My mom was a knockout in her youth. Black-and-white photos from the '50s and '60s show a tall, slender woman with dark hair and a Sophia Loren mouth that smiled with promise. My mother aged well, but later pictures honestly recorded the passage of time. Though I thought she looked gorgeous in every incarnation, when my mom hit her 50s (and I was in my teens) she would bemoan her loose chin, thinning lips, and perhaps most upsetting to her, the descending tip of her nose that she claimed was making her look like Austrian nobility. (If you've glimpsed a portrait of some of those royal families from the 1700s, you'll know why the princesses required hefty dowries.)
For about a decade, my mother went AWOL from family photos. A look at our albums reveals her absence—as if she had gone to prison and we had continued on without her.
Then a friend took a picture of my mother that once again put her in front of the lens. She was almost 60, it was at a Christmas party, and the photo must have been taken quickly, before mom could find a pillow or a child to hide behind—or could duck out altogether. In this historic shot, she is leaning on a table with a hand held under her chin. She's smiling slightly, her eyes soft, as if she's listening to a conversation. She looks beautiful and natural. And with this new pose my mother reappears in family photos again. The problem is, though, that future photos look as if during her incarceration her hand had been sewn permanently to her chin.
Recently, I grew concerned about suffering the same fate as my mother. I had started deleting any shots of myself (so easy with a digital camera) as I too did not want my aging process to be lovingly documented along with the birthday parties and school plays—so I was leaving a disappearing trail of evidence that I was still, quite literally, in the picture. But with a big family trip looming, I decided to nail down a few techniques that would ensure that I would be able to be in family photos. I read tips on various Websites, all of which offered lots of advice (my mother's hand-under-the-chin trick was a biggie). And then I called a photographer friend, Nicole, to help teach me what works and what doesn't. I ended up with a short list of pointers that just might change your life.
Pointer #1: Move into the pose so you look spontaneous.
Nicole told me to look down and then up right before the picture is snapped. Obviously, this is a timing issue that requires a cooperative photographer. It worked with Nicole, but when I tried it later with my 8-year-old son, he either got pictures of the top of my head or of me hissing "Take the picture" through clenched teeth. While we're on the subject of junior photographers...
Pointer #2: Never ever let a kid take a picture of you looming over him.
You may be able to delete the photo, but you'll never be able to erase the image from your mind. Oh, and you might not be able to get rid of the shot either because it could hurt the feelings of the young photographer.
Pointer #3: Take a cue from celebrities.
For a long time, I've noticed that Ren?e Zellweger always looks back over her shoulder as if the photographer just surprised her on the red carpet. When I tried this pose with Nicole, I couldn't get my head far enough around without lifting my shoulder. I had to practice keeping my shoulder down so it wouldn't obscure half of my face. I'm glad I tried this position, though. When I reviewed the photos, I realized that there's a spot on the back of my head that I've been missing with my at-home dye job.
There's a reason celebrities stand at a three-quarter angle with one foot in front of the other. They're either slimming their silhouette or showing off their baby bump. Beware, however, of using this technique in heels without practicing first. Finally, a three-quarter angle also flatters your face; try it for shots taken from the chest up. If you can get the slightly down-turned chin into it, you're working on a supermodel level.
Pointer #4: Place your face down to avoid a double chin.
Getting this right takes some experimenting, as you can create a double chin by dipping your head too far down. When my husband tried this. it made him look like Alfred Hitchcock. If you can sit on the floor, chin down with the camera above you it usually does the trick. A few experts recommend putting the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth (it's supposed to elongate your neck). I tried this with Nicole, and it simply made me appear self-conscious—as if the elastic had just given way on my underwear and I was afraid to stand up. Do try my mother's hand-under-the-chin pose. But for God's sake, rest your elbow on something so it looks natural; otherwise you'll look like you're holding your severed head.
Pointer #5: Look directly into the camera's lens.
A couple of tipsters recommend looking slightly above the lens (apparently, this was a favorite trick of Jackie O's). But I think this must be at wizard level, since I just looked sight-impaired or hammered.
Take a moment to stand or sit up straight. Several times during our family vacation, a loved one would whip out a camera as I was hunched over my children or slumped in the couch with a bowl of popcorn teetering on my stomach. The resulting photo was always better when I stopped the shutter-happy fiend and took a second to straighten up. Floppy bits tuck in or fall back into place when you do so. Also, seize the opportunity to put down your knees or take your feet off the coffee table. We all know we're supposed to do this, and yet we continue to let people take pictures of us reclining on lounge chairs—resulting in repeated images of our tiny heads peering through the massive columns of our shins.
Pointer #6: Wear tailored clothes in flattering colors.
For those who claim this is obvious, I direct your attention to thousands of pictures snapped of me in the '80s in which I'm clad in overalls. It looks like I was smuggling a 5-year-old in my jeans. Clothes without shape make you look shapeless too. As a rule, I don't wear anything sleeveless. But if it's so hot that I have to, Nicole recommended a hand-on-hip pose. When upper arms are pressed against our sides it makes them look twice their size. Mothers at greatest risk of manifesting this mutation are those holding infants or toddlers. Try dangling the child slightly in front of you. The kid may scream, but your arms will look fabulous.
Pointers #7 and 8: Just say no.
The final two tips are my own. First, simply say "no" to having your photo taken at an inopportune moment (on the lounger, in the bathing suit). I adore my mother-in-law, but she used to leave picture-taking 'til the morning she was leaving. This resulted in tons of shots of me in shapeless pajamas, with no makeup, matted hair, and glasses. I look like I've just been released from an institution—not because I've recovered but because they need the bed. It took me years to find the strength to tell her firmly that I didn't want my picture taken until it looked like my reintroduction to society had been a success.
I am surprised to find that my last rule wasn't mentioned by any of the experts, because it's so simple: When you know that you'll be in a situation where you'll be photographed, abstain from red wine. I learned this the hard way when I saw pictures from a recent wedding: There I am next to the beautiful bride, flashing my wine-stained teeth. My friend couldn't destroy the pictures that testified to her joy that day. So my purple smile beams from the photos in her album—a dreadful reminder that while you have a judicious finger on your own delete button, others may not. I suggest you plan accordingly.
Originally published in the October 2009 issue of Parents magazine.