Why do women have such a hard time seeing themselves accurately?  When I was young and as beautiful as I was ever likely to be, I felt convinced that I was fat and unattractive.  Looking back at the pictures of my twenty, thirty, and forty-year-old self, I can’t believe how wrong I was.  It’s called Body Dysmorphia Syndrome (BDS) and like so many women (and, increasingly, men), I wasted years not realising how totally fine I looked.

Now that I’m old enough to know better, I’m crazier than ever.  Only this time around it’s Reverse Body Dysmorphia Syndrome.  With RBDS, a crumbling middle-aged person such as myself looks in the mirror and sees a wonderfully sophisticated, coolly attractive, surprisingly youthful slim person.  I have to admit it makes a nice change to consider myself irrationally attractive, but there is a fly in the ointment.  It’s called photography.

These days, the rules about passport pictures take up two whole pages of the instruction booklet.  No smiling.  No glasses.  No black and white.  No high contrast to erase imperfections.  No angling of the head AT ALL.   In other words, no possibility of a good picture.  Years ago, I went to that wonderful passport photographer up a flight of stairs on Oxford Street, a god among men, who somehow managed to make everyone look glamorous and serene, or in my case, as glamorous and serene as humanly possible without resorting to a portrait in oils.

But yesterday, that seemed too much like hard work.  So I went to Snappy Snaps.  The bored photographer took five pictures.  The best of the five was so godawful that I recoiled with shock.  Who was this horrible old fat person with a gigantic nose, thin lips, beadly little wrinkly eyes, hair sticking out in twenty-seven different directions, and the deadpan squint of a child molester?

Honestly, thought I. What was wrong with the woman’s camera???

Today I gave it another shot.  At the Post Office.  Straight after riding, which might have been a mistake — no earrings, hat head, and twelve seconds worth of makeup applied four hours earlier.  But how unlucky can a person get?  Yes, you guessed it, another faulty camera!!!

Outraged, I summoned my husband and thrust the offending pictures under his nose.  “This doesn’t look anything like me, does it?” I demanded.

“Of course it doesn’t my darling,” said he.  “It’s a vicious distortion of your transcendent radiant beauty.”

He’s a pro, my husband.  But then, he’s had years of practice.

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20 thoughts on “Reverse Body Dysmorphia Syndrome

  1. Kathryn Evans 9 years ago

    Oh Meg you make me laugh, same thing happened to me recently. It was a shock, normally i look better in photographs than i do in real life but this time, my face was all wonky and i had a huge crease down one cheek. This photograph now adorns my driving license….

  2. Mariam Vossough 9 years ago

    So funny… I seem to have that same faulty camera, and a tumble dryer that keeps shrinking all my clothes.

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      Oh my god, Mariam. Our tumble dryers are evil twins!

    2. Edith Gould 9 years ago

      Here’s the thing…Passport and driver’s license photographs used to be Polaroids and they were very forgiving, especially in black and white. Now all the photographs are digital and digital adds poundage. The Motor Vehicle Bureau as well as the U.S. Passport office are not at all inclined to allow us to Photoshop our images. BTW, I had my last photograph taken for my driver’s license after a run. I look like a serial killer. (Hi Meg, Kim gave me your blog address)

    3. Meg 9 years ago

      Hi Edith. This conversation should probably be filed under Progress (of a sort). Perhaps it’s time for us all to embrace our inner serial killer (metaphorically speaking)? Or, as my daughter so wonderfully put it – “No offence, mum, but no one expects you to look that great. You’re old.” Heaven. xoxo

  3. Monique 9 years ago

    I also used to go to a photographer up a flight of stairs on Oxford Street. That must be why those old passport photos look so good and why the ones I have taken now at Costco just don’t look like me anymore. Actually, they know me pretty well at Costco since I’ve had a gazillion photos taken for the INS. Now for the passport photo …

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      I’m sure it was the same one, Monique. He’s famous. And for good reason. Someone really depressed me this morning by saying by the time I renew the passport next time, I’ll look back on this picture and think how great I looked.

  4. Nicky S 9 years ago

    Oh this is brilliant – you’re so funny, Meg! I only allow one person to take my photos and that’s my husband, because he has the patience to cope with all my instructions – and allows me to delete all the “bad” ones!

  5. bookwitch 9 years ago

    I didn’t realise I wasn’t the only one. Also had no idea it had a name. You made it all up, didn’t you?

    That nude photo of me that you’ve got up there, how did you make me so thin?

  6. Katherine Langrish 9 years ago

    Brilliant, Meg. I had a ‘professional’ photo taken a few weeks ago – my first ever, in fact. I was hoping for glamour. No. And she told told me she liked photograping writers because ‘they look as if they have something going on inside their heads’. Dammit, I didn’t want a photo of the inside of my head! I wanted a photos of the outside, preferably without too many wrinkles!


  7. Jon Mayhew 9 years ago

    I look like magwitch in my passport photo, I wouldn’t let me into any country with a picture like mine!

  8. Louisa Young 9 years ago

    Getting my author pic done a few years ago, the photographer says: ‘You’re going to have to turn your head, face on does you no favours.’
    Do you think that’s what terence donovan and mario testino say, to get the girls looking lovely?

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      Face-on may be doing you few favours, but it’s hurling insults at me.

  9. Sara 9 years ago

    If you look at the author photo on the back jacket flap of Alice Munro’s latest book, you will see a picture of her younger self. It’s an interesting choice because she’s not pretending to be twenty years younger (or whatever it is, I forget just now) in the way that you sometimes see when writers just never update their author photo as though they were cryogenically frozen sometime in the late 70s, since we all now know her for the white-haired fiction deity that she is. It seems to me that there is something more complex going on – that she is giving approval to her younger self, recognizing her own attractiveness retrospectively in the way that we do … a way that has less to do with vanity than a love born of distance. Rather than denying time, she is conflating it, in a very Munro-esque way.
    But isn’t it sad to think of all those years that we thought of ourselves as, as you say “fat or unattractive”?
    I like your term of RBDS … the only trouble being how difficult it is to maintain!

    1. Meg 9 years ago

      I recommend flattering, darkish mirrors and letting your passport expire.

  10. MaryAnn 9 years ago

    I just had my passport picture renewed and I look like a homeless bag lady. I had them retaken somewhere else and I looked black. I’m white. I thought I was looking pretty cute that day too! I’ll go professional next time. 🙂

  11. Judy Astley 9 years ago

    I know just how you feel, Meg. When I was young I was shy and embarrassed at being so skinny. Looking at my older, lardier self (& yes, my clothes are mysteriously shrinking too) I wonder when that day was when I was Just Right. And damn, I missed it.
    My passport photo shows a woman who looks lopsided, mad and possibly near-suicidal . The only good one I’ve ever had from a Sainsbury’s booth is is now gracing my Freedom Pass. I showed the husband, offering him a chance to say something admiring but his only comment was, ‘Your roots need doing.’


  12. Rachael Parkman 9 years ago

    Anyone who thinks ‘why don’t I look like women in magazines’ should go to a photoshoot and meet models. They don’t look like that either. Five hours in hair and make up, clothes that are pegged, cut and altered to fit them precisely and a vast amount of airbrushing later, they look amazing. Many years ago I worked in fashion and beauty PR and did model castings. Far from making me feel rubbish, it made me realise how far from reality these pictures are!

  13. Amanda 9 years ago

    What a funny blog – you should send it to the Guardian, not that they deserve it. Or the Times Body and Soul.
    I want the name of that magic photographer, please! The last time I tried my local booth I cam out with four pigs in wigs.

  14. morag fraser 7 years ago

    This brought me back from the brink of suicide after getting my passport photos done yesterday! I look like a haggard crack whore in mine. I’m no great looker but the thin-lipped, hollow-eyed, stringy-haired crone who looks like she’s had a stroke in the photo bears no resemblance to what I see in the mirror yet it is me 🙁 Roll on biometric passports, I say.

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