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Female Poses for Pictures: Performativity and Power

How to pose for pictures cartoon
The big question…

“How Should I Pose for the Camera?”

In our era of daily digital photos, the question of how to pose is everywhere… but is particularly symbolic — and sometimes even fraught — for women to decide.

How female bodies are angled or female faces are formed for pictures (and in life, for that matter) sends messages. On a constant basis, women choose how to visually represent ourselves.

I decided to write about this topic because someone finally asked me: “Why are your poses so weird in pictures?” By answering this question, I hope to illuminate the decisions we make every day, and provide some freedom in our future. I’ve illustrated this article with cartoons I drew today that I hope make you smile!

Joy cartoon: female poses
There is joy in expression by posing!

Popular Female Poses for Pictures

First, let’s establish what “normal” or expected photo poses are for women in much of America — poses which are also popular in some other parts of the world, but for reasons we will discuss, mesh deeply with American society. (Note: Many of these patterns are most evident in European-American photography, and cultural variations will be discussed subsequently.)

1. Facing forward: Big face and big smile.

Even before the advent of selfies, America has been about the big face. We place our punims front and center, sometimes even taking up most of the frame. Big, toothy smiles and accessible, forward-facing bodies reflect classic American gregariousness.

Variations on this include pretty Instagram or Snapchat face filters, puckered kisses (“duck lips”), silly expressions, seductive smiles, excited faces in front of food, hand on hip, or groups of friends or family posing together. The common thread is that all these poses reflect large, centered faces and welcoming, alluring vibes.

2. The female body immersed in an activity.

As an alternative to centering the face, there is the popular digital photography pattern of women, photographed to show the whole body, deeply focused on doing an activity. (Sometimes these women are pretending to do this activity, as I know well from doing it, myself!) The backdrop — beautiful scenery or a lovely interior — complements and enhances what the woman is doing.

Activities include: Staring off into the distance thoughtfully (usually photographed from behind, with flowing hair and clothes), doing an athletic or yoga pose, jumping in the air in exuberance, making something, or playing with children.

I knew this already,” you exclaim with exasperation. Yes, yes, I know you did — but clarifying this shared foundation of “normal” travel photos in America is essential to get where we’re going next.

No smile cartoon female poses for pictures
It’s normal NOT to smile for photos in some places.

Female Poses in Photos Differ by Culture

We sometimes forget that what seems normal to us in our home city may be totally different in another place. Each culture I’ve explored demonstrates a slightly different manner of photography poses. It’s enough to jolt a person out of our concept of what is “odd” or not. Here are some variations seen around the world:

A. No smile in photos.

This serious, closed-mouth pose is common in places where smiling is less of a cultural norm than America, where people don’t want to show their teeth (either because they are self-conscious of them, or for local societal reasons), or where there just isn’t the American photo norm of “CHEESE!”

B. Back view, hand on cocked hip, smiling face looking over shoulder at camera.

This pose emphasizes the, um, er… rear end. Different countries and cultures value different parts of the female form, which is vibrantly reflected in local clothing conventions and photography posing norms. This rear-love pose is therefore common in places that prize hourglass shapes in women, and is often paired with close-fitting pants, skirts, or dresses.

C. Smiling face with V-Shape fingers

In many countries in Asia, the “Peace Sign” hand formation graces numerous photos. The historic evolution of this is explained in this fascinating Times article, and it forms a perfect illustration of how “normal” female photography poses are totally different depending on the country.

“Normal” is relative. Flash a V-Sign in one country and you’re normal. Flash it in another, and you’re confusing and different. Use it in a third, and you’re downright offensive and vulgar! “Weird” alters completely by context and culture.

Peace sign V-fingers pose cartoon
Ever seen the V-fingers pose in photos?

Women Are Not Dumb; Poses are Power.

The previous background about societal expectations for and messages sent by female poses in photography is critical to reach this climactic conclusion: Women know exactly what we are doing in every photo. Every single angle of the body or face is a purposeful, powerful choice in how we want to be perceived, and the messages we’re sending.

From successful Instagram influencer to middle school girl, we female humans are always thinking about the messages our body choices send. This thought process may be very clear (ex: “Photograph my good side, please!”) or subconscious (like smiling at the camera in a reflexive bow to society’s expectations), but impactful choices are happening.

For photography professionals, these choices are actually data-driven and mathematical. We examine the numbers on our Google Analytics charts and Instagram for Business graphs and see which poses resonate best with readers and viewers. These posing choices have real effects on website or network traffic, which have major effects on finances and earnings.

What of that middle school girl posing for smartphone photos? Every choice she is making about how to place her face and body in the frame could impact her social and emotional future, and she knows it. I teach 7th grade, and watch kids create themselves in digital images.

Yes, we discuss the perils of such online photos (ex: NEVER post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see, because even deleting things on the internet doesn’t make them disappear), but it’s vital to also see the empowering aspect of female poses: Girls and women around the world are deciding how they want to be seen, and powerfully making it happen. This brings us to our vocabulary lesson.

Cartoon of back to the camera looking at scenery
Posing with back to the camera, gazing at scenery.

What is Performativity?

I’ve been a public school English teacher for the past 15 years, and before that, a Comparative Literature and Global Gender Studies major at a certain ivy league school known for progressive thinking, so I simply must elevate this travel photography lesson with a visit to the mind of Judith Butler and her concept of “Performativity” in gender.

The root of “Performativity” is the word performance, and the term, very simply put, refers to the creation of what society sees as “normal” by performing it via language and actions. In other words, what we think is true and real is actually something we are making up and reinforcing through a series of daily choices. This holds true for institutions (ex: Marriage) as well as individual identity… and thus gender.

Gender Norms and Performativity

As a feminist theorist and philosopher, Judith Butler contributed massively to our understanding of Gender Performativity. Her writings illuminate the many ways that “Male” and “Female” are actually created by daily performance acts of verbal speech and “body language.”

For example, many women “perform” female by wearing makeup, growing their hair longer, and/or conforming to societal expectations of “feminine” actions.

My favorite investigation of performativity is the art of Drag Queens. Masters of Drag play with gender performativity by amplifying all the expected parts of the “feminine role” to such an extreme (giant hair, blazing red lips, sparkling and curvy dresses), that you can see these choices for what they are: a performance.

Performativity in Photography Poses

Every time a woman walks down the street, she is performing, whether she wants to or not. She has made choices about her clothes, her way of walking, and her focus that impact how others see her and interact. Similarly, every time a camera comes out, females have a choice.

Now that we know the concept of performativity, we can see it in action with the choices women make in photography poses. Will a women choose to “perform” as expected (ex: a societally-approved angle, as defined by the cultural conventions explained above)?

Will the woman choose to take this even further by accentuating elements that are particularly prized by her culture (ex: smooth skin through a filter, or a defined neck through lifting one’s head) to capitalize on the positive attention, power — and potentially even profit — that such accentuation might afford her?

Will the women choose to perform an emphasis of her feminine sexuality (ex: With hip cocked to the side to embrace the hourglass female motif) because it can draw in the viewer, or will she deem that option too dangerous because it can pull unwanted attention or incorrect assumptions? (Yes, if you’re a women, you already know that we make constant decisions around the push and pull of desire and danger.)

Will the woman choose to subvert all or some of the expected and accepted performance options, thus potentially being celebrated for being “different” or “edgy,” or will she decide not to do that because the backlash of “weird,” “gross,” “ugly,” or, “YUCK!” could be too great?

Think of the analogy of an actress walking out onto the stage. There is a role she is supposed to play. If her costume, lines, or actions are not as expected for the context of “play,” the audience will surely have a reaction. Women posing for photos face a similarly stage, with real consequences.

Sitting in a tub wearing a dress
Why did I choose to pose in this luxury bathroom in a hot pink evening gown, sitting in the tub???

“Why Are Your Poses So Weird?”

We have now established that women are not dumb, and how we move or style our bodies and faces is an intentional performance. Now, allow me to be a case study for the thought process behind my photography. Here is why I pose how I do:

1. Focus on the Background Location

Because I’m a travel writer, I want the focus of my photos to be the surrounding destination. Therefore, I set up pictures so my body is small in the frame, with the location front and center.

WHY do I even put myself in the photos at all? Analyzing data from my 800 articles, posts with at least one photo of me in them do better with readers and get more views, likely because, first, it proves I was actually in the place, and second, because people like to see humans in a scene to visualize their own selves there.

2. Pose and Clothes to Accentuate the Destination

I pick travel dresses with bright colors that contrast with and complement the location (ex: A red dress in front of the blue ocean), then shape my body in a way to gesture out towards the location in order to visually say, “Look out at this place!” or, “I’m so happy to be here!”

I often choose to hold my arm and hand out to “hold” the background with love, or to throw my arms out wide to embrace the scene. The overall point of the pose and clothes is to honor and support the place I’m visiting, to convey that readers might enjoy visiting it, too.

3. Humorous Over-Performativity of “Travel Photography”

Since I’ve been travel blogging for almost a decade, I’m well aware of the pose cliches, and often try to over-exaggerate them because it makes me giggle to be low-key ridiculous.

For example, while visiting a gorgeous luxury Maine resort recently, there was the question of how to photograph the GIANT luxury bathroom. I decided to put on a hot pink evening dress and pose in an over-performance of a “high fashion model”… right near the toilet.

Someone commented that the photo was “a little odd” and they were not wrong. However, it’s important to know that the oddness was a choice. Luxury bathroom? Luxury dress and luxury pose. Yup! (I use these over-the-top body movements as a middle school teacher when doing movement breaks with my students, too.)

On this topic of over-performitivity for humor, this was the tactic I used when directing my husband to do his male modeling shoot: Super masculine expressions and muscle flexing, contrasted with fluffy magenta pink flowers right behind! Speaking of subverting male gender norms, I also enjoy…

4. Subverting the Expected “Feminine” Performance

I aim to have movement, athleticism, sharp angles, and gangly limbs in most of my photos. Why? Because I’m a muscular woman who used to be a Division 1 high jumper who embraces the wild things a body can do beyond the expected “feminine.” This includes bicep flexing, back bends, and wild hair.

5. “L” Shaped Arms

Since I started this Around the World “L” Travel Blog in 2009, I’ve attempted to make an “L” shape with my arms in every country I visit. (The “L” is for my name, Lillie, but also for Learning, Love, Liberty, Locations, Little Ones, and Local Travel, as you can see from the menu options above.) Different people have different signature poses they enjoy, and this certainly is one that’s close to my heart!

In summary, my poses are sometimes a little strange, and they may not always be everyone’s cup of tea, but rest assured that there is thought behind them.

Cartoon of smiling
The classic American “Smile and face the camera!” pose.

Let’s Face It: Posing for Pictures is Ridiculous

Part of why I use somewhat offbeat poses in my photos is that, by its nature, posing for a picture is crazy. You’re making a choice that will be indelible forever (nothing is ever erased online), and it’s completely unnatural to create a pose — even if (or especially if) you’re trying to act natural.

As my friend Hollee put it, “What in the world do I do with my hands?” Sure, there are lots of tips and tricks about where to place your arms, chin, legs, and various other parts of your body before the shutter clicks you into statuary, but ultimately, it’s all just WEIRD — especially when you factor in how posing expectations changes by country, meaning that conventions don’t exist anyway.

Given how odd the whole concept is to begin with, it’s great that people are starting to address it head-on, and thus carve out new paths forward.

An analysis of female poses in photography, especially for travel pictures. Why do we chose to angle our bodies and faces as we do, and what is best? #photography #modeling #poses #travel #posing
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Further Reading on Women in Photography

The topic of how women choose to pose in pictures is a hot one now in the online travel world, and it’s been wonderful to read the insights of female writers and photographers. Here are some to spur your thinking on the topic.

Oneika Raymond from Oneika the Traveller discusses pose performativity brilliantly on her Instagram account, explaining the thinking behind her photographic decisions, gender and racial implications, and how she pulls off her gorgeous pictures by using a tripod and hand-held camera switch.

Amanda Williams of A Dangerous Business writes fascinating Instagram posts on why she’s started to put herself in her travel photos, even though she “may not be the picture-perfect Instagram model.”

Tomiko Harvey of Passports and Grub is a genius of performativity, using words and clothing to delight her fans. Her article on “Travel Goals” opens with a photo of her in a giant black tutu, sneakers, and symbolic T-shirt, and the message it sends is perfect.

Victoria Yore of Follow Me Away has a fascinating visual style in which she’s always turned away from the camera so readers can imagine themselves in the place. She’s currently working on an article on tips for posing in photographs.

Gloria Chin (a fellow Bostonian, and a co-owner of Double Chin restaurant!) who runs Princess Travelries has created a dreamlike, landscape-loving photographic pose style that is absolutely stunning.

Lola Akinmade is a world-famous photographer who has a signature jumping pose that she was even able to pull off while Snowshoeing in Greenland! (Scroll to the last photo of the article to see it.)

I could go on and on, stretching these list of female pose geniuses to Toledo and back, but what it all adds up to is this…

Do Not Underestimate Women

Now, as a public school teacher of many years, and as a citizen of this world, I am well aware that issues exist which are more pressing than pictures. That said, digital photography is such an omnipresent aspect of our lives in the 21st century, that it bears consideration.

Within that consideration, I’d argue that the choices women make within it bear honor. It is only through that honor that we can teach young girls to be empowered, smart, and happy in the online choices they make.

Though a middle school girl’s selfies may seem frivolous, or an Instagram influencer’s pictures vapid, they’re not. They are the mentally rigorous act of women constructing their own visual representation.

They are the result of choices that are infused by power when done right, and fraught with danger if one little thing is off. They represent opportunities, future, and art. They are creation.

What Are YOUR Thoughts on Female Poses for Pictures? Do share!

Want more lessons from this English teacher and traveler? Check out my articles, “Hubris Definition,” “Travelling or Traveling,” and “Liminal Space!” Desire more drawings? Check out this random blue horse from my new site!

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Examples of Microaggressions: a Lesson and Definition in Cartoons

Sunday 16th of June 2019

[…] this article and my cartoons have been helpful in summarizing the damage caused by common utterances, so that we all can work […]

Kirsten

Tuesday 26th of February 2019

This is fascinating. I love all the details and the different opinions you included as well. I never really thought about it before. (And great drawings too)!

Lillie Marshall

Tuesday 26th of February 2019

Thank you, Kirsten!

Katja Gaskell

Monday 25th of February 2019

I've always enjoyed your more original poses in photos! I usually get my kids in the photos but when it's me, I definitely prefer more natural shots.

Lillie Marshall

Monday 25th of February 2019

Posing with kids brings up a whole other wild world -- oh my! I don't think we have a single good photo of all the four of us smiling in the 5 years we've had children (though we sure do smile in real life), but such is the joy of childhood willfulness!

Felicia

Sunday 24th of February 2019

Wow, so awesome! I never really thought about taking pictures in that way. Also it's good for other people to know.

Dianne Sivulka

Sunday 24th of February 2019

So interesting! This is something I have never put much thought to, but clearly all these things influence how I take photos too. My favorite way to photograph has been something that shows the feeling of the moment.

Lillie Marshall

Sunday 24th of February 2019

I love how you put that -- it really is the ideal of posting to reflect the emotions right then and there.

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