Most performers, in spite of our occasional “back to nature” urges, want to look as good as we can, especially when a hot-handed social-media expert with a cell phone camera is lurking in the wings. Like so many of my friends, I waltzed into my mature soft-focus years just when the world decided it absolutely needed harshly lit, candid photos of all of us. It’s bad enough dealing with wrinkles and chins and roots and flab, but it’s far worse for those of us in a business that necessitates maintaining a “public face.” I play a concert and flash goes the camera; I play for a wedding and I show up in a dozen home videos, many of which end up on YouTube; I often need new photos for CD launches. I play, I pose, I pose, I play. It’s stupid. I have enough to worry about trying to hit the right keys and make emotional sense out of my compositions. Do I need to worry about the hideous angle of the camera pointed at me, held by a Taiwanese tourist whom I will never see again? At this point in my life do I really need to be concerned about back fat and batwings?
I realize this is a taboo subject. The world is going to hell in a hand basket and I’m worried about how I look in a photo? I’m not the only one. Pretty much every woman I know—skinny, stout, lifted, tattooed, coiffed, buff, chilled, or uptight—thinks about how she looks, probably a little too much. Maybe even a lot too much. Even the deepest of us occasionally wade in shallow water.
In the last month I’ve survived two photo sessions, each one intended to help promote a new project. I worked with two great photographers, Andreas Biesenbach and my daughter, Julia Goldsby, but still, I did not walk willingly into the light. Filled with dread, I complained about the sessions for about a month in advance.
“This, Robin, is an uptown problem,” said my actor-friend, Peg. She has an intelligent sense of humor, soulful eyes, and a wide, quirky smile. She is beautiful. I would paint her if I had that kind of talent. “Complaining about having your picture taken at our age is sort of like crying because you got too many flowers for your fiftieth birthday.”
She has a point. I’m happy people still take my picture. I’m not so happy that I worry about it.
My pianist pal, Robin Spielberg, says she would gladly stop thinking about her appearance if she had a normal job that didn’t mandate new glossy photos every few years. The lovely Ms. Spielberg, with raven hair, green eyes, an hourglass figure, and a husband who takes gorgeous photos of her, worries just as much as I do, even though, most days, she looks as if she slipped out of a beauty and style blog. We joke about being on the celebrity “B” list—well-known enough to warrant looking as groomed as possible; not quite famous enough to call in the cosmetic surgeons, the personal trainers, and the daily Spackle team. Not that we want those things. Or do we?
Actors, musicians, and artists on the “B” celebrity roster aren’t the only women who strive to look good (or at least not fat) in photos. I know prominent businesswomen, doctors, United Nations representatives, judges, lawyers, teachers, and stay-at-home moms who every so often go to battle against the vanity monster. I know teenagers who stand in front of the mirror and practice poses. I know grandmothers who have perfected the art of using the selfie pole. I know really powerful women—women who take down organized crime syndicates, battle the NRA, and bench press hundreds of pounds— who cower at the idea of having an up-to-date passport photo taken.
Why worry about a silly photo session? It’s not like we don’t have anything else to think about. We are raising families, raising hell, redecorating our dining rooms, making scientific breakthroughs, writing novels, helping to coordinate refugee relief. We are ruling on critical legal matters, planting herb gardens, planning philanthropic events, delivering our children to college, and mending broken hearts. We are repairing skinned knees, visiting autoimmune specialists, balancing hormones, and trying to save the world with a plant-based diet. We are practicing hard, living disciplined Fitbit lives, and getting better at what we do.
Do we really care if our gray hair is showing? Or if we look jowly in the reunion photo?
Too bad we can’t post 4D scans of our working brains and full hearts instead of pictures of our laminated smiles and sooty-lashed eyes. Scans that would show kindness and strength and resolve. Humor and resilience. Rage. Is it possible to photograph a woman’s unbreakable spirit?
Less silicone, more sass. Less filler, more fight. Not that there’s anything wrong with filler. If it’s what you want, go for it.
In the meantime, book a good photographer and a stylist. Their photos will compensate for the hideous casual shots that seem to show up on social media. It’s money well spent. Once the photographer sends you the finished photos—if she’s smart she’ll send you the touched-up versions and you’ll think she’s brilliant and you’re a tad more polished than you thought—you can take a deep breath and feel a little foolish about the whole thing. You can step away from the mirror, ma’am, and go back to what counts. You can have a cocktail and a club sandwich and discuss politics and your children and the melting world with your friends. You can practice the piano or the cello or write a poem. You can post your photo everywhere and bask in the afterglow of everyone’s warm comments. “Wow,” they’ll say. “Wow. You haven’t changed a bit.”
But I know better. I think you’ve changed a lot since the last time you had your picture taken. For the better.
If you don’t like your new photo, I suggest taking the Carole Delgado Approach. Throw the picture in a drawer and don’t look at it for ten years. Take it out. You’ll see so much more than an airbrushed face. You’ll see a younger you, picture perfect, windblown and beautiful in all your naivety, ready to take on the world.
If only you had known how good you looked, back then.
Put on a Happy Face: A Few Tips
- Get a good night’s sleep. Try not to dream about your disappearing waistline. Set your alarm so you have enough time to stretch and take a really hot shower.
- Don’t starve yourself before the session. You’ll faint, or worse, you’ll look pale and spaced out. Heroin-chic might work for Kate Moss, but it probably won’t work for you. Eat bananas. They don’t get stuck in your teeth and they soothe your nerves.
- A couple of days ahead of time, drink as much water and herbal tea as possible. Your skin will thank you, even if your bladder won’t. The morning of the session, be sure to drink soothing, clear beverages (no, not vodka), but don’t drink too much. You don’t want to be running off to the potty once you’re in gear.
- Tempting as it might be to tie one on, stay away from wine for a week ahead of time. Okay, maybe just seventy-two hours. Nobody hates this rule more than I do, but wine makes your face puffy and that’s no fun, unless you’re using the photo to audition for a PMS print ad.
- Same as #3, but substitute the word “sugar” for wine.
- Take it easy on the salt. It’s all about the bloat.
- Hire a great photographer—or more importantly, a nice one who calms you. One who appreciates your intelligence. One who laughs at your jokes and acknowledges you have better things to do (solving physics problems, practicing Ravel, baking brownies) than worry about your disappearing cheekbones and falling face.
- Hire a stylist. It is worth every penny. She will watch out for excessive hair frizz and bleeding lipstick. Ask your photographer to recommend someone.
- Lighting is everything. Ask Diane Sawyer.
- Relax your forehead. This is easy if you’ve had Botox, because your forehead won’t move, no matter how excited you get. I am Botox-less, which means I can raise my eyebrows to the top of my scalp. This feels right to me, but it makes me look like I’ve just seen George Clooney in a kilt, or worse, that I am a member of The Young Americans, that singing group that performs patriotic songs. Also, I don’t really have any eyebrows (they are blond and very thin), so I resemble ET if I raise them. A relaxed forehead makes you look happy and calm, even if the world is crashing around you.
- Keep your makeup natural looking. Don’t get me wrong—you need a good dose of Spackle to avoid looking like an aging and hung-over hippie, but you also don’t want to look like last night’s leftover. Hold off on the Liza eye- and lip-liner. Gloss is good; goo is not.
- A little contouring goes a long way.
- Beach shots are always good. Water reflects light nicely and, if you’re not having any fun, you can always jump into the deep end and go for the comedy shot.
- Wear something really simple. Clean necklines, no fuss. Not too much jewelry.
- A nice three-quarter-length sleeve is your best friend.If your arms are exposed, face your palms out. This creates a nice arm line and shows off your biceps, assuming you have biceps. If you don’t, grab that pashmina, pronto.
- Smile, but not too hard, or you’ll look like a cackling Phyllis Diller.
- Sit up straight, but keep your shoulders down. Does that make sense? No. Practice, you’ll see what I mean.
- If at any time your photographer gets on the floor and shoots up at you, shoot back. No good has ever come from this angle. Sure, the photographer might get a nice shot of the skyline, but your neck will look really fat and your nostrils will resemble the Holland Tunnel. The best angle for a mature woman is slightly above eye level.
- If, heaven help you, you find yourself in the dreaded panoramic group shot (popular at weddings and women’s conferences); do whatever you can to be in the center of the picture. Anyone stuck on the end will look enormous. Ships on your hips and all that.
- Hum “I Am What I Am” or some other confidence-boosting anthem while the photographer clicks away. “Lush Life” works for me.
- Remember this phrase: “I want to look my best, but I don’t want to look fake.” Your photographer will know exactly what this means—that she should use Photoshop, but no one should notice.
- Remember, the portrait lens won’t steal your soul, but it will steal your confidence if you let it. Don’t let it; you’re fiercer than that.
I get by with a little help from my friends: I’ve selected photos of women I respect (all of them over fifty). Polished professionals (and skilled artists) who fling themselves in front of a camera with gratitude and confidence. Look at these gorgeous results! They aren’t rail thin or spring-chicken young. They aren’t models or household names or regulars in the tabloids. Not one of them actually likes having her photo taken, but yet they venture forward (hopefully into a rose colored light) when necessary and get the job done. If they can do it, you can, too.
Robin Spielberg says:
- If you feel beautiful, your photos will be lovely. Wear something that makes you feel terrific. It could be a fabric that is cozy, or a dress that you love…or a cape that makes you feel special.
- Avoid shooting first thing in the morning! Eyes might be a wee bit puffy
- Do hire a stylist for hair and makeup
- Do take “practice photos” with your hair and makeup set to make sure you like how it looks
- I once had a photographer retouch my eyelid area at first to get rid of the wrinkles on my lids . . . then I had him undo it. The wrinkles there are mine. I own them and have earned them. Instead of retouching, we relied heavily on good lighting to fill in and illuminate my face. I didn’t need to look younger…I wanted to look my best self.
- Jewelry: don’t overdo. Jewelry should not distract from the portrait. Choose statement earrings or necklace but not both. If you have a statement necklace, wear light earrings close to the ear. If you have statement earrings, wear little or nothing around the neck.
Holli Ross says:
- Go for early morning light or the golden hour light-late summer afternoon (an hour before sunset where the sun is still in the sky at a very low angle). Outdoor shots help keep costs down. A) don’t have to pay for a studio and B) that low angled light helps immensely for filling in (ahem) gravity’s nasty work. The full length shot was 7 AM above was taken on a Jersey Shore beach. I was dead tired but we used the “Starbucks” app for making me look more awake than I was. It was pretty hysterical getting dressed in a boardwalk bathroom. Tasteful mega makeup and flowing gowns are not the usual fare in that part of the world (think Housewives of New Jersey) or their public bathrooms.
- The headshot (above) was taken at a train station (hence the stone wall building behind me) on a late fall afternoon on an overcast day that was just glowing. No Photoshop on that one! Just lucky I guess.
- Be aware of looser skin if you’re going to lean your cheek on a hand or squeeze those boobs together.
- Always think sexy!!! You’re still that twenty-one year old inside!
Carol Windfuhr says:
- Try to moisturize inside and out the night before the photo shoot. Eat light food, and try to get as much sleep as possible.
- Sometimes I apply a moisturizing mask either the night before, or the next morning. It’s all about moisture and fillers at our age. There are some creams that promise to do that, but so far I haven’t found one that could live up to my expectations.
- Don’t try to look thirty, when you are over fifty.
- The most important thing for a woman over fifty is to know her style. To be sure of her look and to realize that her perfect bikini body is gone forever.
- Find clothes you like and wear them often, with different accessories. Be self confident. Our age group is the new thing! We are consumers, travelers, workers, artists, writers etc. We are attractive and experienced, and on the go.
- Don’t overuse foundation. It sometimes does the opposite of what it is supposed to do—cover! If it is to heavy it can easily dry out, and emphasize the wrinkles or big pores we try to conceal.
- I use a good moisturizer and under eye cream. Then I use a tinted day cream. Before I do, I dab on concealer with a thin brush (mine is from Mac). Then comes the foundation. I work it in with my hands.
- If you have someone who can do good make-up, it is nice to treat yourself. Otherwise try out different looks. The more natural, the better. Too much make-up can make us look older.
- Emphasize either the lips or the eyes. Never both.
Daryl Sherman, who makes it a point to shred, crumple, or delete unflattering photos (always a good idea) says she has one iron clad rule: “I play the piano . . . I pose for photos at the piano and around the piano . . . but I never sit on top of the piano for a photo!” Daryl speaks candidly about the perils of airbrushing and too much retouching: “Kids tell it like it is: a five-year-old boy (his parents are fans of mine) looked at my recent CD cover photo. He looked up at me and asked ‘did you wash your face for this photo?’ I responded “oh, the photographer really washed my face!’ ”
Anne Hartkamp says: “Hire a good photographer. Ann Weitz, who did my photos is a “real woman” behind the camera! And a very kind and inspiring person, on top of her amazing photographic skills.”
Tracie Mayer comes from show-business royalty and gets invited to lots of high profile events, the kind of shindigs that involve red carpets, slinky evening gowns, and paparazzi. Her advice? “If you’re walking through fire, just keep going. You will eventually reach the other side.”
Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.
Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.
Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!