Like so many women of my generation, I arrived at the art form of selfies later in life. My digital photography archive contained mostly pictures of kids, friends and travel pics, but almost no photos of me alone. But on my first-ever trip alone in 2017 at 43, I found myself on a small Spanish beach in Costa Blanca, wanting to share the experience and my joy with someone. Too embarrassed to ask a local to take my photo, it occurred to me that I could just take one of myself. With trepidation, I turned my phone to face me. Raising my arm slightly above my sun hat-covered head to capture the Mediterranean behind me, I snapped and posted the image to Instagram with the caption, “Happy turista.”
While the photo was no work of art, the comments came in fast and furious. “Beautiful!” “Looks like you’re having an awesome time.” “Have an amazing trip!!!!” Suddenly, an ocean away from home, I was not so lonely.
Sharing selfies has become a way to centre myself in my story, to fully own and embody what it means to be a woman living in this time in her late 40s. A way to document my growth, my heartaches, my experiences and my joy, from feeling like a stranger to myself when my marriage ended to standing on my own two feet, building a career, raising kids and learning how to love again.
While selfies are often scoffed at rather than seen as a meaningful form of self-expression, sharing photos of ourselves is part of the way social media gives a platform to those left out of mainstream stories until now. They allow marginalized people to take up space and change the narrative of who gets to be in the spotlight. Selfies also put you as the director and star of your story, with the subject also being the photographer, and deciding what to snap and share, rather than allowing someone else to decide for you.
Why midlife women should embrace the selfie
As our physical selves change with age, many midlife women may hesitate to take and share a selfie, feeling uncomfortable in front of the camera. But the power of having complete control of your image means you get to play with portraiture on your own terms. At 40, Toronto area vlogger and influencer Tina Singh thinks there’s no better time to start. “Being 40 or older—it’s one of the greatest times to do this,” says Singh. “I have a thicker skin because of all the things I’ve been through.” An occupational therapist and mom of three boys, Singh started her social channels after realizing she was so busy that she wasn’t documenting the life of her children.
Embracing your full self as you are via a selfie can be a very powerful thing, but first we have to acknowledge the scary parts. “What is the thing that you’re afraid of seeing in a photograph?” asks Winnipeg-based body image educator and photographer, Teri Hofford. “Are you afraid of seeing your rolls, wrinkles, cellulite, or your double chin? Everyone has something.”
In her online self-portraiture class, Beyond the Body, she starts by encouraging her students to take photos of the thing they’re most afraid to see. “Because once you see it, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m still alive. I’m still here. I’m still loved by the people that care about and appreciate me. That one split second that my rolls or my cellulite or my wrinkles were in that photo does not take away from who I am as a person.’”
Singh says that being raised in a South Asian household and culture, honest expression of feelings and sharing wasn’t always encouraged. So she tries to show real life as it is, messiness and all. “If I’m having a rough day, I do share it. I’ve shared struggles with weight gain during the pandemic. I think that when you share authentically, you’re able to connect with people on a deeper level.”
How to take a really great selfie
From a technical perspective, lighting makes all the difference when taking selfies. “Natural light is your best friend,” says Singh, mentioning the bright, warm light of golden hour, right before sunset, which typically makes everyone look good. “There’s 5 p.m. and then there’s early morning, like 7 a.m.”
Hofford agrees, suggesting that any sort of flat light that shines evenly on the face is best for selfies. “Find a window and stand in front of it,” she says. If overhead lighting like pot lights is unavoidable, Hofford suggests turning your face up toward the light. “Look for the light to make sure there’s no shadows hiding around.” Hofford also encourages experimentation with lighting, like playing with backlighting, or getting creative with lamps, spotlights or flashlights.
But what about feeling at ease when snapping that shot on your own? Some selfie aficionados record a video of themselves, allowing them time to get settled in front of the camera and pose continuously. Then, they screenshot their favourite moments once they’re done. “Personally I like to use the 10-second timer,” says Hofford. She also recommends different apps, like CLOS, which uses artificial intelligence to snap a photo anytime you move or shift your pose.
As for angles, Hofford wants you to explore without self-judgement. “The word ‘flattering’ is usually synonymous with ‘slimness,’” she explains, “So instead I encourage folks to challenge themselves to try different angles to achieve different feelings that go beyond the beauty standard.”
Here are her tips on posing for a great shot:
- Look square to the camera, or head-on, to appear more confident and self assured.
- An upwards angle can make you look more cocky (in a good way), powerful, dominating and strong.
- A downward angle will create more of a submissive, soft, sensual feel.
- Make dynamic images by creating asymmetry while posing. For example, one shoulder higher or forward more than the other or one hand on waist and one hand overhead.
- Look for triangles and curves to make the shot more aesthetically appealing: think pointed toes, bent elbows or knees, soft wrists, relaxed fingers.
To filter, or not to filter?
When it comes to filters, Hofford recommends avoiding them if you can, because it’s important to get comfortable with how you actually look. For Singh, it depends on the filter. “Certain filters are really problematic for me. [But] there’s such a wide range of filters. There are filters that just add a little glow and filters that change your face completely, so it’s a matter of what you’re comfortable with. I’m never going to tell a woman that she shouldn’t filter her pictures if that’s how she feels comfortable. But I think we all should be working to get to a place, myself included, where we can post a picture without a filter, right?”
Both Hofford and Singh say it’s more about how you feel when taking the photo. “One of my tips for getting good photos is to be in the moment with what you’re doing, where there’s an authentic feeling behind it,” recommends Singh. “I think those lead to the best pictures.”
“Shift your expectations of what your body owes you, what photography owes you and what emotions should look like in photographs,” says Hofford, who recommends taking a photo when you’re feeling sexy, and not judging it based on the version of sexy we’ve been sold. “Did you feel sexy when the photo was taken? Then that is what a sexy photo looks like for you.”
Selfies tell stories and preserve memories
Singh says much like wanting to document her kids growing up, she’s also documenting her own life journey and that’s important. “It’s not really about how you look, it’s about the moment.”
“I think especially for women that are in that middle age gap, upwards of 40… They haven’t existed in photos unless there were other people present,” says Hofford. “Part of the problem is that they don’t know that they can be alone in the photograph. And that is okay.” She jokes that most people will have pictures of dead people on their walls before hanging a photo of themselves.“Have at least one photo where you’re just full body, feeling confident.”
For me, as a writer of personal stories, posting selfies has become a new storytelling medium. Looking back at our faces and seeing our life stories told through increasing wrinkles, dark spots, scowls or smiles can be profoundly transformative. I wish someone had told me long ago that so much of life is simply experimentation and that creativity could be found anywhere.
From documenting new adventures and cute outfits to capturing how I was feeling or who I was on a particular day, selfies remind me that I’m making progress. A way to reflect me back to myself and see myself differently in the process. As though I’m saying, “Hey, you’re getting older. Get used to it. Find what’s beautiful here.”