Recently, I spent the day shooting with a talented photographer called Anna Groniecka.
She had previously taken photos of me where I looked more attractive than I ever have in real life, to the point where I was almost afraid to use them as author headshots in case I was accused of false advertising.
I didn’t need any more headshots but I agreed to work with her again as I wanted advice on how to feel more relaxed in front of the camera.
I’m at ease when it’s a friend or family member taking the photo, or when I’m taking a selfie (ie when it’s a person that I truly trust and adore), but as soon as a professional photographer points their camera in my direction, I can feel my shoulders tense up and a rictus grin spreading across my face.
It’s safe to say that it isn’t exactly my comfort zone and why would it be? I’m a writer, not a model.
I didn’t decide to be an author with the aim of having my photo taken on a regular basis and yet that seems to have become part of the job description.
It’s not explicitly said but I have my suspicions that people believe it’s not enough to write a good book anymore, it’s also helpful if the author is photogenic and telegenic so they can get more press coverage.
While I quite enjoy promoting my books, it does tap into a part of myself that isn’t particularly healthy for my emotional well being.
“Look at me! Like me! Buy my books!”
It also makes me very aware of my physicality; generating a consciousness of my body that can be triggering for someone who has battled disordered eating since they were a teenager.
Before my first novel, Only Ever Yours, was released, I was lucky enough to secure an interview with a popular Sunday paper. It would be a full page spread, they told me, accompanied by a photo.
The morning of publication arrived. I was sitting in my car outside the newsagent waiting for it to open, and there it was. The worst photo I had ever seen of myself, in print in a national newspaper, for all to see. I gasped and then began to cry hysterically.
My father attempted to calm me down.
“It’s a great photo! I love it! I love it so much I’m going to cut it out and put it in my wallet!”
I kept crying. He asked if I had looked at the accompanying interview which he described as insightful and interesting and would be brilliant publicity. I didn’t stop crying.
Eventually, giving up in exasperation, he turned to me. “Louise, have you even read your own book?”
I can understand his impatience. Only Ever Yours is a dystopian novel that deals with societal pressure on young women to conform to often unattainable ideas of beauty.
It was a call to arms for women to reject the idea that in order to be somehow acceptable, we had to be physically attractive.
I had read all of the feminist literature around this topic, hell, I had even written it myself, and yet here I was - sobbing over an unflattering photo.
I look back now and I can laugh — I wasn’t aware of how many other hideous photos were to follow in the next two years — but my reaction that day was not a mere tantrum thrown out of vanity.
The desperation and despair that I felt was more profound than that.
It revealed an entrenched belief that I had carried with me since I was a child; one that told me that to be perceived as ‘ugly’ (a highly subjective term in and of itself) was to essentially have failed.
My duty as a woman was to be pleasing to the male gaze and that if I couldn’t achieve that, then I was worthless.
The funny thing is that most of the time I do feel beautiful in my everyday life, but in a more holistic way. I feel strong and capable.
I value my ability to earn a living doing something from which I derive such satisfaction. I genuinely like who I am as a person and an appreciation of how I look is a part of that.
It’s been a hard-won victory for me to reach that stage and it was unnerving to see how easily that equilibrium could be perturbed by one bad photo. It showed me that while I was talking the feminist talk about rejecting ideals of beauty, I was still struggling to do so myself.
I still believed, deep down, that if only I was more beautiful, that somehow my life would magically be easier, that all of my problems would disappear.
If I was more beautiful, then I would be happy.
It’s nonsense, of course.
In my previous incarnation as an assistant fashion stylist, I’ve been on set with some of the most beautiful women in the world and they all had their own insecurities.
Beauty isn’t an infallible defence against pain or heartbreak and yet we are still sold the notion that it is a cure-all panacea without which we will die alone with no one but our cats (all ‘ugly’ single women have cats, obviously) to find our corpse.
That day was an unpleasant experience for me, my father, and for all the poor unsuspecting readers of that newspaper who were put off their breakfast by the Worst Photo Ever™ but I’m grateful that it happened.
It showed me there was more healing to be done. It showed me that I couldn’t get complacent, that rejecting the Beauty Myth would be a lifelong mission.
It made me reaffirm, once again, that I am more than my body, and that I deserve to be loved regardless of how attractive society deems me to be.
(Some days are easier than others!) It reminded me that what we perceive as conventional beauty fades with time but kindness does not. Nor does generosity, humour, talent, compassion.
Far better to cultivate those attributes, I told myself.
That would be a life spent well.