I'm wearing my blue denim sailor dress on the NYC subway. My hair is perfectly brushed and my bangs only slightly puffed from the cloud of humidity rising off the tracks. My little sister stands near me, in a matching, smaller version of the dress, wide collar kept in place with a white trimmed bow. We place our hands on the silver bars lining the orange plastic seats, smiling awkwardly at our mother. She holds a black Nikon camera, carefully aimed at us. "Smile!" she says, moving the clunky camera to find the best angle. We stretch our lips and hold them stiffly, wanting to make sure she doesn’t waste precious film on a useless shot. As we hold onto the cold metal bars and suppress our urges to blink, she does it, the never missed habit. She waits just a couple of seconds too long, bless her soul, until our smiles become frozen and just a tiny bit unnatural while our images are immortalized.
As NYC family photographer Lia Jay says, “Taking pictures and capturing moments is a wonderful and amazing gift technology has given us.” Likewise, in that moment, all my dear mother was trying to do was save a memory so we could look back at it later with fondness. She would have had no way of knowing how we secretly dreaded taking those photos—the ones of us in dress-up costumes, freshly pleated first day of school uniforms, and new summer outfits, all with the same posed smiles.
As parents, I don't think we intend to give our children the message that comes with unwanted photography: it is more important for me to get the right shot of you than to respect your wishes. The picture is worth more than your thousand words of protest. The way you look trumps the way you feel in this moment. Even more intense: my decision to post a photo of you so my friends can admire it is more crucial than your permission to set limits for yourself. I don't think any of us ever mean to objectify our beloved children this way. And yet, when they grow up and begin to objectify themselves in what seems like an endless series of duck-faced selfies posted to Snapchat and Instagram, we manage to be surprised. “How can we expect our children to moderate their picture taking and posting when we raised them thinking this was correct behavior?” says Jay, in her observation of current photography trends.
The word “objectify” might seem strong in this context. What does it really mean? In 1997, Fredrickson and Roberts developed objectification theory, in which they stated that when people are viewed for their outside appearance, for the way they look to others, this is called objectification. This has specific ramifications for young girls growing up in a culture where they are already conditioned to try to meet physical standards of attractiveness. “Smile and look pretty!” and, “What a beautiful dress you are wearing!” are things we tell girls all the time, most often without realizing that we are endorsing a sociocultural value that is actually harmful. There are many studies that show that when women feel that they are being looked at as a sum of their physical parts, they begin to internalize those messages, believing that those are the important parts of themselves. This can lead to disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, and most of all the reduction of their self worth to the way they appear to others on a given day.*
If I asked you: would you rather your daughter value her long lashes or her inquisitive mind? Her smooth hair or her giving heart? Her ability to pose for a photo or her skill at navigating a soccer field? I’m sure you would pick the second option, every time. The best way to give our children the message that their minds, hearts and interests are what matters to us is to treat them as autonomous individuals. Taking pictures can be a wonderful way to preserve memories of good times. When we remember to tune in to our children’s feelings about being photographed, we can teach them that their own inner selves are worth more than their external images.
This is why, years later, when my daughter says, "Mom, I don't want to be in the picture!" I put my iPhone down and force myself to enjoy my time with her instead. And on those rare occasions when she asks for a photo to commemorate a special day, I’m careful to show her the picture and ask, “Are you ok with me posting this so my friends can see it?” She often says no. Which is ok. Because in those moments, what I am teaching her is that she matters—her opinion matters, her comfort matters, her wishes matter. And one day, when someone inevitably looks at her solely for her physical beauty, I hope she will have learned to expect to be valued for way more than that.
*Calogero & Jost, 2010; Wright, 2009
Calogero, R. M., & Jost, J. T. (2011). Self-subjugation among women: Exposure to sexist ideology, self-objectification, and the protective function of the need to avoid closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(2), 211-228. doi:10.1037/a0021864
Frederickson, B.L., & Roberts, T. -A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.
Jay, L. (2017, May 22). Perspectives on Family Photography [E-mail interview].
Wright, P. (2009). Sexual socialization messages in mainstream entertainment mass media: A review and synthesis. Sexuality & Culture, 13(4), 181-200. doi:10.1007/s12119-009-9050-5