How to Stop a ‘Bad Photo From Crushing Your SelfEsteem
Edward Berthelot
Body Positivity

How to stop a ‘bad’ photo from crushing your self-esteem

Mindfulness can help. So can distraction.

I hosted a dinner party a couple months ago. I wore a new dress, put on makeup, and even applied self-tanner, and I thought I looked pretty great. Until, partway through what was until then a fabulous evening with old friends, someone took a candid pic and showed it around on their phone. My heart dropped when I caught a glimpse: All I could see was my bad posture, my frizzy hair, my short legs. Whereas a moment before I’d felt joyful and confident, I was suddenly filled with embarrassment and self-doubt.

I know from conversations with friends—and the 20,000-plus comments on this TikTok—that I’m not alone in feeling gut-punched by an unflattering photo. These days nearly everyone has a camera in their pocket and photo-sharing platforms at their fingertips and, as a result, many of us are bombarded by images of ourselves. This constant capturing can be a fun thing—if you like what you see. But if you don’t, it can be a big day-ruining deal.

I’m in recovery from anorexia and still deal with body dysmorphia from time to time, so unflattering pictures have always hit me pretty hard. Indeed, people with eating disorders or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)—characterised by persistent, intrusive thoughts about perceived flaws,—can face unique challenges when confronted with images of themselves. And folks with less severe body image struggles may also have a harder time with photos they hate. But the reality is, “bad” photos can be tough for anyone—even if you typically feel pretty good in your skin.

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There are ways to soften the self-esteem blow, though, and prevent a self-assessed bad picture from tanking your mood. Here’s why photos that you deem unflattering can be so hard to handle—and what you can do to, hopefully, make them more of a brief annoyance than a soul-crushing obsession.

Why “bad” pics can be so devastating

Social media—which has been linked to a rise in BDD—may be partly to blame, since it can set unrealistic expectations about what bodies and faces should look like. Filters, facetuning, influencers with professional-level, perfectly lit photos capturing their “everyday” life—all of it can condition us to expect near-perfection and make it really hard to look at an unedited photo of ourselves objectively.

Unlike a mirror, a photo posted online—or shared with a group of friends or coworkers—also turns our attention toward how we look to other people. “We start to perceive ourselves the way we think others are perceiving us,” Taylor Seegmiller, LMSW, a New York City–based therapist specialising in body image, says. “We project our insecurities and judgments of ourselves onto anyone else who looks at that photo and imagine they’re seeing all of those things.” In other words, body insecurities don’t exist in a vacuum. Chances are, you feel bad about how you look in a photo because of what you assume other people might think, not because you objectively look horrible.

Our face in photos is also unfamiliar—not only do we see others’ faces far more than our own, but we’re also used to seeing our mirror image, in which our facial features are reversed left to right, making pictures of ourselves a bit jarring by comparison. (Who can forget Cher Horowitz’s assertion in Clueless that she always takes Polaroids because she doesn’t trust mirrors?) “And it can be especially distressing when how we feel isn’t depicted in a photo the way we’ve imagined it in our heads,” Seegmiller adds. A picture, like the one I saw at my party, can shatter our sense of what we look like, creating an overall sense of insecurity and uncertainty—or, in my case, change the entire perception of an evening.

On top of all that, there’s the fact that “there’s some semblance of permanency with photos,” Seegmiller says. “A mirror image is a reflection. It moves with the moment; it’s not fixed. A photo captures a still moment in time.” This still moment can then not only be shared publicly online, but also endlessly scrutinised in a way that a reflection never could be. If you don’t like what you see, there’s nothing you can do about it—except fixate.

How to still feel good (or at least okay) when a photo feels bad

After seeing that picture at my dinner party, I eventually managed to pull myself out of my funk and enjoy the rest of the night by focusing on good conversation and reminding myself that nobody was paying as much attention to my appearance as I was—both of which, I learned, are helpful ways to deal with bad photos, according to the experts we talked to. Here’s what they suggested:

Acknowledge your negative thoughts—and then try to distract yourself.

“You can have a negative thought, notice it, and then move on,” Nadia Craddock, PhD, an applied body image researcher at the Centre for Appearance Research, tells SELF. For instance, I can think, Wow, my skin looks so bad in that picture, and observe that thought without applying meaning or attaching emotions or judgment to it—easier said than done, of course, but a very helpful skill worth building and a core part of many mindfulness practices.

Once you’ve acknowledged your thoughts, you can then try to shift your focus elsewhere. “We all have our own ways of getting out of our heads,” Dr. Craddock says, “so it’s worth exploring what strategies feel best for you—is it calling a friend, immersing yourself in work or a fun project, going on a walk, playing your favourite song on blast?” Whatever your distraction of choice, the goal is to put a not-ideal photo in its place—it’s ultimately just a two-dimensional image, not a depiction of who you are or a marker of your worth.

While distracting yourself might feel like it’s somehow avoidant, the fact is that spiraling about how your thighs look in a picture is…probably worth avoiding! Shifting your attention may also help you put your body image insecurities in perspective.

Practice gratitude for your body and its abilities.

It may sound like cheesy self-love advice, but focusing on your body’s function, not just its form, may help you judge it less harshly. “Think about what your body allows you to do,” Dr. Craddock suggests. “This might even be evident in the photo, like if you’re doing some kind of activity, like riding a bike, playing an instrument, or dancing.” Or maybe your body allowed you to walk to your best friend’s birthday brunch, or to hug your sibling whom you haven’t seen since before the pandemic.

Whatever positive things your body does for you, taking a minute to appreciate it, Dr. Craddock says, can help you remember that it’s so much more than what it looks like—or, rather, what you think it looks like to other people. Research also suggests that practicing gratitude may lessen body dissatisfaction, with one 2018 study in the journal Body Image showing that body-focused gratitude exercises can reduce internalised weight bias and improve body image.

Remember that nobody cares all that much—and that’s a good thing.

When a photo causes you to obsess about how you appear to others, it can be helpful to remember that famous truism often attributed to writer Olin Miller: “You probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do.” Seegmiller adds, “It’s important to keep in mind that most of the time, these photos won’t even be looked at more than a few times or for a few seconds, if they’re even looked at at all. Others aren’t nearly as interested in our appearance as we are, nor are they criticizing our appearance as harshly as we criticise ourselves.”

Try putting yourself in their shoes, Seegmiller suggests: Do you pick apart photos of the people you care about, or even strangers, and obsess about them for days? In most cases, I’m guessing the answer is no. And even if you do, that’s likely about your own insecurities and not about that person’s perceived flaws, Seegmiller adds.

Try to find the good in the photo.

In the moment that I saw the distressing dinner party candid, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single thing I liked about it, all I saw were my “flaws.” But when I looked again, while writing this article, I could see other things: the amazing-looking food laid out on the counter; two dear friends laughing together in the background; my daughter, delirious with happiness, tugging at another friend’s shirt. My body was far from the most important or interesting thing in the photo.

To help with seeing the, um, full picture, Seegmiller recommends identifying three things that you like about the photo in question, and then another three things you like about yourself that have nothing to do with appearance. That’s what I did, and I can attest that it helped me put things in perspective (how my legs look isn’t that important!) and remember the things that make me feel good about myself (I’m a great cook, a fun mum, and a great friend!).

Be compassionate with yourself—feeling horrible about a photo makes sense.

If you think of yourself as having “good” body image, you might feel shame about reacting negatively to a photo—it’s so trivial, right? But the fact is, appearance pressures are virtually inescapable today, and it’s only human for you to feel their effects, no matter the state of your body image.

“This isn’t a problem that’s unique to you or your body—it’s a societal one,” Dr. Craddock says. “Having a negative reaction to a photo of yourself could simply serve as a reminder that societal pressures to look a certain way are really potent. It’s also worth remembering that not liking a photo doesn’t detract from any healing you’ve already done to improve your relationship with your body—and it certainly doesn’t make you a bad person.”

I always feel a little knot of dread in my stomach before looking at a photo of myself (Will what I see ruin my day?), and that may always be the case. But I now know that I can learn to change my reaction once I see a photo, and that this shift in mindset just might be what allows me to create beautiful, real memories—not just photographic ones—in the moment. As Seegmiller says, “We are complex, introspective, and deep human beings having a human experience. A photo can’t, won’t, and doesn’t capture that.”

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can find support and resources from Beat, the UK's eating disorder charity.

This story was originally published on SELF.