A couple of years ago, a friend of mine, a writer, had a first book coming out. She needed to have an author photo taken. So she spent an hour being photographed on a beach, because it is a universal law that all authors look good on the beach.
In the photos, my friend looked beautiful. More importantly, she looked like herself: thoughtful, self-possessed, smart. But she could not see these things. She could not see anything she liked. "Oh my God," she said. "I can't handle this." Nothing I said helped. At the centre of someone else's gaze, with nothing to provide a buffer against the very her-ness on display, perhaps she saw only vulnerability. I kept saying, lamely, "You look great." Then I remembered that the only thing that takes the sting out of a hated photograph of yourself is 10 years. Once 10 years have passed, you can look at the photograph and lament that you didn't enjoy your comparative beauty 10 years earlier. "It'll be okay, eventually," I said.
When you have a photo taken for a publication, it's assumed that you'll try to project who you are, who you really genuinely are, via your face and body, so that others will perceive you as "interesting" and "nice". This can feel like trying to shoot laser beams from a cheese grater. But, oh, to look interesting and nice. Sometimes, when having a photo taken, I just switch off, my dissociation a last-ditch attempt at camouflage. Or I dwell on the things that are wrong with my face, nearly all of them beliefs sown long ago. A boy at school used to call me "Evil Eyes", or – my personal preference – "the Evil Eye", so the evilness of my eyes is now something I try to counteract when I have to have a photo taken. The catch-22 is that the less evil you try to make your eyes, the more evil they become.
With photos, I think there are often two conflicting desires: you want to be seen, but you don't want to be truly seen. You want to be known, while remaining obscure. When somebody takes your photo, you can't control which parts of you will be seen and which parts will not, so often it feels like the picture has got it wrong. Even 17th century poet John Milton, whose publisher was an early adopter of author portraits on books, hated how he looked in an engraving: "You could say, perhaps, that this likeness had been drawn by a rank beginner!" A photo is a reminder that you go through the world like this, too – horribly visible, uncontrolled, flickering through countless rank beginner versions of yourself as you go.
This is one of the reasons why the selfie has been taken up so enthusiastically: at its heart is a defiance of another's gaze. The selfie presents the face that the selfie-taker wants us to see or feels is true. "That girl in the park taking selfie after selfie after selfie?" writes Rachel Syme in her celebrated essay about the form. "She's investigating her own silhouette. She's figuring out which parts of her face she loves; she's doing confidence fact-finding. Sometimes it takes 100 selfies to capture the one that rings out with recognition: this, this is who I am."
When I worry about having a photo taken, an inner voice scolds: "Don't be so vain. It's all meaningless! Get above it all, you idiot!" The scolding voice means well. But it can't stop images of otherworldly perfection from raining down on us, getting into our brains and hearts; it can't stop the stream of messages from the day we are born that our appearance is intrinsic to our worth. You can dismiss popular culture's fixations while simultaneously feeling their deep hold on you, and even fearing them. It's plain that photos of women in the media (and on the back covers of books) attract more scrutiny and, often, hostility than do photos of men.
One thing I find helpful is this. A much-photographed writer reminded me that a photograph can never capture all of you and nor should you ask it to. It is a moment in time that, even as it was appearing, was already disappearing. You exist elsewhere, in your gestures and in your voice and in your tiny imperceptible shifts; you exist in how you move through time.
As I tried to comfort my friend, I wished we could time travel. I wished the two of us could grow grey and weathered in an instant so we could look with uncomplicated happiness at photos of ourselves. Then, we'd rush back to the present, go to the beach – where we would look amazing – and take loads more.