d tell it to a camera-toting perfect stranger.  A parent?  A teacher?  Who has that kind of authority in the child’s world? 

It is easy for me to give a sincere compliment to a subject and get a beautiful expression in return – I love people’s faces.  There is something radiant and wonderful in the human face, which is why we keep seeing faces in clouds and other random patterns.  I got a good picture – damned if I wouldn’t! and hope she could see in it the light in her very existence.  What else could I do in thirty seconds?

Where does that self-denigration come from?  Not just people around them, but in society.  Perfectly airbrushed supermodels in ads, on TV, on magazine covers?  Movie stars?  Barbie?

There is one commonality between a picture and an actual face: attractiveness does not come from technical perfection.  It is borne in an expression of happiness and self-confidence.  Nose a little crooked?  Teeth not perfectly straight?  A few extra pounds?  Seriously, don’t worry about it.  Every face has all the assets it needs to be a window into how you feel.  No amount of makeup and plastic surgery can compensate for unhappiness.  But happiness, is beautiful and needs no adornment.  Our culture is way too much about fitting into a mold and not enough about learning how to be happy.

My own kids are grown, and let me tell you, easy it is to break the heart of a child.  Every kid is different, and they don’t come with manuals.  With a poor record of success, I can’t give much advice.  Just be aware; kids need to know that when we hear their voices, see their faces, that they’re beautiful to us.  We may not succeed but… try anyway, OK?


  • My son observed that a child’s self-image does not necessarily come from authority figures in their lives, but subtly from other children’s reactions to them and to other children.  These reactions are, in turn driven by the aforementioned social images of what is acceptable and beautiful.  So a child who pays no attention at all to magazines and doesn’t play with Barbie dolls is still indirectly affected by them. Even if she has supportive, loving parents and teachers.

  • See this beautiful post, and beautiful girl, at Random And Odd.
Categories: Personal
  1. October 20, 2005 at 16:12 | #1

    Guilty as charged.  I’ve done it a million times and yet I still looked in the mirror

    In my 20s and said not bad for a fat chick.
    In my 30s and said not bad for a mother of two.
    In my 40s and said not bad for a mother of three
    In my 50s and said grey but sexy still! 
    In my 60s and said not bad for an old broad.
    In my 70s and I can still see a twinkle of
    So why pray tell during all those years did I feel the urge to speak of my short comings to others but in my mirror speak of the beauty?

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