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When Did We All Stop Smiling in Photos?

Smiles have all but disappeared in the modern woman’s online photos. Is it just another beauty trend...or has modern joy suddenly gone cold?


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Photos of beautiful but unsmiling people

Courtesy subjects. Design by Soleil Summer.

I’m not sure at what point my social media feeds were smothered in a coat of high-fashion paint, but it happened suddenly and ubiquitously. Although many people walking around in my day-to-day life have much to smile about — a general gratitude for life, our collective wellbeing, and the beauty of each of our fantastically singular bodies, as put into focus by the morbidity of a global pandemic — many young women I follow have seemingly stopped smiling in photos altogether.

The Julia Roberts era of Crest Whitestrips-enhanced, toothy smiles that once warmed and enlivened family photos, portraits of loved ones, and snapshots of us hugging our girlies has gone by the wayside. In their place lie smirks and smizes and demure gazes that have made themselves at home on our faces — distant or unbothered looks that suggest, “You cannot possibly know me, the real me, just by looking at my photos.”

In an age of Addisons and Chiaras and Sofias and Kims and aloof beauty editors, the absence of a smile has come to represent glamour, high-brow aesthetics, and inaccessibility — traits many of us are guilty of (trying) to emulate in our everyday lives. But along with the smile’s disappearance, it seems as though real joy — the joy experienced in real life, rather than the joy constructed and disseminated online — might have vanished, too.

As the sheer volume of photos we post online continues to explode and as the bulk of our lives from beauty routines to dance routines go digital, so, too, does the inkling that those detached facial expressions represent more than just a new standard of beauty...but a new era for all women online. And according to content creators, photographers, and sociologists, perhaps the reason many women have stopped smiling as they’re captured in what they hope will be their most, well, alluring, is less about how to be beautiful and more about how we can use our beauty to our advantage: as a shield, as a product, and often, as power.

Building Boundaries

We live online. We buy beauty products like The Ordinary’s Retinol because TikTokers tell us to. We take trending cues from the beauty influencers and content creators we follow — like, okay, we’re doing winged neon orange eyeliner and matte skin now? Done. And, increasingly, we define our personal beauty in reference to — and modeled after — fabulous women with fountains of followers. But we’re choosy about the women we trust, and Malvika Sheth, a 22-year old LA-based digital content creator, plays right into that pickiness.

In order to spotlight her niche focus on luxury beauty and fashion, Sheth rarely smiles in her feed posts. She’s aware that, in order to amass a loyal following, she needs to look authentic. But after spending nearly a year in solitude, she found excessive smiling to be ingenuine — a reversal of her core values — because she doesn’t go through life smiling for hours at a time. Instead, she chooses a “neutral” expression not only to promote a high-end, consistent brand, but also to push against unfair beauty standards that are thrust onto women of color.

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Malvika Sheth (Monica Henriquez)

“With Indian women, we have this standard of beauty to always be lighter,” Sheth said. “Since I stopped doing any editing or filtering, I feel the best way to stick to that more edgy, more mysterious, more editorial vibe in my photos was to keep that neutral expression consistent, allowing the focus to be on the clothes or the makeup.”

While Sheth has found that her smiling posts actually garner more engagement, she’s doubling down on her moody expression for another reason: privacy and boundary-setting. In an age where most young people are extremely online, the success of today's beauty influencers often arises from their followers’ ability to really know them and to divulge both beauty secrets and doses of realness. To Sheth, a smile represents an open book, but the image she projects online is a highly curated one: it’s her symbolic protest of being required to spill every thought, opinion, or health flair-up. She doesn’t want to cry a river on her stories because consumers are not allowed to know the entirety of her being. “It’s a way of me saying, ‘Welcome to a portion of my world, rather than my entire world.’”

The Curation of Cool

Edge, mystery, editorial, moody: those auras are more like “cool, calm, collected, and luxury” for Cassandra Caldwell, a beauty and lifestyle content creator. When she first started out, back in 2015, the content landscape was bursting with larger-than-life personalities (think Brittany Furlan), which, in turn, sent the overall reputation of influencers tumbling downwards. Hyper-aware of the derogatory stigma that keeps many beauty influencers from being regarded as the highly sought-after celebrities they are, Cadwell says her choice not to smile (which she says she hadn’t noticed before this interview) is more of a rebellious pout.

“So many people look down on influencers as if we don’t have a serious career,” Cadwell said. “I guess I’m not smiling in a somewhat intentional way of showing that I’m not trying to be an influencer. I’m not your standard like, ‘Hey guys, what’s up?’ influencer, I’m just being effortless and cool.”

Candid smiles and genuine joy just don't fit into the aesthetic.

However, Cadwell also acknowledges the hypocrisy in that statement: Her effortless and cool tone is entirely full of effort and curation, as if candid smiles (“Is anything really ever candid anymore?” she says, laughing) and moments of genuine joy just don’t fit into the aesthetic. In other words, she doesn’t believe people need, want, or care to see that aspect of her life when they come to her for outfit and beauty product recommendations. The very point of her online existence, and the way she expresses her beauty, isn’t just for kicks or a hobby or even as a scrapbook for friends and family to devour. It’s for consumers to engage with. And Cadwell knows that “cool” girls sell clothes and make-up better than anyone.

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Cassandra Caldwell (Courtesy Subject)

“It’s the historical Devil Wears Prada mentality where in order to be cool, you can’t be nice, which is such a deep-seated, pervasive notion in our society,” she said. “I’ve literally had people in the industry tell me I’m too nice and that I need to spend a year in New York, because I have a natural, Southern California cheerleader personality. But that’s who I am, and I genuinely struggle with this because I do think that I’d probably be perceived as more chic or more cool if I wasn’t always nice.”

And while the millennial mean girls of yore no longer reign supreme, Cadwell’s catching onto something that may be less about mean-spirited, competitive women, and more about power. In the same vein as unsmiling ice queens like Miranda Priestly, Shiv Roy, Claire Underwood, or Cersai who had young women’s attention in a chokehold, perhaps we find women who appear evil, vile, or sinister as more worthy of power, clout, and, inevitably, beauty. That sort of beauty is far from “girl next door:” It’s intoxicating.

The Evolution of the Scowl

The inscrutable scowl, according to fashion photographer Yolanda Leaney who regularly shoots the Kardashians, seems to have evolved from the lifeless look of ‘90s era models, who were instructed not to “distract from the clothes.” Naturally, a glower or “smize” as popularized by Tyra Banks have come to be synonymous with high fashion and couture: cover models we’ll never look like and clothing most of us can’t afford that grace the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and W. And Leaney says that while the notable figures or celebrities she shoots do often smile throughout the process, the “smoldering” look is often “the winner, the mag cover, the brand hero shot.”

To understand the link between a smirk and high-brow elitism, Leaney looks back to the turn of the century when cameras were first used publicly and the subjects they captured often appeared forlorn or wistful. These expressions were attributed to pre-existing art forms (think the polarizing half-smile of Mona Lisa or the morbid expressions of Rembrandt’s subjects), as well as being unable to hold a smile for longer posing periods in both painted portraiture and old cameras with slow shutter speeds, Leaney says.

But choosing not to smile was as much of a performance as it was a convenience. Mark Twain is often quoted as writing, in a letter to the Sacramento Daily Union, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.” And in the high-fashion world, that later transformed into a gradually more “withdrawn” look that crystallized in 2011, according to sociologist Elise van der Laan, who wrote about what she calls a ‘“stylized femininity’...characterized by a passive and stylized pose, a vacant look, a lack of smile, and an open mouth” in 2015 paper aptly called “Why Fashion Models Don't Smile.”

The only difference between then and now? Social media.

While photographs once offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for memorialization, capturing a quick selfie with an earnest grin is something anyone can do at any time. If photography is for the masses, then the very idea of a smiling photo has been cheapened, and Leaney argues that Instagram formed the bridge between fashion runway behavior to personal posts.

“Humans are simple creatures; we are a product of our environment, and we are constantly exposed to hundreds of images, endlessly scrolling, each and every day,” she says. “So it’s no surprise we find ourselves trying to emulate what we stare at — anything for a higher cheekbone, bigger eye, or a fuller lip. We sell our personal brand as best we can, aligning with the behaviors and poses of our favorite models and celebrities.” For some, projecting such an image also means projecting glamour and wealth — a vehicle for transcending the class we were born into and injecting ourselves into the class we aspire to join, those that grace the covers and those who can afford not to smile.

“Taking photos can actually be very intimate. I don’t smile so I can protect myself a little bit.”

Perhaps we’re forgetting that someone’s online representation of themselves is quite literally a product to be consumed, engaged with, interacted with, copied, shared, and disseminated, while the rest of us were told to hop online simply to share our favorite moments with our loved ones. But those two opposing perspectives and goals are now starting to merge. And we fail to remember that we know the beauty we see online — the beauty that is curated, posed, unsmiling — is a lie.

The Unsmiling Trend Followers

But normcore girls like me (those who follow trends rather than setting them) often do take our cues from what we see online. And if no one is smiling, and they happen to appear enigmatic and commanding while they're at it, then — to hell with it — despite my very expensive orthodontic procedures, I’m not smiling either. I want to be like them. I want to look like the women who are being looked at...the women who are being seen. As cultural sociologist Syliva Holla points out, “The model's job is, in essence, to be looked at.”

But Ali Weiss, the 28-year-old host of the “Tales of Taboo” podcast, says she often hides behind her online persona and doesn’t want to be looked at intimately in spite of the sultry photos she posts. Weiss is 5’10,” has self-proclaimed big eyebrows, and says she’s “angular and intense-looking,” which she believes has made her an easy target for trolls. So, she uses unsmiling photos as a shield for her own sanity and confidence.

“I give away so much of my personality in my videos, where I can kind of hide behind this rowdy persona,” she said. “But taking photos can actually be very intimate. I don’t smile so I can protect myself a little bit, but I also do it because I worry that people are going to critique the way that I look when I smile.”

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Ali Weiss (Jeiroh Yanga)

Dr. Katherine Parkins, Ph.D., a professor of history and the Jules Plangere Jr. endowed chair in American Social History at Monmouth University, believes the reason for this shift in behavior is the “always available camera.” Along with this technological advancement came the notion of being seen — that a camera could capture us at any moment or that we should look like Gigi Hadid grocery shopping in New York paparazzi shots.

“Having those high definition cameras trained on us all the time has led women and particularly younger women to be hyper-conscious of their appearance,” Dr. Parkins says.

From Dr. Parkin’s perspective, not smiling in photos is fine for now...so long as young women aren’t missing out on real joy in the process. “That to me is my concern: if we are prioritizing bodily autonomy, if we are prioritizing self knowledge and self discovery of gender and sexuality and awareness of rights, then are you foregoing the right to be joyful in smiling openly?” she wonders.

As consumers of the internet, we prioritize the beautiful, stone-cold version of ourselves we’ve invented, while our smiling selves — our real, beautiful selves that showcase the full extent of human emotion, scrunched noses, gummy smiles, crow’s feet, and all — fade into the background, in place of a self in which pretending and misleading take centerstage. In a world where our lives are increasingly public, there’s nothing left to hide except for our true selves. And each of us wants to be seen in perpetuity as the kind of powerful, authoritative person we want to be remembered as, and perhaps the kind of person we simply can't be.

“As much as we can criticize no smiles, is there anything worse than a fake smile?” Leaney asks, laughing.

She’s right: I think I’ll try to smile a bit more. Kindness and joy are always in vogue, after all.

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This post originally appeared on Allure and was published December 21, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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